TGS SPECIAL REPORT...RIVALRY WEEK AND THE HOOSIERS!
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor
As the college football campaign barrels into Thanksgiving, the thought persists that we’re on the precipice of what could be a couple of the wildest weeks in recent memory. Mostly, it’s because a coaching carousel, spinning since October, is now revving up to perhaps unimaginable speed as the end of the regular season approaches (and the new early signing period in mid-December). We’ve been reaching out to our contacts across the country who continue to help us gather notes, as we ramp up a full college hot-seat update for next week’s issue. (We’ll follow that in two weeks with Part II of last week’s “New Jersey Forces Overtime” feature with a review on the latest from the Garden State’s sports betting challenge, to be heard by the Supreme Court in the first week of December, and notes from our attendance at the fascinating Sports Betting USA conference last week in New York City).
Before then, however, we’ve got another rivalry week on deck, and given that we are into all sorts of recollections these days at TGS, we’re about to mark the golden anniversary of what is still the darnedest football story we can ever recall, and one shining moment for a rivalry that has never held more than modest regional appeal at best...except for one magical season, fifty years ago.
Hard as it might be for those of the ESPN generation to believe, there was a time when the Big Ten wasn’t all about Ohio State or Michigan, a year when the Buckeyes and Wolverines were afterthoughts, and long before Penn State joined the loop. But in the Big Ten football world of 1967, the power base of the league was for a short while at Purdue (that year barred from the Rose Bowl by the Big Ten’s draconian “no repeat” rule of the day)...and downstate at Indiana. For good measure, the third wheel in the ‘67 Big Ten race was Minnesota, which made for what has been an unlikely trio of contenders in almost any of the subsequent fifty years. And this Saturday, November 25 will mark exactly 50 years since the ‘67 “Old Oaken Bucket” renewal between the Boilermakers and Hoosiers, a rivalry that has hardly had a whiff of national significance since. But it sure did in 1967.
The architect of the startling Indiana revival a half-century ago was HC John Pont, a product of the “Cradle of Coaches” at Miami-Ohio where he starred as a player and excelled as a coach between 1956-62. Pont arrived at IU from a successful tour of duty at Yale but had little success with his first pair of Hoosier teams in 1965-66, which won a combined three games. Prospects did not seem much better for ‘67 with a gaggle of untested and wild-eyed sophomores thrust into key roles, including key offensive components QB Harry Gonso, HB John Isenbarger (beaten out for the QB job by Gonso but immediately switched to HB by Pont), and WR Jade Butcher.
Still, not even a full-fledged, right-thinking fairy godmother—or even Pont—could have predicted the particular ending in ‘67. IU, which had never been to a Rose Bowl, appeared to be the last of the Big Ten sisters that would ever be invited to the Big Ball in Pasadena. But those Hoosiers not only came out of nowhere, they walked a tightrope almost every week, somehow managing to survive. The series of Perils-of-Pauline finishes, in rapid-fire succession, still amaze and have yet to sink in...even after fifty years!
Sports Illustrated’s Dan Jenkins might have summed up the ‘67 Cardiac Kids best when he referred to their games as “some of the most self-torturing climaxes since radio serials.” IU would survive all sorts of white-knucklers vs. good and bad teams, including winless Wisconsin, to forge an 8-0 record and No. 5 ranking before the luck ran out at Minnesota, almost ending the dream. The nailbiters began from the outset in '67, when Pont's team rallied from a 10-0 deficit in its opener to squeeze past Kentucky 12-10 on a deflected 23-yard TD pass from Gonso to WR Al Gage deep in the 4th quarter. The Hoosiers nipped Kansas at the wire the next week, 18-15, on a late FG by PK Dave Kornowa, better known as a DB but thrust into emergency duty when regular kicker Don Warner had an injured toe. IU won at Illinois 20-7 despite gaining only 189 yards of offense and not wrapping up the game until the final moments after forcing a turnover deep in Illini territory, a familiar tune in a tightly-contested battle highlighted by two Hoosier defensive TDs. The Hoosiers almost gave a game away vs. a wretched one-win Iowa team when Isenbarger failed on an ill-advised fake-punt try in his territory and the IU clinging to a narrow 14-10 edge; the Hawkeyes subsequently scored on an Ed Podolak TD to take a 17-14 lead deep in the 4th Q. But the Hoosiers rallied to score the winning TD on a Gonso-to-Butcher pass with 53 seconds to play, after Gonso’s fake field goal run had set up the deciding score in a 21-17 final.
Pont's troops then squandered all of a 20-0 lead the next week vs. Michigan, with another failed Isenbarger fake punt (which he again executed without the approval of Pont, who fumed afterward!) setting up the tying score, but IU rallied by driving 85 yards in the last two minutes, with Isenbarger redeeming himself by scoring the winning TD in another pulsating 27-20 final. Even John Coatta’s winless and woeful Wisconsin took the Hoosiers to the limit, in Bloomington, no less, rallying from a 14-3 deficit and cutting the lead to 14-9 on a TD run by QB John Boyajian with 3:36 to play, then threatening to score the winning TD by driving to the Hoosier 10-yard-line in the waning moments. More late-game heroics were required the next week at Michigan State, where Isenbarger’s TD with 2:50 to play gave the Hoosiers a 14-13 win, and, more incredibly, an 8-0 record and fifth ranking in the nation!
