In this October, 2015, file photo, Indiana coach Kevin Wilson, right, runs off the field with the team as they head to the locker room after the first half against Rutgers in Bloomington, Ind.
BLOOMINGTON, Ind.— Six years ago, Kevin Wilson started hammering away at Indiana’s languishing football program.
He came to town from Oklahoma with a blueprint, constructed a new foundation by attracting better recruits and assistant coaches, and eventually celebrated the Hoosiers’ rebirth with back-to-back bowl bids.
On Thursday, many of the players and staff members who helped the Hoosiers end a 25-year drought without consecutive postseason appearance last fall will be reunited in an emotional tug-of-war between Ohio State’s new offensive coordinator and the program he revived.
“You hug them all and you love them, and that for me is the tough thing because you’ve lost relationships with kids you love, because those kids played very, very hard for us and we’ve got a lot of respect for them,” Wilson said. “I’ve got a lot of respect for coach (Tom) Allen, those defensive coaches, all those guys that were there with us. I know the way they’re coached, the way they prepared, there’s a reason they’ve been battling and have been so good.”
Eight and a half months ago, an opening night homecoming for Wilson seemed almost incomprehensible.
Following a Thanksgiving weekend victory over Purdue, Indiana punched its ticket to a bowl game and hoisted the Old Oaken Bucket for a record-tying fourth consecutive year. Back then, it seemed nothing could tear down Wilson’s reconstruction project.
Players focused on bringing Indiana its first bowl victory since 1991. And with so many returning starters on a vastly improved defense and Wilson’s creative mind still controlling the offense, fans started contemplating bigger and better achievements in 2017.
Less than a week later, Wilson abruptly resigned Dec. 1 amid allegations of player mistreatment. Some ex-players and their family members complained publicly that Wilson tried to rush them back from injuries before they were healthy.
Athletic director Fred Glass cited “philosophical differences” as the reason for the split. Glass, a lawyer by trade, explained the university had investigated the allegations and found no wrongdoing but also acknowledged that practices deemed acceptable at other schools didn’t necessarily meet Indiana’s standard.
Allen was promoted from defensive coordinator to head coach, given a six-year contract and handed the task of putting the pieces back together.
“There were a lot of emotions that first day,” Allen said. “There was definitely a level of shock and surprise and the strong emotion in your heart, hurting for someone you care about and respect, knowing what he’s going through. I really explained it to our guys this way, ‘He brought you here, he believed in you. He brought me here, he believed in me. I’m really just like you. I was brought here to do a certain job, defense, and I’ve been given a new job, team. So let’s go roll up our sleeves and do this together and finish what coach Wilson started.’”
Allen lost that bowl game to Utah, but the Hoosiers haven’t lost their way.
They went back to work, getting ready for the nation’s No. 2 team and a season-opening date against Wilson’s rapid-fire offense.
Make no mistake — Wilson’s fingerprints remain all over Indiana.
He hired Allen, recruited starting quarterback Richard Lagow from junior college and helped cornerback Rashard Fant and linebacker Tegray Scales emerge as two of college football’s top defenders. Wilson’s daughters still attend school at Indiana. Wilson and Allen have stayed in touch, too, and Allen continues to credit Wilson every chance he gets for giving Hoosiers football the boost it needed to get up and running.
Perhaps the biggest tribute to Wilson will be Indiana’s business-like approach to a game that just a few years ago might have been all about the distractions — national television, ESPN’s “College GameDay” and the return of their former coach.
“I thought about what it’s going to be like seeing him in pregame,” Lagow said at media day. “I’ll probably give him a head nod or something. It’ll be crazy but I’m not really worried about that. For us, it will be go time.”
Wilson understands the sentiments because it was one of the cornerstone features in his rebuild.
And that hasn’t changed at Ohio State .
“It was a great place,” Wilson said. “But it’s really been awesome being here and just being part of our team. (Oklahoma) Coach (Bob) Stoops years ago kind of made a big deal about what happened the year before, the past and revenge have nothing to do with it. Every year is different, every game is different, and the more I think about it, I have an obligation and responsibility to do my best for these guys and this team.”