Win Or Lose, Indiana Football Has Conquered Decades Of Futility

“Dude, take that sh*t down. Now!”

I had only known Dave, my (pseudonymous) freshman roommate at Indiana University, for about 20 minutes, but he was already pissed at me. Apparently, a stranger wearing a backwards, upside-down visor, plastering Patrick Ewing posters all over the walls while blasting blink-182 in a 120-square foot dorm room wasn’t a trigger, but hanging a “Notre Dame 1988 National Champions” felt banner was a total outrage. Our first ever verbal exchange after meeting continued:

Me: “But … I like Notre Dame.”
Dave: “You go to IU. IU has a football team.”
Me: “Uh, they do, but-”
Dave: “So, take that sh*t down.”

Why was Dave getting all defensive? Indiana football was terrible. I’d play with them in Dynasty mode on NCAA Football ’98 for PlayStation just because it made the game that much more challenging. Sure, I rooted for IU’s basketball team, because my parents were both IU alums and everyone that went to IU rooted for IU basketball. But they grew up in South Bend, so my family watched and rooted for Notre Dame’s football team.

Big deal, right? (I would later come to realize how apoplectic people in this state got over the IU hoops/ND football fan thing, but that’s another story.) I didn’t see what his issue was. “Does this guy actually like IU football?”, I asked myself. “Do IU football fans… exist?”

Like many others at the tender age of 18 at Wright Quad in Bloomington, I experienced a first: I had just met my first actual Indiana University football fan.

Twenty years and 17 losing seasons since, I’ve met a few others, and like Dave, who numbed the pain of IU football fandom with a daily combination of marijuana and Counter-Strike, the true die-hards are an interesting breed. They’ve put up with a lot of losing, sure, but it’s not just the constant losing—it’s losing constantly in the most hilarious, heart-breaking, and improbable fashion possible.

Kyle Robbins, former mastermind of the IU fan site and the inventor of #9WINDIANA, turned to the East for a metaphor that explains the IU football fan experience.

“There is a bizarre internet video where China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency is reporting on something called ‘Iron Crotch Kung Fu’”, Robbins said. “It’s a video of a man letting a giant iron pendulum ram him in the crotch again, and again and again. The entire scene is predictable and inevitable all at once. The pendulum swings forth, back, there’s an impact into a shirtless man’s reproductive quarters, he lets out some sort of a guttural noise, pain receptors spark, it repeats. That’s Indiana football fandom.”

How does one explain a crotch-ramming pendulum feeling over and over again? It’s Indiana blowing a 22-9 lead to Tennessee, and along with it the chance to end the nation’s longest bowl win drought, in the final five minutes of last season’s Gator Bowl. It’s the Hoosiers giving up 30 unanswered points, thanks to three fourth-quarter turnovers, in an embarrassing, 55-52 Homecoming defeat to Rutger(s) in 2015. It’s allowing Duke in 2015 to win their first bowl game in more than 50 years, after IU missed a field goal in overtime that was actually good (I was sitting in the Yankee Stadium seats, behind the goalposts).  

It’s Nate Sudfeld’s disastrous pass-turned-backwards-lateral behind Tevin Coleman that cost IU a victory over Minnesota and bowl-eligibility in 2013.  It’s a dubious interception by Michigan’s Donovan Warren—to this day, it still looks like a simultaneous possession—that nuked Indiana’s crucial drive in Ann Arbor in 2009, causing the normally reserved Bill Lynch to have an epic, gum-throwing meltdown on the sideline.

“Being a fan of Indiana football requires so much more than just being here for the wins,” said IU’s most prominent internet personality and the unofficial mayor of Bloomington, the Twitter-pseudonymous Chronic Hoosier.

“You’ve got to be in it for all the other reasons. You’ve got to love tailgating. You have to be invested in the rites and traditions surrounding the experience, while knowing full well it’s likely going to end in pain &/or emotional trauma. It takes so many more things to fill the places in your soul where the winning normally goes.”  

Being a fan of a sports team where you can’t allow yourself to become emotionally invested in what happens on the field or court may sound strange, but it makes sense for a program like Indiana. The Hoosiers hold the record for the most losses in FBS history (684) and the nation’s longest current bowl drought (29 years without a victory). They’ve been the gold standard for futility. Even other historical lightweights like Kansas (12-win Orange Bowl champions in 2007), Duke (three straight bowl wins), Vanderbilt (back-to-back nine-win seasons in 2012-13), Northwestern (reigning Big Ten West champs, 12 bowl berths since 2000), and Rutgers (eight winning seasons since 2005) have enjoyed some semblance of recent success.

“It’s hell,” Robbins continued. “But it’s my hell, and it’s a fun hell. Plus there are worse things than hell. Like the [Gerry] DiNardo era.”

Luckily, Kyle, Chronic, and other IU football fans have been spared such pain this season. Instead of setting new lows and raking up dubious distinctions, IU football is reaching historic highs.  The Hoosiers are currently ranked inside the top ten for the first time since 1967. They’re 4-0 for the first time since 1987—the same year as their last win against Michigan, who they defeated last month to snap a string of 24 consecutive losses in the series.

And while we’re on the topic of losing streaks, Indiana’s win over a now-disintegrating Penn State team in the season opener busted a 42-game skid against top ten-ranked opponents. In fact, we may look back on that victory, and Michael Penix’s thrilling-yet-questionable two-point conversion that sealed the deal, as the moment that signified this team’s reversal of fortune, more than 100 years in the making.

“When Indiana led by ten late in the 3rd quarter—you could see the light at the end of the tunnel, except you knew it was a train,” said Garrison Carr, a Hoosier football season-ticket holder who, miraculously, isn’t an Indiana grad—improbably, he roots for IU by choice.

“It’s happened like that time and time and time again. Then, as Tom Allen said afterwards, they decided they were sick and tired of being close, something everyone who cheers for IU can relate to… That game was the epitome of the IU football experience, right up until it wasn’t. That they finally wrote a different ending was one of the biggest sports joys of my life.”

On Saturday, Indiana will play the biggest game in its modern history: the top-ten matchup in Columbus against No. 3 Ohio State, the Big Ten’s unstoppable Death Star. Indiana is a gigantic, 20-plus point underdog, but even if the Hoosiers lose they’ll still be on track for perhaps the program’s best season in a half-century. No onside kick recovery failure, simultaneous possession interception, or incompetent Big Ten officiating crew can take away what they’ve done so far this season.

Regardless of Saturday’s result, it appears, as Robbins might say, that the pendulum may finally be leaving Indiana football fans’ crotches alone.