News From Terre Haute, Indiana

August 29, 2009

From the Press Box: Quincy loss was worst-case scenario for ISU football

By Todd Golden

TERRE HAUTE — There’s no point in sugar-coating Indiana State’s 26-20 fell-from-ahead overtime loss to Quincy on Thursday. It was the worst case scenario for the Sycamore program.

And even if one did want to want to sugar-coat an avoidable defeat, or qualify it with the fact that the Sycamores are extremely young, in the end, it doesn’t matter.

The majority of ISU’s fans don’t want to hear it.

In the 24 hours since the loss, the reaction I heard from many fans — not just the bandwagon ones who wanted to rush the field to celebrate the end of the nation’s longest losing streak and never set foot in Memorial Stadium again, but long-time supporters and donors — was one of visceral anger.

More than one person I talked to wondered why they even bothered to hope ISU’s misery was going to end. Others said they won’t attend another game until they see meaningful on-field progress.

Whether that’s heat-of-the-moment anger or emotion talking doesn’t really matter. Fair or unfair, perception trumps reality sometimes and that’s the bind the ISU football program finds itself in after a difficult loss.

There’s a significant gulf between the work that it takes to make ISU a winner and the emotional aspect of how quickly ISU fans want the Sycamores to be a winner. And the fall-from-ahead loss only widened it.

Coach Trent Miles has said from day one that his plan to make ISU football viable was to essentially start over when he became coach in 2007. It’s a process he started last year and it continues this season. His plan is to build depth to the point where ISU can redshirt players and have real experience on the field, not do it via short-cut, quick-fix JUCO and FBS transfers.

It’s the reason why ISU has 67 underclassmen on its current roster, many of whom made their collegiate debuts in Thursday’s game, some of them responsible for some of ISU’s mistakes and penalty woes.

Miles is 100 percent right to do it this way. Presuming the right players are recruited, it is the only way to make a program solid long-term. And as everyone, including Miles, have said, there’s going to be a lot of bumps in the road along the way.

All of that said, it is also 100 percent understandable for ISU fans to feel as supremely frustrated as they do too. The losing has gone on nearly unabated since 2004. You’d be insane not to be mad about it.

Despite the fact that Miles’ blueprint is a sound one, the vast majority of fans don’t care and grow frustrated when they hear about the process to become a winner. Perhaps that’s not realistic on their part, but since when has being a donor or a fan ever been grounded in pragmatism?

Outwardly, ISU fans seem to have a kind of gallows humor about their football lot. I hear plenty of self-deprecating jokes about the nation’s longest losing streak, etc.

But not too deep beneath the surface, I think nearly all of them are sick to death of being a punch line. Everyone is tired of reading “nation’s longest losing streak” attached to everything written about the Sycamore program, though it will be that way until that elusive win is achieved. The truth hurts.

Frankly, ISU has been lucky given that the losing streak has largely been under the radar. It hasn’t really entered the national consciousness, other than a shot across the bow in a Selena Roberts-penned Sports Illustrated column about ISU eliminating its tennis programs in May.

If the losing continues, you can bet that national outlets will pick up on it, and it will make ISU fans even more frustrated and embarrassed when the national media exposure the Sycamores get is grounded in its chronic losing.

This dynamic existed before last night’s game, but the nature of the loss served to magnify it.

Every one at Memorial Stadium wanted to believe, and for once, there were actual butts in aluminum seats. The attendance was announced at 7,216. The ISU folks smirk when I use the term “announced” attendance because the actual total is usually far less, but on Thursday, it really wasn’t that far off. There’s no question it was the biggest crowd I’ve seen for an ISU home game in the five years I’ve been here.

Would the misery end? After ISU built a 17-0 first quarter lead, not only did it appear the misery would end, but it seemed the Sycamores might blow the doors off the NAIA Hawks.

It turned out that ISU set itself up to do the most unpardonable sin imaginable in the eyes of any fan base — it let a beatable team off-the-hook. While Quincy got better as the game went along and deserves credit, ISU still had myriad opportunities to put the Hawks away and failed each time … too often via mistakes that are hard to pin solely on youth or learning how to win.

Nothing makes fans more angry then to set expectation high through early success only to crash-and-burn. When a 26-game losing streak is on the line, it’s magnified to the nth degree.

Add in the fact that Quincy is NAIA, was paid $30,000 to come to Terre Haute to play the game to be cannon fodder (these games aren’t scheduled for any other reason), and the fact that ISU got a NCAA waiver to play it before the approved Division I start date due to a SNAFU in the scheduling process (which cut down on valuable practice time for a young team), it just adds salt to the wounds.

Personally, I think Miles is on the right track and that ISU will be better this season. ISU has more pieces in place — especially on the defensive side — than it did last season when he started out.

However, the loss to Quincy means many fans are going to turn a deaf ear — and keep ticket money in their pocket — until that win comes. They are sick and tired of being sick and tired.

Who can blame them?

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