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December 3, 2012

TODD GOLDEN: Trent Miles leaves Sycamores with giant legacy

Indiana State football program is viable again … and that says it all

TERRE HAUTE — To glean perspective on Trent Miles’ time as Indiana State’s football coach, I went back into the Tribune-Star’s archives to remind myself of what the football program was like when Miles arrived to rebuild it.

To be sure, the basics of what it was like don’t need to be driven home. The program was God awful. Two separate ownerships of the nation’s longest losing streak from 2004 to 2009 are a testament to how virulent the rot was that had set in at Memorial Stadium.

The administration at the time was apathetic at best, hostile at worst, and perhaps even more damaging, they seemed to have no clue as to how football can be an important part of how a campus is perceived and how quality football can be an integral part of campus life.

It was an unholy mess. That we know. That will never be forgotten. But as I combed through some old stories, you forget about the detail in the memories. You forget just how many building blocks it was going to take to make ISU football viable again.

I came across one such story from just after the 2008 season, Miles’ first in charge. Published on Jan. 20, 2009, it was a look back and forward at ISU’s program at the time, just before Miles announced his second recruiting class (but first with a full year to work with).

Part of the story was devoted to ISU’s then-new offices in the basement of the Student Services Building and I chuckled as I remembered being there to interview Miles.

It was my first visit and renovations were moving apace. Miles, per usual, was full of energy and excited about his new digs.

He gave me a tour. He excitedly showed me the new film room. The new coaches’ room. And not one, but two meeting rooms, which made it possible for both the offense and the defense to meet separately. This was a revolutionary concept at ISU at the time, given that meetings used to take place in what amounted to a glorified closet at Memorial Stadium’s pre-renovated locker room.

They even had a TV in the lounge!

At any other Division I program, you’d have recoiled in horror that these basic amenities were things that had to be fought for and to cherish, but this is just a smidgen of the challenge Miles dealt with when he arrived at ISU.

There are rebuilding jobs and there are rebuilding jobs. Italics don’t do justice to the rebuilding job ISU faced.

It’s hard to put ISU football in any kind of historical athletic rebuilding context of any kind (Kansas State’s football transformation under Bill Snyder from doormat to national title contender comes to mind, but KSU has better resources to draw on), because many schools would’ve just thrown up their hands and given up.

ISU was probably on the brink of that several times in the 2000s, but decided to give it a go one more time and try to do it right.

Miles — a Terre Haute native, an ISU alum, but a college football lifer — was given the unenviable task. Five years later, with Miles’ departure to Georgia State — he’ll be introduced at a press conference today in Atlanta — ISU’s new coach faces an even bigger task … following Miles’ act.

Miles did everything that was asked of him and more at ISU. The behind-the-scenes things the public doesn’t see — most notably, creating an acceptable academic culture in the program — were dealt with quickly and decisively.

I don’t cross into academic circles at ISU too much, but I know that ISU’s football program has as good a reputation as any among the faculty as far as student-athletes paying attention, showing up for class, etc.

The only advantage Miles had coming into what was an otherwise horrible job was his long association with the ISU and Terre Haute community. He maximized those ties and created many more. Miles possesses a trait football coaches rarely have — a knack for public relations.

Given where ISU’s football program was in terms of public interest, he succeeded wildly in this part of his job. The number of businesses and other community enterprises that associate themselves with ISU football is far greater than it was before Miles was here. Miles also helped foster relations with alumni that had long been dormant, especially with ex-players.

He never shrunk from the fight to get ISU on something of an even keel when it came to his recruiting budget and whom he could recruit, especially in facing the monoliths of the MVFC.

It’s almost taken for granted that ISU can now recruit without inhibition. It’s easily forgotten that when Miles arrived, he wasn’t fully funded, and had to limit how many out-of-state recruits he could go after. Because of a paltry recruiting budget, he had to limit what areas he could recruit. This dynamic alone could have deep-sixed his plan to build the program, but he never let it.

Then there’s the football itself. Miles’ plan — to essentially start over and completely overhaul the roster — was the right one. Given how dire ISU’s football was, and how close it was to extinction, a quick-fix solution would have been tempting.

But there was no influx of Division I or junior college saviors. Miles built from the ground up, creating a foundation ISU will benefit from long after he’s gone. ISU’s fifth-ranked defense of 2012 was forged from this plan. The core of that defense — Aaron Archie, Jacolby Washington, Ben Obaseki — and many others were thrown to the wolves early, but were wolves themselves later on.

Transfers and JUCOs were sprinkled in to fill in the gaps … former quarterback Ronnie Fouch and wide receiver Justin Hilton being a great example.

He took some risks in recruiting and hit some jackpots, especially with running back Shakir Bell. But it’s clear as time went on that Miles brought respect to Indiana State in coaches’ and recruits’ households. ISU began to beat other MVFC programs straight up for recruits, something that was unfathomable in 2008.

On the field, the first two years were destined to be a struggle. The low point was an opening day loss to Quincy in 2009. That’s the only time I thought Miles was in trouble. His plan seemed stuck in neutral and there were rumblings that the administration wasn’t pleased. But to their credit, they stuck it out.

The reward came a year later. ISU’s 6-5 2000 season was when the impossible became reality. The Sycamores coalesced on the field, had become better through their baptism of fire as underclassmen, and had learned to win, sometimes spectacularly.

The standard was set, and though ISU has not yet kicked in the door to the next level — playoff qualification — the standard has not fallen off and can be built upon by Miles’ successor.

Miles was a passionate fighter for his program. Sometimes to the point where it got him in hot water and rubbed people the wrong way. His passion to make things right often came at crossed swords with ISU’s still-feeble financial reality.

He never met a windmill he didn’t want to slay. And if he slayed it, there was always another one on the next hill.

The fighting spirit came from the right place though. Miles’ desire to make things right meant he didn’t suffer those who stood in the way of that vision. You have to respect that … even if you were on the receiving end of that passion.

Miles did everything for the ISU football program. He had plenty of help from a newly sympathetic administration upon Dr. Daniel Bradley’s arrival as ISU President in 2009, but Miles sowed the wind.

At the end of the day, you judge a coach not only by what they did, but what they faced in trying to accomplish their task.

Miles did something that seemed well nigh impossible in 2008 — he turned ISU football into a perennial winner. He did it with class and he did by getting his players to go to class. Attendance is up. Community enthusiasm and interest is up. Pessimism about ISU’s football future is down.

Miles made ISU football viable again. ISU football was once a punch line, but no one laughs anymore. ISU football is respected.

When it comes to coaching success? Given what he faced, he might very well have done the best coaching job in ISU’s athletic history.

Todd Golden is sports editor of the Tribune-Star. He can be reached at (812) 231-4272 or todd.golden@tribstar.com. Follow Golden on Twitter @TribStarTodd.

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