The showers don’t flood in the Indiana State locker room anymore. After football games, players don’t line up to get under the one working shower head, spend 30 seconds, tops, washing off while standing in dirty, knee-deep water from the previous guys.
The toilet stalls?
“They have doors now,” athletic department spokesman Ace Hunt said, laughing. “We’re big-time now.”
“And towels,” a couple players yelled, joking after practice Wednesday last week. “We have towels. GREAT towels.”
Two years ago, I visited the Indiana State football team and its facilities. It was the worst football team in America. The worst program overall. Maybe the worst ever.
Not anymore. This is a success story. It’s about hard work and faith, commitment, and also help from a community that took in a football program like a charity case.
It touches your own beliefs, your own hopes about an American ideal that had seemed lost with so many cheating or dirty college football teams not chasing what football and sport is supposed to be about.
Instead, they chase big bucks. Ohio State, USC, too many others.
Please let Indiana State’s story be true and real. Let us believe our eyes.
Two years later, this is one of the best programs in the country. It’s not going to win the national championship. This isn’t Hollywood.
But four or five years ago, some players were fighting, others were carrying guns. Many would sign in for weightlifting sessions and then leave. Now, these guys are going to class, sitting in the front row, making appearances at children’s hospitals, going on walks for breast cancer, helping people clean up after their houses were flooded.
They are the disenfranchised coming together to make dreams true. How hokey!
And they’re winning. Indiana State, at the Football Championship Subdivision level, formerly known as Division I-AA — one step below the big boys of college sports — was 4-2 and ranked No. 21 in the nation going into its game Saturday against Western Illinois. Their only losses — a season-opening defeat at big-time Penn State and last week against Northern Iowa, the No. 2-ranked team in the FCS.
How did they do it? How do you dig out this fast?
“Hold on,” coach Trent Miles said after practice. “I’ve got to turn on the sprinklers.”
He walked off to start watering the team’s new practice field.
Miles was a ballboy at Indiana State when he was a kid. He did it with current Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. In the 1980s, Miles was a receiver for the Sycamores. His father went to school there. His brother, too.
This place is in his blood.
He was having a successful coaching career, mostly working with receivers at several colleges. He worked at Notre Dame under Ty Willingham, and was still with Willingham at Washington when Indiana State called.
It was like a call for help from home. He had to go back.
Sometimes, someone with love and passion in his heart can instill immediate belief. He can change a culture so fast that you forget about all the problems and pull together as one immediately.
Indiana State went winless in Miles’ first year.
This isn’t Hollywood.
There have been glory days in sports at Indiana State. The baseball team has been good. Even football was good when Miles played. Larry Bird played here and took the basketball team to the national championship game.
When I visited the football team two years ago, Miles hadn’t won one game yet.
The Sycamores had just lost 28-0 to Youngstown State to run its losing streak to 31 games. Before that, a lone victory had snapped a 24-game slump.
Three weeks ago, Indiana State beat Youngstown State.
“We’ve got a long way to go,” Miles said. “From the depths of where we started?
“Numerous guys I’ve known in the profession were saying this is a graveyard. Why do it? But it’s not. It just had to have a little life breathed into it.”
Understand that the facilities weren’t the only problem here. The players were a disaster. Bad players? Yes. Bad kids, too. Fighting. Lazy. Not going to class. Losers.
You treat a program like garbage and the players will produce like it.
Miles ran off 41 players his first year. By spring that year, the team had only six offensive linemen on the roster. Only four players on the team had ever won a college football game.
Miles put in rules: You will sit in the front row in class. You will show up on time. You will lift weights. You will perform three acts of community service, minimum, per semester. You will not have a cell phone in class. You will not have an iPod in class.
You will pull your pants up.
It was a direction. It was all on faith.
In 1967, Indiana State became the first college program to put in AstroTurf. It was a source of pride. You’re supposed to change the stuff every 10 years or so, though, but Indiana State left that turf down through the ’70s, and then the ’80s, when it got hard, and then the ’90s, when it was thin and seams were coming up. Coaches and players would go out with hammers and nails and duct tape before practices and games to get the field playable.
