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October 26, 2013

FROM THE PRESS BOX: Injuries, tough schedule have led to Sycamores' slide

TERRE HAUTE — No one saw this coming.

On the final October weekend of 2012, Indiana State’s football team was 7-2 and a Football Championship Subdivision playoff bid seemed a mortal lock.

One year later, ISU is 1-7. Shakir Bell, far and away ISU’s most recognizable player, is gone via bizarre circumstance. And the Sycamores are on the wrong end of final scores that are reminiscent of the bad old days of 2005-09.

The biggest difference is Mike Sanford is the head coach instead of Trent Miles. And for many fans, that will be difference enough to explain how it’s all gone wrong.

When you lead a college football program, fair or unfair, you absorb the slings and arrows, and no doubt, they’ll be coming down with ferocity on Sanford and the athletic department given the present state of the team.

ISU fans can’t be faulted for trying to compute how this season went so wrong and why the program has taken a step backwards after three straight winning seasons. They’d be foolish not to.

There are legitimate reasons. The loss of talent, particularly defensive standouts, from the 2012 season have hurt.

Rampant injuries — especially on the defensive side — have played the biggest role, and while the time-worn trope that injuries are part of football will be trotted out, the truth is that the injuries have played a major role in ISU’s fall.

On the other hand, (some) newcomers haven’t lived up to their billing and some of the schemes tried on both sides of the ball have not worked. Some starters, including some veterans, have not produced at a level they have in the past.

ISU found ways to lose close games early and the accumulation of all of the above have led the Sycamores into a very dark place indeed.

ISU Director of Athletics Ron Prettyman hired Sanford. Like everyone else, he never expected ISU football to be in the state it’s in. But he knows he has to answer for it.

Prettyman did after Saturday’s 56-10 loss to No. 1 North Dakota State.

“I take a lot of the blame for what’s going on and that’s because we set our new coach [Sanford] up for failure,” Prettyman said. “We have arguably the toughest schedule we’ve ever played. We had two Big Ten teams. We’ve had four top 25 FCS teams and five home games in a 12-game schedule. We’ve had incredible injuries, more than I’ve ever seen. We didn’t give our coach a chance to be successful. Part of that’s my fault.”

Prettyman gave no indication that Sanford’s job was in jeopardy, not only because of the 1-7 start, but due to some of the off-field distractions that came to a head this week.

“I’m committed to seeing this through. I have a great relationship with coach Sanford and I have a lot of confidence in him. I’ve never seen a staff care about their student-athletes as much as this staff does on and off the field,” Prettyman said. “Certainly we didn’t think we’d be 1-7. Three times we’ve outgained teams that had more points than we did. I still believe we’re capable of being very good and win games.”

Given the injuries, Prettyman said he told Sanford earlier this week that he felt like his starting unit from 2015 was on the field instead of the intended 2013 team.

Of course the problems that come with a 1-7 start go well beyond just wins and losses. The ISU and Terre Haute communities are not renowned for their ISU football enthusiasm in the best of times. The damage to attendance and to potential revenue from boosters from ISU’s poor season cannot be taken lightly. Saturday’s crowd was 5,009 on a day the school was shooting for 10,000.

Prettyman was asked whether he was concerned about the impact the 1-7 campaign could have in terms of enthusiasm for the football program.

Prettyman was blunt in response.

“Intelligent fans will understand what’s going on. The fly-by-night fans, the people who never come to games, the people who don’t watch how hard our kids play, the people who don’t know our coaches, the people who are not committed to this are going to second-guess a lot of things that are going on,” Prettyman said.

“The people who are fully committed and have gotten to know our coaches and have seen the commitment from our kids though adversity, they’re still on board,” Prettyman said. “People can quit coming to games all they want, but that’s not going to make our kids, coaches or administrators work any less hard.”

“I can’t speak for the people who decided they’re going to get off the bandwagon because they’ll get right back on as soon as we start winning,” Prettyman added.

The strange Shakir Bell situation added gasoline to ISU’s fire. Bell claimed he was dismissed, Sanford said it was a season-ending injury, but regardless, the he said-he said distraction didn’t help ISU’s cause no matter where the truth lies.

Bell’s end was unceremonious to be kind. Bell has earned the right on-the-field to be called one of the best Sycamores of all-time. He was certainly marketed that way. His end is a body blow the program didn’t need in an already challenging situation.

“I wish Shakir Bell well. I think he has a future in the game. When I met with him this week, I told him I hope to see him in a NFL uniform next year. I told him he needs to take the time to work through his injuries and get a degree from Indiana State University,” Prettyman said.

Prettyman shed light from his perspective on how Bell’s exit came about.

“Essentially what we did was dismiss him from responsibilities with the team from here on out. We worked with the trainers and doctor and they agree his foot was a season-ending injury. That had a lot to do with the decision for him not to continue,” Prettyman said.

No matter how ISU football got to this place it’s in a position where circling the wagons is the only option.

“I go back to thing I have the most pride in — our athletic department and that’s the people we have. The coaches, the assistants, the trainers, the doctors, I want people like that leading our people in our program,” Prettyman said.

Prettyman is going to need to call on the good will on those people — and ISU fans — to get through a very tumultuous time for ISU football.

Todd Golden is sports editor of the Tribune-Star. He can be reached at (812) 208-2643 or Follow Golden on Twitter @TribStarTodd.

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