Last year, as Indiana was struggling to a 1-11 record, first-year coach Kevin Wilson got a pick-me-up from perhaps the foremost expert on Hoosiers football.
Former IU coach Bill Mallory, who still lives in Bloomington, Ind., and stops by practice a couple of times a week in the fall, told Wilson that better times were on the horizon.
"He told me, 'I promise you you're getting there,'" Wilson recalled this week. "He was just consistently reaffirming me. Coach Mallory was big a year ago and throughout the offseason on just sticking to your guns and what you believe in."
Indiana football has hardly arrived as a power. But because of some special circumstances in the Big Ten this year, the Hoosiers are about to play their biggest game in nearly 20 years this weekend when Wisconsin comes to Memorial Stadium. A win by Indiana (4-5, 2-3 Big Ten) would tie Wilson's team with the Badgers in the Leaders Division standings and give the Hoosiers the head-to-head tiebreaker with two games to go. Because Ohio State and Penn State are on probation, that would put Indiana in control of the Leaders berth in the Big Ten title game.
As unlikely as it seems, Indiana has a chance to get in position for its second-ever trip to the Rose Bowl and first since 1968.
"I don't remember a game where so much stuff was at stake," Hoosiers senior defensive tackle Larry Black Jr. told ESPN.com.
That's because it has been a long, long time. Indiana won an emotional game at the end of the 2007 season against Purdue to clinch a bowl berth in honor of late coach Terry Hoeppner, who passed away right before the season. But that was for a minor postseason game, not a potential Big Ten title. The last time the Hoosiers played a game this meaningful in the conference race was 1993, when they started 7-1 and were ranked No. 17 heading to Penn State in early November. They lost that game by a touchdown and finished 8-3 in the regular season.
The 1993 campaign was also the last time the program won three consecutive Big Ten games, which it will be attempting to do this week after beating Illinois and Iowa. In fact, since '93 Indiana has won only 32 conference games in 19 years, while the 2007 season was its lone bowl appearance during that time. The Hoosiers fired coaches Cam Cameron, Gerry DiNardo and Bill Lynch and became known as a graveyard for football. But one man still kept the faith.
"That negative cloud of 'Oh, you can't win here' just makes me want to vomit," said Mallory, who led IU to six bowl games in his 13 seasons as head coach. "I have to count to 10 and keep my composure when people say those things. I believe strongly in what this program can do here."
Mallory said the school just needed to make a stronger commitment to the sport, which it has done in recent years with massive facility upgrades, including improvements to the stadium and a total makeover of the coaches' offices and weight room.
"I think we've finally woken up to the fact that we've got to match up to the others in this conference," Mallory said. "It's unbelievable how far we've come. People say it's a basketball school, but they'll like football if you start winning."
Mallory also liked what he saw early on from Wilson, who shared some of his beliefs in how the program should be run. And that makes sense, since Wilson's early coaching mentor was former Northwestern head coach Randy Walker, who played under Mallory at Miami (Ohio).
"Coach Wilson preaches a lot of same things I heard when I was here as a player," said current Indiana assistant coach Mark Hagen, who played at IU from 1987 to '91. "We were a team that went out every week and expected to win, and people had to account for us on Saturday or they'd get beat. That's a team we want to become. We know we're not there yet, but we're taking strides to become that."
Taking strides is the key phrase there. While Indiana has a unique opportunity at hand, this is still a team that lost to Ball State and Navy and had a five-game losing streak before beating Illinois two weeks ago. Wilson does not want his young team getting ahead of itself, which is why he has made sure to stress all week that the Hoosiers still have a losing record and must focus only on day-to-day improvement.
"They don't replay our games on the Big Ten Network, we always play in bad TV spots and we don't get much coverage," Wilson said. "We're a long way from being a good football team."
Wilson went as far as to say this isn't a big game because of his team's record. Still, he's hoping for a big-game atmosphere at Memorial Stadium, something that hasn't happened too often. There was far less than a full house for last week's Iowa game, though inclement weather might have played a factor. Many Indiana fans are already geared up for basketball season as the No. 1-ranked Hoosiers open Friday night at home against Bryant University. Buzz for football is building slowly on campus.
"I think it's definitely growing," said Nathan Brown, sports editor for the Indiana Daily Student newspaper. "I would expect as the week goes on and the word spreads that there will be a much bigger crowd. There were probably a lot of students maybe right after last Saturday's game who still didn't exactly know what the implications of this game against Wisconsin would be."
Black said he noticed a difference on campus last Sunday, when people were congratulating him on the Iowa victory as he went to breakfast.
"Maybe that's how it is when you start winning," he said.
The Hoosiers are starting to rediscover that feeling after a long drought. They might just be doing it at the most opportune time.