Indiana St. rebounds after snapping losing steak
TERRE HAUTE, Ind.—Shakir Bell sits across a table in a small conference room, shaking his head.
He still can't believe the tales he heard about Indiana State's 33-game losing streak, its 2-60 mark over 5 1/2 seasons or the players who preferred anything over winning games.
It makes it tough to fathom how much has changed over the last four years, since Trent Miles took over as Sycamores coach in 2008 and Bell became arguably the school's biggest recruit since Larry Bird. What Bird did for Indiana State basketball in the 1970s is what Bell hopes to do for a football program that has finally shed its image as a perennial loser and started talking openly about a national championship.
Dallas is home to this year's Football Championship Subdivision title game Jan. 5. The Sycamores' road to Dallas begins Sept. 1 with a game at Indiana.
"We're not just trying to get in the playoffs this year, we're trying to win everything," Bell said, his eyes growing in size. "I've always wanted to play in those lights and under that type of pressure, and I can see us going to Dallas and having some fun."
Three years ago, a comment like that would have drawn nothing but snickers and snide comments at the student union. But after the last two seasons, people in the small-town community have come to the realization that the wafting smell of tailgate parties in the football parking lot this fall suggests a strong measure of hope at Indiana State, an indication that anything is possible.
"When we came here we were competing to win games," Miles said. "Now we're competing for a national championship."
Indiana State has won 13 games since ending The Streak midway through the 2009 season. The other three teams still ahead of the Sycamores on the NCAA's list for longest Division I losing streaks combined for only 20 wins over the next three-plus years -- Prairie View A&M (7), Columbia (5) and Northwestern (10). That means the Sycamores can surpass the combined total with an eight-win season this fall.
Consider, too, that Indiana State's 12 wins over the past two seasons are just one fewer than its total over the previous eight .
But the changes in Terre Haute go deeper than stats.
Attendance has more than doubled since 2007, jumping from about 2,500 to roughly 6,500 last season. Fundraising has increased and talk about disbanding the football program has ceased.
Bell heads into his junior season as a favorite to win the Walter Payton Award, the FCS' version of the Heisman Trophy, after finishing in a tie for second last season. Defensive lineman Ben Obaseki is being billed as a preseason favorite for the Buck Buchanan Award, which goes to the nation's best defensive player. Myles Walker, a 6-foot-8 all-state football player in Texas who was once recruited by the likes of LSU, has used up his basketball eligibility and will play football in his final college season.
And around campus, things have changed, too. Players once too embarrassed to go outside are now embraced by their peers.
"Professors congratulate them and I never see mocking or downgrading of players now," said Justin Todd, a senior majoring in social studies education. "It's been a real positive for this school."
Players credit the transformation to Miles' unwavering determination to fix a program he grew up watching.
The Terre Haute native started his coaching career here, wound up making stops at Oklahoma, Green Bay, Stanford, Notre Dame and Washington before finally coming home.
When he arrived, players were skipping practice and weight lifting just because they could, and they seemed to put a higher premium on partying than football. Those who did show up worked out when the soccer teams were not. Memorial Stadium hadn't undergone a single renovation in nearly four decades, coaches were scrimping on meals to stay within the $50,000 recruiting budget and those being recruited recounted tales about nails coming through the field's Astroturf.
"When I first got here, we were in the old locker room and you'd shower with four inches of water at your feet," said Obaseki, a senior.
Miles insisted he could win at Indiana State if he could change the mindset, the roster and get more support from the administration and community. He kicked more than three dozen players off the team, and the school came up with nearly $2.75 million to replace the flooded locker room.
"The new locker room is top of the line," Obaseki said. "We went from having nothing to having a lot."
Administrators didn't stop there. They spent an estimated $250,000 to add a remote camera system to record practices, splurged on a new scoreboard, complete with a video screen, and an ex-football player who owns a local construction company donated his time to help put in a new grass practice field. Miles raised roughly $500,000 to add a field that allowed the football team to practice on its own schedule.
The total cost came to roughly $4 million and the benefits have been bountiful. Morale is up and Miles has more leeway to recruit out-of-state talent.
"In the past, we were only funded for so many out-of-state scholarships," Miles said. "Our philosophy is that we're Indiana State, so we're going to recruit in-state kids first. But we border Illinois, Ohio has great football, St. Louis and Atlanta aren't that far away, so we've got other areas where we can recruit very good football players and now we can do that more easily."
Miles didn't go far to find the cornerstones for this rebuilding project.
Obaseki, a 6-3, 260-pound defensive lineman, played high school ball in nearby Washington, Ind. -- a school better known for producing the three Mr. Basketball-winning Zeller brothers.
Bell hails from Warren Central in Indianapolis, which has produced dozens of Division I players over the last decade and had so much talent Bell couldn't crack the starting lineup until his senior season. Because he was undersized at 5-foot-8 and 185 pounds and virtually unknown until he rushed for 3,105 yards in 2009, Indiana State got its chance to convince the state's 2009 Mr. Football runner-up to risk everything by choosing the Sycamores.
All Bell wanted was a chance to be part of something big.
"Coach Miles told me everything was changing and that he had just kicked about 45 guys off the team and that it would be a great place for me to come and display my talents," Bell said. "Plus, I wanted to be a part of history."
In 2011, Bell led the FCS in yards rushing and broke school records for most yards in a season (1,670) and a game (256). He was rewarded with the MVFC's offensive player of the year award and was the first sophomore ever invited to the Payton Award ceremony in Dallas.
This year's plan is to take a much larger contingent with him back to Texas.
"I came back telling everybody about it. There's nothing better than living that type of dream feel," he said. "The perfect season would be going back to Dallas with the whole team so they can experience the whole thing I did and then to go to the banquet the next day and be up for the Walter Payton Award."
Just a couple of years ago, it seemed an impossible quest.
"Freshman year, you'd go into games and say `We might able to win this game' and then look two or three weeks down the road and say `We might be able to win that game.' We believe now that we can win every game," Obaseki said. "We can do this."