Indiana Football: Kevin Wilson Following Missouri’s Blueprint


A football program in the dumps year-after-year. A team that hasn’t won a conference championship since the late 60’s. Fans endlessly subjected to the same old, seemingly futile process: New coach. New season. Same result. Sound familiar? Of course it does if you’re an Indiana football fan, but fans of the Missouri Tigers will tell you they have that script memorized as well (their last championship was in 1969 while IU’s was 1967). Or at least they did, until current Head Coach Gary Pinkel accomplished the formidable task of “turning the program around.” How’d he do it? Can it be done at Indiana? Can Pinkel just come to Indiana?

Let’s take a look at what Hoosier fans can learn from Pinkel and the Missouri case by examining Indiana’s current situation in light of what “turning around” looked like at Mizzou.

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In the beginning:

For fans of any historically bad football program, high coach turnover mean business as usual. Both Hoosier and Tiger fans are accustomed to the 3-5 year window coaches are given to turn a program around. Here’s a fun fact: the three coaches who preceded Gary Pinkel at Missouri had a combined winning percentage of .343 while the three coaches who preceded Kevin Wilson had a combined winning percentage of .336. Nearly identical. Neither good.

The timeline for the above statistic should be clarified. Some may be jumping out of their seats thinking that Wilson and Pinkel began their current jobs simultaneously, and while Wilson hasn’t made a bowl, Pinkel has won the SEC East. Not even close.

Pinkel inherited the tall task of turning Missouri around all the way back in 2001 (I was in 7th grade), and success didn’t come overnight as the Tigers finished three of his first four seasons with a losing record. It would take seven seasons for Pinkel’s team to finish the year ranked in the top 25. It’d be six years before his team would make consecutive bowl appearances.

Moral of the story? Rebuilding a program takes time. It’s important to acknowledge the massive difference between building a program and having a winning season. A single winning season means nothing in the big picture. Pinkel had a winning season in his third year at Missouri, but hadn’t “built the program” at that point. He just had an easy schedule. Check out the side-by-side comparison of Wilson and Pinkel‘s first four years at their respective programs (0 representing the average schedule, negative numbers indicating easier schedules, and positive numbers indicating more difficult ones).*

A few observations:

  • In his third year, Pinkel had more wins than Wilson, but with a joke of schedule compared to what IU faced last year (Fred?).
  • In his fourth year, Pinkel had the same number of wins that Wilson had in his third year, despite Wilson facing much stiffer competition (eh-hem. Fred?).
  • Indiana’s current SOS (year 4) reflects how laughably bad the B1G has been, and that’s good news for Hoosier fans.

One thing that should be mentioned in this comparison between what Wilson is doing and what Pinkel has done, is that Pinkel had head coaching experience before embarking on his mission at Mizzou. He coached a full decade at Toledo starting in 1991, taking over for his college roommate, Nick Saban. Ten whole years of head coaching experience. Wilson had zero, which more than explains Wilson doing less with an easier schedule in his first two seasons. Should IU have hired a guy with head coaching experience? Probably. But they didn’t, and it’s unfair to hold that against Wilson.

Base your judgement on the right evidence:

When you’re a historically bad (the worst) program, you have to judge a coach differently than you would at other schools. At established programs, coaches have one task: win. At schools like Indiana and Missouri, coaches have two tasks: win and build the program. As Gary Pinkel relayed on the the Big Ten Network’s “BTN Football & Beyond” Wednesday, it is that second task that is both the most important and difficult:

"“[Building a program] is difficult. It’s hard. I can’t even tell you how difficult it is. You’re changing attitudes. You’re getting players to get committed. You’re developing the team. That’s the most difficult thing, dealing with the players and getting them to think right, act right, train right and believe. That’s the most difficult thing to do.”-Missouri Head Coach Gary Pinkel"

So rather than judging the staff by a loss (although Twitter reactions after Bowling Green were priceless), I would suggest looking at the bigger picture of how the staff has done at building the program based on the recipe laid forth by a guy who has already accomplished the task. First and foremost, was there anything Wilson talked more about in his first two years than “getting guys on board”? Before there was Charlie Strong cleaning house at Texas, there was Wilson mopping the floor in Bloomington. He even went so far in his first year as to dismiss Demarlo Belcher, by far his top play-maker, for violating a team rule.