Unfortunately, the clock seemed to strike midnight in the penultimate game at Murray Warmath’s rugged Minnesota, when the Gophers capitalized on a series of Hoosier miscues in the 4th Q to blow open a close game and win going away by a 33-7 count. At that point Minnesota seemed to have the inside track to the Rose Bowl, as IU, now dropped to 14th in the polls, would have to win at Bloomington vs. 14-point favorite Purdue, led by All-Americans QB Mike Phipps & RB Leroy Keyes, for the "Old Oaken Bucket" to force a 3-way deadlock atop the Big Ten and qualify for Pasadena via tiebreakers.
Indiana fans, however, had not lost faith; almost 8000 of them crammed into the old fieldhouse to welcome the team back from Minneapolis even after losing big to the Gophers. A surprised Pont was speechless at the sight, and had to be coaxed to give a brief pep talk that confirmed he was already looking ahead to the Boilermakers the following week. “Tonight,” Pont told the adoring crowd, “I think we just beat Purdue.”
By this time, the Hoosiers had become a Cinderella storyline, and IU fans were enjoying a rare moment in the spotlight, especially with an unprecedented (for them) trip to the Rose Bowl on the line. “Pasadena A-GO-GO” buttons were popular souvenirs. The fans would have been excused for believing what they were experiencing was instead a dream; “Pinch me” buttons probably would have sold well, too. But many insiders, still unconvinced of the Hoosiers' credentials and their many narrow escapes vs. modest (if not mediocre) opposition, expected mighty Purdue to end the dream in Bloomington with a thud, as Minnesota had done the previous week.
Yet those Hoosiers had another miracle up their sleeves. Wouldn’t you know that the Boilermakers would endure the kind of day that teams did against IU that autumn. Superstar RB Keyes dropped some passes, one in the clear on the Indiana five. Purdue committed uncharacteristic mistakes and turned the ball over. IU’s opportunistic team, which had been merrily turning its own mistakes into unexpected victories all season, picked up the scent early.
The big plays started to happen late in the first quarter. With the Boilermakers overly concerned about Indiana’s speed to the outside, star RB Terry Cole ripped through the middle for a 42-yard run to set up Gonso’s seven-yard touchdown pass to Butcher. After some more Purdue fumbling in the second quarter, Mike Krivoshia scored for IU from the two-yard line, and moments later Cole again burst through the Boilermaker middle for 63 yards and a third Indiana touchdown, as the Hoosiers built up a 19-7 halftime lead.
Still, no one in Bloomington expected an easy cruise in the second half, and after Phipps led a TD drive to cut the IU lead to 19-14, another grandstand finish awaited. Deep into the 4th Q, the Boilermakers marched again, but just as they were knocking on the Hoosier goal line, usually-reliable FB Perry Williams, who had scored twice, dropped the ball on the Indiana one. Hoosier S Mike Baughman recovered Williams’ fumble, and Purdue’s last serious threat had been repelled, though Phipps would move the Riveters inside of Indiana’s 30 in the final seconds as the game remained tense until its conclusion.
And with that, IU qualified for its first and only Rose Bowl to date!
By that point, the Hoosier miracle had advanced from a regional curiosity to a full-blown national storyline. The media and sporting public quickly embraced the rags-to-riches plot, although most realized the built-in credibility gap for fairy tales made it unlikely that Harry Gonso & Co. could actually beat O.J. Simpson and powerhouse, top-ranked Southern Cal in the Rose Bowl. Then again, in what had already been a wacky season, a series of results in the bowls could actually put IU in position to claim a share of the national title in the final AP poll, which in those days was the only one which saved its final tally for after the bowls (UPI’s version ended at the conclusion of the regular season).
Alas, the final chapter of the Hoosier miracle had been written in the regular-season finale vs. Purdue. Though, grimly, IU stayed within earshot of the Trojans on New Year’s Day at Pasadena. And Pont’s stunting-and-blitzing defense actually did a decent job corralling Simpson, as IU’s gang-tackling kept O.J.’s longest run to a mere 15 yards. But Gonso, under intense pressure all afternoon, could never manufacture the sort of big plays that had bailed the Hoosiers out on several occasions earlier in the season.
Still, IU ‘67 was not a fairy tale with an unhappy ending in Pasadena. Any success at the Rose Bowl would have simply been frosting on the cake. The real miracle of those Hoosiers was simply making it to Pasadena, and the wild ride through the regular season. Which is another reason why the memories of ’67 and that year’s renewal of the Old Oaken Bucket vs. Purdue continue to shine brightly in Bloomington.
And 50 years later, we’re still waiting for an Indiana encore in the Rose Bowl!
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