BLOOMINGTON -- Athletic director Fred Glass watches Indiana football practice and feels the stirring of vindication.
It's not complete, mind you. The Hoosiers are just 5-19 in coach Kevin Wilson's two seasons. The defense has not proved it can play at even a mediocre Big Ten level. Plenty of work remains.
But if you watch practices and scrimmages, you see signs of hope. If you analyze the incoming group of freshmen, including five four-star players, combined with solid returning talent, there is reason for optimism. If you consider IU has eight home games, well, you can understand the thinking IU is poised not only for its first bowl game since 2007 and second in 20 years, but that it just might be on the verge of making this an annual occurrence as it once was under former coach Bill Mallory.
“Now Kevin has the stability in the program, the experience with his staff and the players to make it come out,” Glass says. “There's definitely a different feel with everybody that the program is going in the right direction. There's lots of enthusiasm. There's a huge amount of trust and likability between coaches and players.”
That wasn't always the case. Glass hired Wilson in December 2010 knowing the transition wouldn't be easy. It rarely is these days, especially when you choose a new coach so vastly different from the old.
Former coach Bill Lynch is a warm, friendly guy. Wilson has an edge. Lynch demands with a gentle hand. Wilson demands with an edge. Lynch is funny in a grandfatherly kind of way. Wilson is edgy funny.
Wilson arrived after huge success as an offensive coordinator at Oklahoma (and before that at Northwestern and Miami of Ohio) and instantly ratcheted up the demands. Many of the players, who were Lynch's guys, balked at the transition. Wilson wasn't about to lower his standards -- on or off the field. Along the way he ticked off players and, occasionally, talk radio show hosts.
Glass had seen it before at Wisconsin, Iowa and Northwestern.
“When we made the change, I read a lot about other changes in football that had not been good and became good. I read Barry Alvarez's book (about the Wisconsin transformation). I read Hayden Frye's book (about rebuilding the Iowa program). I read the Northwestern book.
“Change is so cyclical. The first year we had frustration and kids left after deciding this was not what they wanted. Even the dust ups between the new coaches and the media happened in other areas -- which I took as some perverse comfort in a way.”
IU returns everybody but center Will Matte from the Big Ten's best passing attack. It has a record-setting kicker in Mitch Ewald. It has an experienced defensive coaching staff and the most defensive experience of the Wilson era. And, it has its best recruiting class in, perhaps, a generation.
Wilson is feeling good enough to turn silly. During the last snowstorm, players left practice for a good-natured snowball fight while Wilson fell to the ground and made snow angels. Then, during a big baseball series against Illinois at the Hoosiers' new baseball stadium, Wilson and baseball coach Tracy Smith, plus quarterbacks Tre Roberson, Cam Coffman and Nate Sudfeld, had some fun while throwing out the first pitch.
“In Year Three you have more of your guys,” Glass says. “You're hitting your stride. It's not unique to us. It's part of the cycle, and it's happening here.
“Kevin has the guys who knew what they were getting into and embraced that. There's a huge trust level between Kevin and the players. You see that when Kevin feels comfortable enough to make snow angels, or when he dresses up like the spring break guy or when he does silly stuff at a baseball game, like when he went out to throw out the first pitch and Tracy yanked him.
“They're working hard, but they're having fun. That's what Kevin has always been about -- work hard, but have fun working hard.”
Suddenly baseball is cool at Indiana.
The Hoosiers (26-7 overall, 8-4 in the Big Ten) used an 18-game winning streak to soar to No. 12 in the national polls, their highest ranking ever. Last weekend's three-game skid at Michigan State, all by one run, two in extra innings, dropped them to No. 19, but they still have the look of a Big Ten champ and perhaps more.
They also have a new, state-of-the-art stadium in Bart Kaufman Field, a multi-million-dollar facility that drew three straight recording-breaking sellouts during their Illinois series.
“What Tracy has done in a northern environment has been terrific,” Glass said. “He was recruiting to what was not the best stadium (Sembower Field) in the Big Ten. Now I think we do have the best stadium in the Big Ten.
“It's a really cool convergence of events that baseball is doing so well when we're opening Kaufman Field. We had a sellout with the (Illinois) series. The place looks like going to an Indians game in Indianapolis. It's been a real way to engage the community.”
IU also built a new softball stadium, Andy Mohr Field, that combined with Kaufman Field represented a $19.8 million investment. Mohr Field will be official dedicated on April 23 before the Ball State game. Kaufman Field's official dedication will come April 26 before the Michigan series.
“I'm optimistic that baseball and softball will become a staple of community life and university life,” Glass said. “It will enable us to recruit the kind of players we need to be successful.
“Indiana is the southern most campus of the Big Ten. I like to say we're the Miami Beach of the big Ten. We should be good in baseball and softball.”
Good won't necessarily mean become money makers, as football and basketball are, even with sellouts.
“With all the staff and all the things that going it, it will help us defray the cost and maybe break even, but it's not going to be a big money maker,” Glass said.
IU's success has officials considering making a NCAA tourney baseball regional bid.
“We're thinking about it,” Glass said. “It would be great for the program and for the community.”
With the additions of Maryland and Rutgers, the Big Ten will again realign its football divisions, just as it did when Nebraska was added a couple of years ago. Conference officials will come up with two seven-team divisions.
The divisions for the current 12-team league are the Legends (Nebraska, Michigan, Northwestern, Michigan State, Minnesota and Iowa) and the Leaders (Indiana, Purdue, Ohio State, Penn Sate, Wisconsin and Illinois).
“I expect to here about that soon,” Glass said. “I think it's close to being done. I'm not in a position to give any details, but I will acknowledge that it will be a geographical alignment as opposed to a competitive alignment like we tried to do the last time. I'm excited about where it looks like we're going to be.”