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November 24, 2013

From the Press Box: Damage is done for ISU football

TERRE HAUTE — As a parent and a professional, there’s a bit of advice I’ve tried to pass along that I’ve found to be true.

No matter what you happen to be doing — whether it be job performance or just your own personal behavior — you can do the right thing for a period of time, even the vast majority of the time, but all it takes is one slip and the goodwill you’ve built up can be gone in one fell swoop.

 I think of that when I think of Indiana State’s disastrous one-win season. The goodwill built up in three consecutive seasons has wilted away. It was sad to see. Especially if you were around to see how that goodwill was grown.

Under former coach Trent Miles, the program was built brick-by-brick. The no-win 2008 and one-win 2009 seasons were hard to suffer through, but the foundation was poured and hardened. It seemed the payoff that was three consecutive winning seasons from 2010-12 and excruciatingly close playoff misses was well worth the effort.

ISU was getting positive press for its football instead of being the national joke it was throughout the 2000s. Shakir Bell’s outstanding performances brought headlines and attention for all of the right reasons. ISU’s signature wins — including a victory at No. 1 North Dakota State last season — brought respect from inside the game. A corner had been turned.

That respect was reciprocated off the field. ISU and Terre Haute have never been passionate about ISU football, but it’s not altogether different from the rest of the state. Every Division I team in Indiana, aside from Notre Dame, has trouble building enthusiasm for its college football, but even taking that into account, ISU football was making inroads. The team did its part in the outreach department and wins never hurt when it comes to community engagement.

Now it’s history. The house that was painstakingly crafted was plowed over in the wake of a 1-11 season that most assumed was a thing of the past at ISU.

How ISU got to 1-11 matters, and then again, it doesn’t. Rampant injuries started on day one when Larry King blew his knee out and never stopped.

Let the record show that ISU finished its last series of the season with three defensive players on the offensive side of the ball and wide receiver Demory Lawshe playing quarterback. That’s how bad the injuries were.

When you combine injuries with new systems on both sides of the ball and players getting used to a new coaching staff, it’s a recipe for disaster.

But it wasn’t just injuries. There were also mistakes made by the coaching staff. There were too many players — new and old — that didn’t play up to expected potential. There were units that were reasonably healthy that struggled all season. Morale was low — it always is when the losses pile up — and even fractious at times, especially during Bell’s dismissal in October.

One can fingerpoint all day, but no matter why or whom one might blame for ISU’s 1-11 dud, it happened, and the damage is done. Most fans aren’t going to parse whether it was a freak, injury-morphed season or whether there are deeper issues at work.

They just know it’s a 1-11 team and they aren’t going to show up to watch it. Those hearty 500 or so (my estimate …  ISU announced 2,988) who turned up on Saturday on a cold, windy day deserve a medal, but the vast expanse of unused aluminum at Memorial Stadium spoke volumes.

This is what Mike Sanford is up against moving forward.

I was asked this week whether this season was a blip or something to be concerned about. I think it’s both. ISU’s on-field product obviously has to improve, in some areas, dramatically, but ISU is nowhere near as bad off talent-wise as it was in 2007 when Miles took over. There are still pieces in place, and assuming players stick around, ISU should be able to shake off this season’s 1-11 and win more games next year if Sanford and his staff make the right adjustments.

The concern comes with the off-field enthusiasm. That house built during the Miles era isn’t going to be easy to rebuild.

Many fans, rightly or wrongly, will look upon the 2010-12 era as the anomaly, and that the 1-11 season was a regression to the mean for ISU. Skepticism exists where optimism once reigned.

That’s a very difficult dragon for Sanford to slay in a town where ISU football isn’t and never has been king. Fans, boosters and business owners are going to have to be convinced all over again that they’re hitching their star to something worthwhile.

It won’t be easy. It takes a long time to build a house, but as we found out this season, a short time to knock it down. ISU football faces a daunting rebuild.

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

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