Players got hurt tripping on the seams.
Miles shows you rug burns from his playing days. One on his upper right leg. Some on both elbows and forearms.
He takes that past with him. The school administration put down a beautiful new turf two years ago.
Still, Miles was so desperate for just one win that they paid little Quincy of Illinois to come in. You already know what happened. The Sycamores fumbled near the goal line and then lost in overtime.
“They don’t know how to win,” Miles told me two years ago. “We blew this program up. I’ve got good vision. I can see the future.”
Fast forward to the future.
Last Wednesday, the trainer finished working on Shakir Bell, a tiny running back, who is starting to make a habit of rushing for 200 yards a game. He had 256 against Youngstown. When he scores touchdowns, he hands the ball to the official. No dancing. Another of Miles’ rules.
Bell was a high school superstar, if there is such a thing. He ran for 3,105 yards his senior year, second-most in the nation.
“Nobody recruited me,” he said. “I didn’t talk to anybody; well, one junior college. And my grades weren’t bad. One time, I was in the weight room and someone from USC was in there looking at juniors for next year. They wouldn’t talk to me.
“I never talked to anyone. I really didn’t understand what happened. Definitely, I had animosity about it. Coach Miles came and sat in my home.”
Of course, Bell knew why no one recruited him. He’s too small, claiming to be 5-7.
“No,” a player said, walking past, laughing. “It was just his game.”
Now, Bell, a sophomore, is on a watch list for the Walter Payton Award, given to the nation’s best offensive player at Indiana State’s level.
Miles also landed receiver Donald Spencer, a transfer from Michigan State. Spencer had been a high recruit but didn’t produce much with the Spartans. Miles found Ben Obaseki, one of the nation’s best defensive linemen at that level, unrecruited in tiny Washington, Ind.
“I don’t know if everybody in America goes to Washington, Ind.” Miles said.
And the big fish was former Washington quarterback Ronnie Fouch. He started eight games at Washington in 2008 when star QB Jake Locker was out hurt. With Locker coming back, Fouch figured he wasn’t going to play much anymore.
So he came to Terre Haute to play for Miles. Last year, he threw for more than 2,200 yards and 20 touchdowns. Indiana State finally had a winning record, 6-5.
This is what the team is made of. Just three players left from before Miles’ arrival. A find here, a reject or discard there. Some lived through the past at Indiana State. Some have only heard about it.
“I’ve talked to a lot of seniors,” Bell said. “They tell me how bad everything was. I heard about players carrying guns and just so much ridiculousness.”
Linebacker Aaron Archie likes to tell the stories. He was around before the changes. Two years ago, he told me about how he blew out his knee on the old AstroTurf. Last Wednesday, he said he knew his faith in the place would pay off.
In his bedroom, he has saved a little corner piece of the old AstroTurf.
The place is like new now. Miles took me on the same tour we went on two years ago. The town has chipped in as the administration has upgraded pretty much everything.
There’s the new practice field. It was a golf course years ago, and then some sort of public space. When they excavated to put the sod down, and then the goalposts, they found glass bottles and kitchen sinks.
Basically, it was a dump.
The stadium has two new scoreboards and a video board. Ads cover half of one scoreboard. A wall along the end of the stadium, covered by tarps two years ago, now has big ads from Pacesetters Sports, MCL cafeteria, the Tribune-Star, tanning salons, banks.
Inside the football building, the showers are new. The locker room is carpeted and has beautiful wooden lockers. The shelves in the supply room are no longer held up by duct tape. The laundry room is no longer a closet. There are meetings rooms, training rooms, equipment rooms.
It’s not posh, but almost. It’s just nice.
“We want them to understand we didn’t always have it like that,” Miles said. “It’s always important to know where you came from.
“They need to understand that playing here is a privilege. It’s not an entitlement.”
Miles gathered his team after practice Wednesday to talk about the big game at Northern Iowa. They all stood together. He asked something about tackling and . . . and . . .
No one spoke.