Aug 30, 2014; Bloomington, IN, USA; Indiana Hoosiers head coach Kevin Wilson talks to Indiana Hoosiers punter Erich Toth (36) before the game against the Indiana State Sycamores at Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Pat Lovell-USA TODAY Sports

The “buy in” the first year was awful, specifically from the upperclassmen who were used to Bill Lynch’s way of things (never hitting in practice?!). There were some freshmen, however, who jumped on board with a young Kofi Hughes leading the way. Each year, as the “we miss the old way” players were phased out, the roster became more and more populated with guys who were buying in. Wilson finally has a team that, if nothing else, believes in him and his system. His commitment to demanding player commitment has been tremendously transparent and separates him from his predecessors (barring the late Terry Hoeppner).

The Hardest Part:

Still, the change in attitude Pinkel referred to is incomplete. It seems that the players have bought into their coaches, but not themselves. Wilson has emphasized that one major problem has been the players’ ability to transfer what they do in practice to games:

"“[The players] need to do the hardest thing, which is transfer it to the ring when everyone is watching…Everybody is coming to the game. They want to see you play. They don’t care how hard you worked. They want to see you show up and play. It’s nice you worked hard, but that doesn’t matter…I can’t do that walk for them…They have to play…It’s like being a parent.”-Kevin Wilson"

From all accounts, the players work ethic has finally gotten to a level the coaches are satisfied with. Coaches have been thrilled with the product in practice. They just can’t put it together in a game. That’s a mental block. That’s not easy to fix. That comes along with being historically awful program. That’s why Pinkel said Wilson’s job is indescribably difficult in his BTN interview quoted above, and reiterated the point in his SEC teleconference this week:

"“The biggest hump is changing the attitude of athletes and turning them in from — not loser, because they’re not losers, but they had not won — and being able to get that confidence level up, so that they believe in what you’re doing”-Gary Pinkel"

Winners find a way to win, losers find a way to lose. That’s all it comes down to with the game on the line. Performance during what Reggie Miller calls “Winning Time” comes down to a mental approach that’s near impossible to force upon players.

Where We’ve Been, Where We’re Going:

That’s where Indiana football is right now, and that’s a good thing. Not good that our players haven’t adopted a winning mindset, but that the program has arrived at what Pinkel acknowledges to be the final step in turning a program around. The Hoosier program is at better place today than it was when they last went to a bowl game in 2007 or at any other time in recent memory because the program is being built. Not just next year’s team. Now the groundwork has finally been laid. Aside from the somewhat intangible characteristics we have been discussing, there’s no doubt recruiting plays a major role in program development. We can quantifiably show that Wilson is superior to his predecessors in this capacity. The three coaches before Wilson combined to pull in exactly zero 4-star recruits. Nunca. Wilson has had six in the past two years. He’s received national attention for blowing typical IU football recruiting standards out of the water and assembling the program’s top two classes (by far) in the modern recruiting era in back-to-back years.

Oct 6, 2012; Bloomington, IN, USA; Indiana Hoosiers coach Kevin Wilson congratulates his team after scoring against the Michigan State Spartans at Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Carl von Clausewitz said the only “enemy of a good plan is the dream of a perfect plan.” Substitute “plan” for “coach” and you get a pretty good description of what is going on with Indiana fans right now. To those who are crying out that this year is the same as every other and that Wilson is no different than those who came before him, I’d invite you to view the big picture in light of Gary Pinkel’s comments this week.  Wilson’s not perfect. He’s made some boneheaded, maddening decisions during his time at Indiana. But, without a doubt, he is “good” for Indiana in that he is dedicated to bringing transformational, lasting change to the program. Indiana fans can hold on to a pipe dream of the Hoosiers stumbling into the next Nick Saban, but it’s never going to happen. Dreaming of a perfect coach runs the risk of wasting a good one.

What is happening at Indiana is a slow process, but it’s heading in the right direction. Hell, it took Saban 18 years to finally win a National Championship, and he didn’t even have to worry about “building a program” at traditional power houses like LSU and Alabama. Wilson has the program turning around, even if it hasn’t shown up on the field yet. That’s not to say wins don’t matter. Of course they do, but right now the team is at a tipping point. They are just one, confidence boosting win away from obtaining that elusive winning mindset.

Maybe a win against an SEC opponent on the road would do the trick.

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