TERRE HAUTE —
I have covered Indiana State football since the 2004 season. Going into my first game on the beat, ISU was 4-1 and it seemed then-coach Tim McGuire was going to have the kind of revival season necessary to save his job.
Six losses to end that season later, that didn’t turn out to be the case. I had just walked into a job that paid me to chronicle one of the worst teams of all time.
It took 37 losses on the beat for yours’ truly before I finally saw the Sycamores earn a victory against Western Illinois in 2009 (David Hughes covered the team in 2006 and 2007 so I didn’t witness the victory over Missouri State in 2006).
I can safely assume I was one of the losingest beat writers in the annals of beat writing. So, yeah, I can tell you all about the bad times of ISU football.
The incompetence on and off the field. The crushing apathy in the community for a program that appeared headed nowhere. The lack of support from ISU’s leadership at the time. The sword of Damocles that hung over the program’s very existence from the day I walked into the world of Sycamore football until very recently.
Of course, I’m not the only one who remembers. Thirteen of ISU’s seniors — Alex Sewall, Brock Lough, Ryan Roberts, Larry Carter, Marcus Lewis, Alex Jones, Alex Bettag, Corey Bichey, Mike Smith, Odeh Farha, Rod Hardy, Ben Geffert and Lawrence Young — arrived for ISU coach Trent Miles’ first season in 2008. Others with junior eligibility — such as Aaron Archie and Casey Paswater — also came with that class.
They were committing to a program that had a real possibility of not existing by the time they finished out their eligibility.
“We were a bunch of 18-year-old seniors and coach Miles said we could be a part of something special. We have a group of guys who turned the program around, but it all comes down to what we do in our next two [home] games,” Roberts said after Wednesday’s practice. “I think we still have a lot to prove. I think people think its a good Cinderella story, but we’re doing great things.”
There were plenty of bad times. Going 0-12 their freshman year, scoring just 101 points in 12 games. Losing to Quincy to start the 2009 campaign. Getting drummed 62-7 at Northern Iowa in 2009 and having their helmet logos removed as a consequence.
They recall the crowds they played in front of during their freshman and sophomore seasons. To call them “crowds” is to do a disservice to the term. One game in particular, Northern Iowa’s visit in 2008, stands out. Announced attendance was 2,381, though on a cold, rainy November day, there couldn’t have been more than 500 people in the stadium.
It’s all part of the collective memory of ISU seniors. That’s why they want and are looking forward to a huge crowd when No. 1-ranked North Dakota State visits on Saturday in a game that has huge playoff ramifications for the Sycamores.
“We seniors think about the path we took a lot. You don’t want to bring a program this far and not succeed in what you set out to do,” Hardy said. “That’s fuel to continue to do well. From the point we were at to where we’re at now? It just makes you want to seize the moment.”
The hope is that ISU will be able to draw 10,000 for the game. There’s an internet campaign by ISU’s message board community — Operation 10K — to raise awareness to get the crowd up. ISU is also trying to advertise the game as best it can within the limitations of its budget.
There’s optimism that ISU can break 10K. Saturday’s weather is supposed to be ideal — sunny in the low 60s — and there’s not that much going on in Terre Haute to keep locals from attending.
It’s no mean feat for ISU to draw 10,000. The last time it happened was 1993 and it wasn’t a common occurrence by any stretch in the 1980s when ISU was a top team in I-AA. The 1983 and 1984 playoff teams drew over 10,000 just four times in those seasons and not at all for its two home playoff games.
Unlike those 80s ISU teams, the current Sycamores have risen from what was seemingly a bottomless pit of ineptitude. This group of ISU seniors has accomplished things that would have been unthinkable when they began.
ISU has been nationally-ranked for more weeks this season than it has been in any previous year. The Sycamores are entertaining and have a quick-play offense that can strike at any time. There’s very little not to like.
ISU drew 8,255 for its Homecoming game against Western Illinois on Oct. 15, but it wants more butts in those aluminum seats on Saturday.
“Coming out here as a freshman, you’d look at the stands and it would be our family and close friends,” Roberts said. “Its progressed so much. It’s amazing coming from my freshman year. It’ll mean a lot to us guys to have 10,000.”
It would mean even more to native Hauteans such as Lough, who know the way the community ticks, and who has seen local support rise along with the team’s success.
“It definitely means more to me being from here. All the people I see around the community, all of the people who come to the games is huge. It’s huge that people tell me they’re proud of me being from Terre Haute,” Lough said. “People who say I represent the city, I don’t know about all of that, but it’s nice to think it and it’s a lot of motivation right there.”
Players like Lough have also heard Terre Haute’s and ISU’s fans claim they would show up when they had a winner.
You have a winner, Terre Haute. You have the biggest ISU football game in a generation. Time for at least 10,000 of you to put your money where your mouth is.
Todd Golden is sports editor of the Tribune-Star. He can be reached at (812) 231-4272 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Golden on Twitter @TribStarTodd.