“DO YOU UNDERSTAND?” he yelled, starting to build into a rant.
“Yes sir,” everyone said.
“You are lucky to be (expletive deleted) out here. It’s not cool if I ask something that you don’t say anything. I’m trying to (expletive deleted) help you. Do you understand?
“It’s a (expletive deleted) privilege to play on this team. It’s a (expletive deleted) privilege to play college football. Do you understand?
“Focus. We had 23 missed tackles. Twenty-three. When we played these guys last year we were still in the game even with 23 missed tackles.
“Do your work. Go to (expletive deleted) study hall. We do things academically first above all, simple as that. Do you understand?
“And when we get back, you go to your (expletive deleted) classes on Monday.”
They arrived after more than 400 miles on a bus from Terre Haute to Cedar Falls, Iowa, stopping around Davenport for a quick walkthrough.
Indiana State’s only loss this season had been to Penn State, the kind of game schools at the Sycamores’ level have to take to help fund the program.
Penn State gave Indiana State a beating and a $450,000 guarantee.
By the end of the first quarter, it was clear that Indiana State could run the ball. At the start of the year, defenses had focused on Fouch, but then Bell ran crazy. Defenses had to adjust. This is a team with a top quarterback, a top tailback and a top offensive line coach in Harold Etheridge, who had coached the O-line at Washington State.
Miles has a philosophy on hiring assistant coaches: Wait patiently.
Coaches who have bounced around a little at the top level all seem to know one another. Miles figures if he waits, he can find a top coach who didn’t survive the annual job shuffle.
“That way,” said Rick Minter, Indiana State’s defensive coordinator last year, “he can get better coaches than he should probably be able to afford.”
Minter was one of those. He had been the head coach at Cincinnati, and once worked with Miles.
“Yes, I was one of those guys who did not end up with a job,” Minter said. “And my son (Jesse) was working there on defense. Trent asked me to come over.”
The idea was for Minter to run the defense and help teach young coaches. He put in a defense, 3-4 in personnel but one that rushes a linebacker on most every play. Why not just run defensive linemen?
Miles said he can recruit 6-1, 220-pound linebackers much easier than a 6-5, 285-pound prototype linemen. They all go to bigger schools.
Minter left after last year and handed over the defense to his son Jesse.
They still run the same defense.
The offense now is balanced, and Minter called Bell, “a pint-sized guy. The classic example of dynamite in a small package.”
By late in the first half Saturday, he already had 148 yards. But he took a cheap shot to his head late in the half and had to leave the game for good. Indiana State also missed two field-goal attempts and an extra point.
Yet early in the fourth quarter, Northern Iowa led by only four. Indiana State was driving, and it was the perfect time for a great Hollywood finish.
Instead, Indiana State fumbled. Northern Iowa would win 23-9. Indiana State would drop to No. 21.
“We were the 17th team in the nation playing the second team in the nation at their place, sold out and had a chance late in the game to take the lead. It just didn’t happen. It’s real life, you know,” said Miles.
Real life is not perfect. Nothing is. How has Miles done it? Well, together with an administration and a community, that’s how. Somewhere, someone bought into an idea that was just an idea. And then it was built from there.
New coaches with passion come in to football programs all the time with rules, preaching discipline and doing the right things.
It usually doesn’t work.
So please let this story be true. We don’t need any more dirt in college football. We need proof that an ideal can work.
“If you can’t do it the right way, it’s not worth doing,” Miles said.
“My dad taught me that a long time ago. I would rather look in the mirror and say I’ve got integrity and say I did it the best I could, the right way. I’ve got to look at my children, and I want them to look at me.”
Bell laughed at the idea of Indiana State being involved with dirty boosters paying players.
“Money or cars for players?” he said Wednesday. “I wish.”
The best little running back in the nation then walked out into the parking lot to his beat up old Ford Taurus with the dent on the trunk.
“I’ll just be happy if it turns over,” he said.
He turned the key, the engine thought about it for a second and then grinded and roared too loud. Bell drove off, the right red tail light a little hard to make out, covered in red duct tape and all.