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Ann Arbor News, Oct. 2, 2004

Playing second fiddle in Bloomington
Football struggles for popularity in hoops hotbed

By ROB HOFFMAN
News Sports Reporter

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. - On an afternoon not too long ago, 17-year-old Jordan Black entered Ward's Downtown Barber Shop to look for his father, Michael, who was waiting to get his hair trimmed by Hyscel Ward, the shop's owner and sole barber.

Jordan, his father explained, was a football player first and foremost. He was getting ready to play wide receiver for Bloomington South High School, the two-time state champions, this fall.

But it was the words on the back of Jordan's sleeveless shirt that caught a visitor's eye. They said: "In 49 states, it's just basketball. But this is Indiana."

Stuart White, the customer in Ward's chair, pointed at the slogan. "That's the mindset in Indiana."

Indeed, it is. Because if there's any Big Ten town where football is not king, it's Bloomington, home of Indiana University, which No. 19 Michigan faces today at Memorial Stadium.

Thanks to the state's long-standing love affair with basketball, a football team that hasn't had a winning record in 10 years and multiple coaching changes, Indiana is the only place in one of college football's most powerful conferences where the school will practically send you a cab if you buy four season tickets. Last year's homecoming game against Northwestern drew 27,213 fans to a stadium capable of seating 52,354.

To pump up attendance, the school has tried everything from night games to steep student discounts. Despite giving away 9,000 tickets or selling them for as low as $1 apiece for this year's Sept. 4 home opener, just 36,041 turned out to watch the Hoosiers beat Central Michigan 41-10.

Mostly because of low football attendance, Indiana's athletics department has lost about $1 million a year for the last three years - making it the only Big Ten athletic department operating in the red. A $30 fee was imposed on students this year to make up for a $2 million deficit in the athletic department's $34 million budget.

Does that mean the people of Bloomington are apathetic about sports? Hardly. This is, after all, the state of "Hoosiers," Bobby Knight and Larry Bird. Just a short walk from Memorial Stadium is 17,257-seat Assembly Hall, the almost always sold-out home court of the Indiana basketball team. Last year, the Hoosiers ranked seventh nationally in attendance.

"In Indiana, basketball will always be first and foremost," said Bob Hammel, the sports editor at the Bloomington Times-Herald from 1966-1996. "There is this hard core who are strong football fans. To these people, it's huge. And they get excited. But that core has shrunk over the years."

It's almost impossible to talk about Indiana football's lack of popularity without talking about its recent failures on the playing field. During most of the tenure of Bill Mallory, who led the Hoosiers to six bowls during
the 13 years he coached, attendance stayed above 45,000 and overall fan interest ran high. Since Mallory was fired in 1996, the Hoosiers have gone 21-46 and had two coaching changes. Neither former Michigan assistant Cam Cameron or current coach Gerry DiNardo have been nearly as popular as the personable Mallory, who still works as a consultant to the athletic department and is the namesake of Bill Mallory Boulevard, a small street in one of Bloomington's newer subdivisions.

"You've got to give them something to cheer about," Mallory said. "In Chicago, Cubs fans will support their team no matter what. That isn't Bloomington. You've got to show some success here."

That said, Indiana football is trapped in a Catch 22 spiral, a fact that Mallory and new Indiana athletic director Rick Greenspan acknowledge. Years of losing and the current sparse crowds hurt the Hoosiers' ability to attract elite recruits. And fans won't show up and pay attention until the team wins more games.

"We've got to justify people's interest in the program," said Greenspan, who was hired by Indiana on Sept. 2 after a six-year stint at West Point. "Our fans will come out to support us. But we need to get them excited."

Still, some believe Indiana football's problems can't be corrected by a few 7-4 or 8-3 seasons. Quite simply, the football program lacks tradition.

"When we talk about the Rose Bowl team, there was just one (in 1968)," Hammel said. "When we talk about the unbeaten team, there was just one (in 1945). Most recruiting is done on tradition. Kids in Michigan grow up wanting to go to Michigan. Kids in Pennsylvania grow up wanting to go to Penn State. That's not the case in Indiana."

Consider the contrasting cases of Bloomington's recent hometown heroes. Jared Jeffries was a Bloomington North High graduate who went on to lead the Hoosiers' basketball team to the 2002 national title game. Rex Grossman was a Bloomington South High graduate who led his school to the state title in 1998, but his storied college football career - including a runner-up finish for the 2001 Heisman Trophy - took place at the University of Florida.

Granted, at the time of his high school graduation, Grossman was considered too small, and Indiana had already committed to a quarterback, Antwaan Randle El, whose own 2000 Heisman run took place before a sea of empty Memorial Stadium seats. But Hammel said it still highlights the difference in the way Indiana's two marquee programs are viewed.

Another indication of Indiana football's lesser status might be seen inside Ward's old-fashioned barber shop. The walls are lined with dozens of pictures of past Indiana basketball teams, pictures of coaching great Bobby Knight and other hoops mementos. The only football items are of  two local high school players from long ago.

Yes, Ward is a huge Indiana basketball fan. But he was into the sport long before he arrived in Bloomington, he explains. Like many people in mostly rural Indiana, his high school was so tiny that it couldn't field a football team. But it had a top-notch basketball team, of which Ward was the team manager.

Yet Ward's customer, Michael Black, said he's pretty sure that football paraphernalia would start appearing in Ward's shop if the Hoosiers turn it around.

"We love the game," he said. "But everybody wants to win."

Indiana's lack of success on the gridiron makes the subject of Indiana football a touchy subject around Bloomington. Few people, particularly if they are local businessmen, want to be quoted saying anything negative about the team. Those who do speak on the record try to sound upbeat about a possible turnaround.

"You're forever optimistic," said Les James, a bouncer at Nick's English Hut - a bar which, until its recent removal, had the graffiti "Bloomington is a drinking town with a football problem" on one of its men's room walls. "But you feel for the guys out there."

"We all hate to lose," said Jack Cody, catering director for Killroy's Downtown, a sports bar that has been particularly active in trying to drum up local interest in Hoosier football. "But we still believe in the dream. The
dream is someday to win. And IU will someday win."

Mallory is among those who believe the Hoosiers are on the right track, After he was fired in 1996, Mallory said the school "lost its focus" on building a winning football program. Facility improvements were put on the backburner and high school coaches around the state felt ignored.

Since DiNardo's hiring in 2002, the football locker room has undergone a $250,000 renovation, and the Memorial Stadium grass has been replaced by a variation on the artificial turf now used at Michigan Stadium. DiNardo
personally visited every high school in the state. This past February, Indiana signed six all-state recruits, compared to five inked by in-state rival Purdue.

"I feel good about where the program is headed," said the former coach, who predicts a 4-4 record in the Big Ten is imminent. "Are we going to be where Michigan and Ohio State are? No. But are we going to be competitive again? Yes."

As athletics director, Greenspan said one of his primary duties is to convince those outside and inside Bloomington that Indiana is not just a basketball school.

"Ten years ago, would anyone say that Kansas State was a football school?" he said. "You can change that. But you have to be willing to make a commitment to your football program."

Rob Hoffman can be reached at (734) 994-6814 or rhoffman@annarbornews.com