When Indiana opens its 2016 season Thursday night on the margins of the Everglades at FIU Stadium, it’ll be something of a new stage for Hoosier football. With a bowl bid and a market-value level extension for Kevin Wilson behind them, these are largely uncharted waters for an Indiana football team in the post-Mallory era. For the first time in over 20 years, a second step forward can be taken. A second bowl bid. A senior class that could graduate undefeated against Purdue. There’s real momentum building in Bloomington toward the future — without the pall of coaching uncertainty hanging overhead.
And had a Thursday night road opener gone a little differently, that corner-turned moment might have come fifteen years prior.
2001 was supposed to be one of those turning-point years for Indiana — just as the last couple were supposed to have been.
Or maybe, a 3-win 2000 season shouldn’t have signaled such optimism, and the fact that such optimism was extrapolated from ultimately disappointing campaign would go on to say more about the state of Indiana football at the time than anything else. But there were a host of close, one-possession, late fourth-quater losses and a win over a ranked Minnesota team, just enough social proof to cite if you wanted to believe next year was The Year.
And you wanted to believe that, because Indiana had two bona fide college football superstars — Antwaan Randle El and Levron Williams.
Around that time, I was just entering the formative age of a kid’s life where one has enough understanding of sports to formulate often-bad opinions, argue with friends, and grasp general concepts of formations, sets, and plays. Growing up within a half-hour of IU’s campus with alum parent, the choice for favorite team & sport seems predestined — Indiana basketball. But I found little exhilarating about some mean old dude with a boring offense and a penchant for first-round NCAA Tournament exits. Besides, everyone lived and died Indiana basketball. A contrarian shitheel at a young age, I needed to fall in love with a team and a sport that was cool and different.
I found these guys.
If Indiana is now the program known for stupid, electric, fun football in 2016, it can trace its lineage to Antwaan & Levron up to 18 years prior. A 5’10" real-life video-game controller playing quarterback carving up college defenses with his legs and arm was football cocaine -- and addition of the 6-foot-something Williams to the backfield as a junior in 2000 had taken the Fun up to a level I hadn’t ever experienced with sports at the time. Reminder: that team won 3 damn games.
Glaring, obvious defensive problems be damned, 2001 was the year Indiana was gonna Do It. And it would all start on an early September Thursday night in Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Though the opportunities aren’t as numerous as they are 15 years later, the expectation was for Indiana to head to a bowl game in Cam Cameron’s fourth season in Bloomington. Well, that’s if an Indiana football team can be expected to head to a bowl game. But with a Heisman candidate in Randle El and All-Big Ten level runner to compliment him, it certainly wasn’t out of the cards.
But the first game of the 2001 season would be the start of a new experiment of Cameron’s: Randle El wouldn’t play quarterback.
A somewhat-prized recruit in his own right, Tommy Jones had spent two seasons of his Indiana career pinned behind Antwaan on the depth chart — and had often floated the possibility the two might see the field at the same time under a "get the best players on the field" mantra. Most of the links you’ll find to direct you to any sort of Indiana football season preview won’t lead you anywhere, but the move wasn’t seen as too much of a risk by talking heads. Randle El’s future in the NFL isn’t at quarterback, Jones is a capable passer, this makes sense, Indiana might be good! A lone Mel Kiper post on ESPN.com remains as a leftover from the post-Y2K era, and gives a taste of the sentiment surrounding the choice to move Randle El to wideout and place Jones under center.
Once again, the offense will be explosive, although just how lethal depends upon how smoothly they adapt to a new QB directing the offense. That's right, it won't be Randle El working his magic under center. Instead, he'll work initially at WR while also operating as the Hoosiers' primary punt returner. Taking over the reigns will be fourth-year junior Tommy Jones, a strong-armed 6-3, 240-pounder who enjoyed a brilliant prep career in Ohio. He's a classic drop-back type, impressing in the spring with his accuracy delivering the football. Look for Randle El to also see some situational action at QB, assuming that Jones is the answer as the full-time starter. If that's not the case, you would figure that Randle El's time at WR will come to an abrupt end.
While shifting a great college quarterback like Randle El to wide receiver is a gamble for Cameron and his staff, there are two key reasons why the decision is sound in my opinion. First of all, the Hoosiers will be looking to replace their top three wideouts from a year ago, Versie Gaddis, Jerry Dorsey and Derin Graham. They'll need Randle El to adapt quickly to the position change. The other reason the move makes so much sense has to do with Randle El's future in the NFL. Had he played QB this season, he still would have been projected to wide receiver in the NFL, as was the case with former Rice signal caller Bert Emanuel. Now, though, there won't be a mystery as to how Randle El will transition to the new spot. He'll already have one full season at IU, plus the all-star games to showcase his skills as a pure wideout and punt returner.
