BLOOMINGTON -- The Indiana Hoosiers looked fit, which is what you'd hope from guys training to become Big Ten football relevant.
They pushed a fierce pace in the Mellencamp Pavilion this week. Coaches shouted, players sweated and if there wasn't a football in sight in this winter conditioning session, and there wasn't, it came with a reason:
NCAA rules forbid it until the start of spring practice. In IU's case, that begins Saturday, March 3.
The aftermath of a 1-11 season has the Hoosiers upbeat and energetic. They fight the seemingly never-ending burden of Cream ‘n Crimson football mediocrity with an eight-station approach that includes pushing sleds, pushing on each other, sprinting circles and driving for that extra inch that one day might make the difference between winning and losing.
Coach Kevin Wilson hammers a message for his second season and if it's not as catchy or, as it turned out, wrong, as last year's “Win Today” approach, it's certainly more practical:
“Spring practice needs to be a lot better. We need to win more games.”
The Hoosiers were fit last season, perhaps fitter than they've ever been, and got pushed around more than they've been in decades. Fitness produced lean bodies, but, at least on the offensive and defensive lines, not enough strength and bulk to hold up.
Wilson had the players evaluated and was told, “You guys have done one of the best jobs I've seen in terms of taking off body fat.”
Wilson's response -- “Yeah, but we lack some strength.”
He was told, “That's going to take time. It's easier to cut bad weight than build muscle.”
The Hoosiers used the December weeks most Big Ten teams reserved for bowl preparation to get a head start on their weight lifting. They conducted their own combine, much like the NFL version going on this week in Indianapolis, to measure strength (including how many times players could bench press 225 pounds) and speed. In Wilson's view, you build by working, and then by testing.
“Who ran the fastest,” he said. “Who had the highest vertical jump. What was the combined average. It was posted in all the meeting rooms. Here's what the best college players do at the (NFL) Combine. Here's where you stack up.”
As far as spring needs, Wilson plans to emphasize leadership above all else.
“We need to have some guys jump out of the pack. The core has gotten better, but we need strong leadership to jump up. It's still young. It's the real deal when players do it and the younger guys can emulate them. It's better than a coach explaining. We need players to step up to a higher level, and bring some guys with them.”
IU brought in a military program to demonstrate leadership. As Wilson put it, “I saw some ways of putting a guy in charge. You're the guy responsible for this, not me. Do you understand what we want you to do?
“How to communicate as a coach in explaining the assignment. Now get it done.”
It seemed to help, Wilson said, “but none of it matters if it doesn't translate into winning games.
“We'll be a more disciplined team and have better leadership in games. We're building toward that. We haven't promised any wins yet. That's the goal.”
It's an annual goal that almost always goes unmet at Indiana. It's a tradition like few others (losing records in 16 of the last 17 years), and it's one Wilson was hired to break.
“We won one football game last year. We have a long ways to go. That's not acceptable. That's not what it's about.
“We've made some strides, but we were 1-11. That's extremely poor. We have to be better. We haven't figured it out yet, but we're gaining on it. We've got to keep our edge. We've got a bunch of work to do.”