News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Mark Bennett Opinion

September 19, 2010

MARK BENNETT: As ‘The Walk’ grows into a Homecoming ritual, ISU works to make the best of the situation

TERRE HAUTE — Making the best of a situation.

People who master that elusive skill probably live longer, chew fewer Rolaids and sleep more peacefully.

This fall, Indiana State University appears to be making the best of a situation known as “The Walk.” For the uninitiated, The Walk has become an ISU Homecoming ritual. It consists of thousands of students, their parents (sometimes) and alums bar-hopping on foot, beginning early that morning at the west end of Wabash Avenue and concluding — in theory — two miles away at Memorial Stadium, where the ISU football team plays its Homecoming game that afternoon.

Some Walkers never reach the stadium, because they’ve consumed too much alcohol. Some never intend to see the football game. Others get to the stadium, but stay outside on the lawn at tailgate parties. A select number complete The Walk, go inside the gate and watch the Sycamores.

Not surprisingly, the excursion isn’t problem-free. During last year’s Homecoming, the Indiana State Excise Police cited 82 people for primarily alcohol-related offenses, according to a Tribune-Star report on Page A1 today. Five businesses got cited for offenses related to minors. This year, Vigo County Sheriff Jon Marvel intends to have extra officers on duty to contain any drunken misbehavior by the Walkers, whose route takes them through a four-block stretch of the ISU Homecoming Parade.

To some, The Walk represents Terre Haute’s version of college football fun and tradition.

To others, The Walk involves too much drinking and too many misdeeds to have an upside.

For years, the university has emphasized that it has no official connection to The Walk. This fall, though, ISU also is acknowledging The Walk exists and that its students participate. That’s a wise approach, because the event — which has grown significantly since it began in the early 1990s — is not going to simply disappear. With an effective and reasonable police presence, coupled with some innovative safety plans created by the university, The Walk 2010 could fit more acceptably into the Oct. 9 Homecoming festivities.

As ISU President Daniel Bradley told the Tribune-Star’s Lisa Trigg, “I think The Walk itself, in principle, could be a great tradition.”

Indeed, most Purdue football fans know all about “the Breakfast Club,” which involves students and some alums getting up early on home game days, dressing up in costumes and having a few drinks in participating bars before the Boilermakers play. Tailgating around Bloomington’s Memorial Stadium before IU games is lively and colorful, even when the Hoosiers struggle on the gridiron.

In its own way, The Walk — flawed as it is — fills a Breakfast Club-like spot in the hearts of some ISU students and alumni.

“This is particular to Indiana State,” said John Newton, a consultant to the ISU Foundation, “and there is a sense of pride among the students, that ‘this is ours.’”

Technically retired, Newton knows ISU as well as anyone after 36 years with the university. Yet he’s not sure at what point The Walk transformed from a loosely arranged whim into a campus happening, complete with commemorative T-shirts and early Saturday hours for downtown bars and businesses. Odd as it seems, The Walk may be the most unified moment for the ISU student body. Such a sense of identity — elusive at ISU because of its background as a commuter school — emerged briefly in far broader fashion during its Larry Bird-era of basketball.

The task is to harness the enthusiasm put into The Walk, while also keeping the Walkers safe, sober, responsible and respectful of people they encounter, especially parade-going families. Otherwise, they’re risking arrest.

The university’s Designated Walker and SoberRide programs mark a responsible step for the university. ISU has trained selected students — known as Designated Walkers — in alcohol awareness and bystander intervention techniques. Last year, 31 Designated Walkers accompanied groups of classmates along The Walk. This year, the number of Designated Walkers has jumped to 74.

“Designated Walkers can still accompany their friends and have fun on The Walk and at Homecoming. They just don’t drink,” Aimee Janssen-Robinson told the Tribune-Star.

Also, the university’s SoberRide service offers students a free taxi ride to their residence during Homecoming Weekend.

Of course, the creation of a football facility closer to or on campus, instead of two miles away, would render The Walk an aimless exercise. “Maybe someday, if we had a football stadium on the river, that’ll all change,” Newton said. Such a Wabash River-side facility is envisioned in ISU’s long-range plans.

Not all Walkers, though, intend to watch the Sycamore football team play on Homecoming. Last year, ISU beat Western Illinois 17-14 in a come-from-behind Homecoming thriller. Though the announced attendance was 6,028, many folks remained outside the gates at tailgate parties. “It was disappointing to see so many people still outside the stadium in Tent City,” said Athletic Director Ron Prettyman. Inside the stadium, “It was such an electric atmosphere,” he added.

The hesitance of potential fans is understandable. That victory on last year’s Homecoming broke a worst-in-the-nation 33-game losing streak, and the program hasn’t delivered a winning season since 1995. But Prettyman says fans will see an improved team this year. Kickoff for the Homecoming game against Illinois State is 3 p.m. Walkers should have plenty of time to reach the corner of Brown and Wabash and then watch the game. Tailgaters should have ample socializing time, too.

There is some irony worth noting: At the end of The Walk, beer is permitted outside the stadium for tailgaters and group tents, but alcohol is not sold inside Memorial Stadium, and Prettyman said the university hasn’t considered changing its policy. He emphasized that ISU does not allow beer sales at any of its sporting events. In recent years, ISU offered a beer garden outside Memorial Stadium on Homecoming, but “it was not well-attended, so this year, we discontinued it,” Prettyman said.

Would beer sales inside the stadium lessen the intake during The Walk? It’s hard to tell.

But if the scope of the Walkers’ objective widens drink-based revelry, the event might become more of an embraceable tradition.

More food stops, perhaps even kiosks or vendor carts, could be added along the Walkers’ route. Eating contests, using subs or pancakes, might be possible. Some activities, like a tug-of-war, mud volleyball or feats of strength would help, too. Undoubtedly, Walkers also should limit their drinking and behave decently. Most of all, the Walkers should walk inside Memorial Stadium and see the football game; that should be their quest.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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