The autumn of 2015 nearly witnessed the fall of two Indiana revenue-sport coaches.
Both of them escaped disaster, and subsequently registered accomplishments the folks in Bloomington had coveted for years.
In basketball, Tom Crean led his team out of trouble in December against Notre Dame, turning around his team’s season and eventually leading the Hoosiers to the Big Ten regular season championship. Crean guided IU to the Sweet 16 for the first time in three years. His career has traveled the lengthy distance from “tenuous” to “tolerable.” (The next step: “tolerable” to “triumphant,” which would come in the form of a Final Four appearance.)
In football, Kevin Wilson didn’t reach the same heights, but the mandate was always very simple last year: Make a bowl game … or else.
If Indiana hoops stared down the gun barrel of disaster in the second half against Notre Dame, erasing a 16-point deficit, Indiana football faced a similarly tough task in a game it also had to win. The gridiron Hoosiers trailed Maryland, 21-3, after just nine and a half minutes in College Park. Indiana was 4-6 going into that contest. A loss wouldn’t have guaranteed exclusion from a bowl — remember, a few 5-7 teams played in bowl games last season — but the odds would have shriveled.
Wilson was coaching for his job that day in a location not belonging to the natural geographical footprint of the Big Ten. Bob Stoops’ former assistant at Oklahoma might have felt like a fish out of water against the Turtles.
He was also 50.5 scoreboard-clock minutes from likely being out of a job … unless his players abruptly turned things about against a Maryland team being guided by an interim coach, Mike Locksley. (Randy Edsall had been fired earlier that season.)
Let there be no doubt about the matter: Wilson’s job did indeed hang in the balance on that November afternoon. Coaches should (and generally do) receive a minimum of three years in which to turn a program around. At programs of lesser stature — Indiana would certainly rate as one — four years should be the industry minimum in order to transform a local subculture.
Wilson careened toward the end of his fifth season last fall; if he didn’t have a 6-6 record and a ticket to a bowl game to show for his efforts, it would have been very hard to justify his continued employment in Bloomington. One 4-8 or 5-7 season blends into another. After half a decade, Wilson had to nudge the program forward. Stagnation isn’t a sin in a two-year window — not for the Hoosiers — but a five-year span? Even for this basketball school, that would have been too much. Yes, Wilson had to beat Maryland if he wanted to coach in 2017.
Late in that first quarter, his players arrived at a crossroads: They could have lost heart and allowed the season to get away from them, costing their coach his job. Their alternative was to climb the mountain and insist on something better.
Does a 44-7 beatdown over the final 50.5 minutes count as a good response?
Indiana didn’t just emerge from College Park with its season and goals intact; the Hoosiers had registered a 19-point win, 47-28.
This team played Ohio State, Iowa and Michigan within one possession last season; none of those three Big Ten heavyweights were able to beat the Hoosiers by a double-digit margin. Sure, Indiana played all three of those games at home, but IU still showed a level of resilience which hasn’t been a constant in Memorial Stadium over a longer period of time. As long as the Hoosiers attained a .500 record, their near-misses could reasonably be viewed as the products of pluck and improvement, not as aberrational near-misses against the backdrop of continued failure.
When Indiana — following its win against Maryland — smacked Purdue to win the Old Oaken Bucket and hit the .500 mark, Wilson avoided being fired. The Pinstripe Bowl against Duke slipped away in overtime, but the program had unmistakably improved.
As the scene shifts to 2016, the question becomes: Is Wilson safe to the point that a non-bowl season won’t lead to his dismissal?
The short answer: yes. The longer answer: unless the bottom falls out.
If playing in the Big Ten East is generally a curse due to the presence of Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State, membership in the division contains the minor but real blessing of drawing Maryland and Rutgers.
Indiana plays a relatively manageable non-conference schedule (Florida International, Ball State and Wake Forest), so that three-pack combined with a Maryland-Rutgers double gives Indiana a reasonable shot at five wins. If the team can beat either Nebraska or Penn State at home, it can repeat a six-win total.
The problem for IU — beyond having to play Ohio State, Michigan, and Michigan State — is that the Big Ten is debuting its nine-game schedule this season. The non-conference game Indiana loses in that tradeoff could have been an extra cupcake which could increase the odds of a 6-6 (bowl-bearing) season. Wilson has a smaller margin for error in his pursuit of another bowl bid.
The essential question: If Wilson falls short of 6-6, will the administration understand and give Wilson 2017?
Refer to the short answer given above: yes.
Wilson will run into trouble only if his program endures a marked regression from 2015. If the team loses to Wake Forest; splits the Maryland-Rutgers double; goes 0-2 at home versus Penn State and Nebraska; and ultimately goes 3-9, Wilson’s probably done.
As long as the team straddles the bowl fence, on the precipice of 6-6, Wilson should get 2017 even if his team falls just short at 5-7. A 4-8 season is the 50-50 scenario as far as the preservation of Wilson’s job status is concerned.
Indiana can’t be expected to bust through to the upper tier of a top-heavy Big Ten East. The central goal of the program is to avoid regression in 2015. As long as Kevin Wilson can achieve that, he should be able to stay on the job for another year.