TERRE HAUTE, Ind. — The signs of change are all around Indiana State’s campus.
Local businesses are eager to show they’ve jumped on board the football bandwagon. Dormitories and campus buildings are decorated with blue-and-white placards that don’t typically appear until January or February and only then if the basketball team is playing well. The football team is now the headline feature on the school’s website, and at halftime of Wednesday’s basketball game against longtime rival Butler, the players and coaches received a standing ovation.
Not long ago, all of this seemed implausible.
But after Indiana State won its first playoff game in 31 years last weekend, the football team is now the most popular group in town.
“It’s awesome to see the people supporting us, rooting for us,” defensive end Brady Collins said. “We’ve turned things around. We’ve changed people’s minds.”
For the Sycamores (8-5), it’s been a long, arduous journey back to respectability.
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Five years ago, they were mired in a 33-game losing streak — the fourth longest in Division I history. Their only win during a miserable 58-game stretch, at Missouri State in October 2006, was tainted because the Sycamores used an ineligible player. They self-reported the violation to the NCAA, which mercifully allowed Indiana State to keep the win and avoid a 58-game skid.
Back then, players were recounting stories about nails poking through the stadium’s worn out turf, flooded showers and dilapidated stands. During all that losing, defensive back Donye McCleskey said he was so “embarrassed” by the program’s plight he wouldn’t leave his room.
Some students and local citizens started calling on school administrators to bury football and focus on a basketball program that produced Larry Bird and gave the late John Wooden his first head coaching gig in 1946.
But after finishing 2009 at 1-10, the Sycamores started winning games and changing minds.
They went 6-5 in 2010 and were on the cusp of making the FCS playoffs in 2011 and 2012, derailed by losses on the final weekend of the regular season both times. After the season, coach Trent Miles left for Georgia State and Indiana State started over with Mike Sanford, the former UNLV head coach.
Again, things went awry.
Indiana State endured a rash of injuries, contended with a long acclimation process and lacked of leadership, a daunting combination when playing in one of the FCS’ toughest leagues, the Missouri Valley Football Conference. The Sycamores regressed to 1-11.
“I thought the program was in better shape than it was,” Sanford said, acknowledging he made sure the administration was committed to football before taking the job. “The good thing was that we had a good, young group. We had a lot of sophomores on defense.”
While those around the program insisted things weren’t nearly as bad as it appeared, Sanford started making changes. He adjusted the spread offense to fit his talent, switched from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 and challenged his older players to become better leaders.
Indiana State beat four ranked teams during the regular season and despite losing the season finale to Western Illinois 34-20, the Sycamores got into the playoffs for the first time in three decades. Attendance increased, too, to about 5,550 per game, and last weekend, against perennial FCS power Eastern Kentucky, the Sycamores won their first playoff game since 1983 — on the road and by 20 points.
“It’s been a long journey,” senior receiver Kyani Harris said. “A lot of people doubted us and we’ve played all season with a chip on our shoulder because we had a lot to prove to a lot of people.”
They’re not done yet.
On Tuesday, they walked out of their relatively new locker room and onto the upgraded football field for their first December practice in decades. On Saturday, they’ll travel to Chattanooga, the alma mater of Terrell Owens and Drayton Florence, looking to reach the FCS quarterfinals.
And the expectations inside the program are changing, too.
“I believe we’re really good, but at the same time, I’m one of those that doesn’t like to evaluate a team till the end of the year,” Sanford said. “One of our goals was to make it to the FCS playoffs, and we’ve done that. But we also have a goal to win a national championship.”
Just five short seasons ago, the biggest debate on campus was whether Indiana State should even continue its football program. The biggest question now is whether the football team can bring home Indiana State’s first NCAA championship in any sport.
“It just shows that they [the fans] should have had faith in us,” Harris said. “I believed we always had it. We’ve just got to prove it to them, and it doesn’t happen overnight.”