It was the perfect plan to break Indiana’s 7-year bowl drought. With expectations riding high, Jones, Randle El, and Williams ventured into Carter-Finley for a showdown with Phillip Rivers’ NC State team with the national spotlight shining down. ESPN picked the matchup to be the Thursday night season-opener that year, and it was the perfect spotlight for Randle El to jump start his Heisman campaign, and for Cameron’s Hoosiers to avenge a field-goal loss in Memorial Stadium from the season prior.
It never materialized.
Rivers carved Indiana’s weak defense to the tune of three first half touchdowns — and Indiana couldn’t keep up with Jones under center. The AP game story, which is about the only article you’ll information anywhere on the game as if Cam Cameron himself has scrubbed the web clean, called Randle El "virtually useless" because of Jones’ inability under-center. Indiana lost 35-14 and Jones never started again for the Hoosiers in the 2001 season -- and Cameron’s vaunted offense struggling on national TV after such a controversial decision cost him a good deal of goodwill with fans. But ultimately, it was an typical, unremarkable Indiana football loss to a team that was probably better.
Of course, only 10 years old at the time, unrelenting Indiana football optimism raged on unabashed. My primary focus the next Monday at school wasn’t math or english or whatever I was supposed to learn and clearly did not in 5th grade. It was whether Jones or Randle El would take the snaps from center that Saturday against Kentucky. There was a season to salvage, corners were to be turned, Heismans were to be won, and, in the calculus of a 10-year-old, Antwaan Randle El needed to play quarterback, goddamnit.
That Monday was September 10, 2001.
It’s hard to write about sport in the immediacy after 9/11 — any discussion of a team’s on-field troubles and adversities seems inadequate and meaningless in comparison. It’s the most traumatic event most of the American adult population has lived through today, and there were and still are a number of stages and ways to comprehend the tragedy. Grief, shock, the gripping, terrifying fear to congregate in public places — all more than acceptable ways to react to the crisis. Football was rightfully pushed to a far back-burner for most Americans that fall — especially in the immediacy following that week.
As the SEC pressed ahead with games, Indiana and Kentucky went back and forth on whether or not to play that next weekend. Jones was one of the Indiana players that spoke out against playing the border rival the following Saturday.
"Honestly, I don't think (we should play). It's up to (others) to decide that, but in my view, some kids went home yesterday without parents. They had siblings that they have no longer. We're trying to focus in on football and keep our heads around here but, honestly, it's hard ... (because) nobody's heart or head is in the game right now. We just want to pray for the people who are having these difficulties in life right now. If we play, we'll go out there and play the best we can. But, in my opinion, we probably shouldn't be playing Saturday."
After enough pressure, the game was moved to December -- something viewed today as universally the right move. Indiana returned to the field the next week against Utah, as the country attempted to get back to normalcy. Jones lost his starting job to the team’s best player — a job he’d only get back the next season for 7 games to lose again to Gibran Hamdan as a senior. The NC State opportunity would come to be the peak of the prized recruit’s quarterbacking career.
The offense regained steam in a close loss to the Utes, and stumbled to 0-3 the next week after losing to Ohio State. Then, things suddenly turned around. Indiana closed the year winning 5 of their final 8 games, including the Old Oaken Bucket against Purdue. Antwaan and Levron looked like Antwaan and Levron again — putting together their best season as a duo to date. Randle El won the Big Ten MVP and finished 6th in Heisman voting, despite his team going 5-6. Williams ran for over 1,400 yards and was a First-Team All-Big Ten selection.
Indiana still ended up a game short of a bowl.
As for that game, it’s a question that still floats through my mind today.
What happens if Antwaan starts that game in Raleigh?
Maybe not much looks different for Indiana if 11 walks out onto that field first in Carter-Finley on that Thursday night. But it’s certainly an interesting thought.
If Antwaan starts, and Indiana wins that game — that’s a bowl game. From there, the cavalcade of what-ifs begin. Would 6-5 have gotten him the Heisman? Or then, maybe we beat Utah? Indiana’s bowl-missing streak ends at 7 seasons, rather than 16. Entire age groups of kids don’t remember Indiana as a football laughing-stock. Maybe there’s no Gerry DiNardo era? Maybe Cam Cameron’s still here today — after leading his alma mater to bowl game after bowl game over the last 15 seasons.
Or, maybe, nothing’s different at all.
Indiana’s already turned a corner that Cameron’s program never had in 2016. But 15 years later, the season opener still evokes memories of What Could’ve Been on a Thursday night in Raleigh so many years ago.