Never before had IU signed a football recruiting class ranked in the top 50 nationally.
For a program mired in mediocrity — the Hoosiers have the second most losses out of any Division I program in NCAA history — why would the nation’s best high school players want to come to Bloomington? Why consider IU?
In years past, they didn’t. The Hoosiers had only one four-star recruit sign a letter of intent in the past decade.
Despite all that, IU Coach Kevin Wilson and his staff struck a chord with some high-caliber prospects this season. Four four-star recruits signed with the Hoosiers on Wednesday, including three ranked among the top 250 players in the country.
Yet, IU has won a combined five games in Wilson’s two seasons. The mediocrity on the field has hardly changed. But the Hoosiers wrangled the No. 42 recruiting class in the nation — their most talented class since scouting services such as Rivals started ranking players.
Why did recruits with scholarship offers from programs including Florida State, Florida, Auburn and Notre Dame decide to come to a school that prides itself on basketball?
They believed in what could be, although it did not yet exist.
From a coach’s standpoint, recruiting never comes easy, as dozens of other colleges compete for the commitment of one athlete.
It can take years of dedication and bonding from a coach before a recruit decides to pledge to a school. Recruiting also requires a good pitch.
After a 1-11 record in 2011, the program’s worst season since 1984, Wilson and his coaching staff had to find something to convince this group of prospects that Indiana was on the rise.
It took some time. IU was one of the final two Bowl Championship Series level schools not to earn a commitment in the 2013 class. Sharing the honor with Oregon State, the Hoosiers had to wait past early June for the first player to decide to play his collegiate football in Bloomington.
On June 11, 2012, Fort Waynes’s Homestead High School’s wide receiver Isaac Griffith became the first athlete to commit to play for IU starting fall 2013.
IU started recruiting Griffith when he was a freshman in high school, a time when Bill Lynch was still the Hoosiers’ football coach.
When Lynch was fired in 2010 and Wilson took over, the new coach continued to pursue Griffith.
Despite other schools recruiting him, such as Illinois, Michigan State and Wisconsin, Griffith, a three-star prospect, said IU was always the most honest with him.
As the son of Manchester University Head Football Coach Shannon Griffith, Isaac said his trust in a program would be the deciding factor in his college decision. In Wilson’s staff, he sensed a group that would never lie to him.
On June 10, 2012, after attending a summer camp in Bloomington the prior weekend, the Hoosiers offered a scholarship.
Only a day later, Griffith committed to play college football in his home state at IU.
“I bonded well with the coaches, but I also bonded well with the players,” he said. “That really helped out with my decision. It’s a big family down there, and that was the main thing I was looking for in a team.”
At the time of Griffith’s decision, Wilson was pursuing other in-state prospects committed elsewhere. Ben Davis safety Antonio Allen was an Ole Miss pledge, and Pike defensive end David Kenney was committed to Iowa.
North Central High School defensive tackle Darius Latham chose Wisconsin only a month after Griffith picked the Hoosiers.
All three were rated as four-star recruits by Rivals.com.
During talks with Wilson soon after his commitment, Griffith was told to assist in the recruiting effort by persuading them to stay in Indiana. Getting them to switch to a school that has not made a bowl game since 2007 proved to be a challenge.
“I went to the same camp as Antonio, and we started talking,” Griffith said. “I said, ‘We need you guys to stay in-state with us, so that way we can build something that’s never been done before.
"I didn’t know if it would work, but I believed in Coach Wilson’s message.”
In the month following IU’s first commitment, three other recruits made the choice to join the Hoosiers: tight end Evan Jansen of Cincinnati, defensive end Patrick Dougherty of Aurora, Ohio, and tight end Danny Friend of Morris, Ill.
Allen, Latham and Kenney remained committed elsewhere. A decisive domino had yet to fall. That catalyst occurred Aug. 1, 2012, when Allen decommitted from Ole Miss.
Ranked as the 231st-best player in the country, Allen had other offers from Michigan State, Louisville, Cincinnati, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Minnesota and Purdue. But when he decided where he would be attending college eight days later, one recruiting pitch stood out.
He made his commitment to IU on Aug. 9, 2012, and became the highest rated athlete to ever sign with the Hoosiers.
“They never stopped recruiting me, even when I was committed to Ole Miss, and that meant a lot,” Allen said. “Also, with my family, I chose Indiana so they could go to all my games.”
Just three days later, Brownsburg High School athlete Chase Dutra committed to IU and became the third in-state prospect to join the Hoosiers’ recruiting class.
The trio of Dutra, Allen and Griffith then shifted its collective effort to switch Kenney and Latham to the Hoosiers. Griffith and Dutra took to social media, aiming to create needed buzz for IU football.
Both started mentioning Latham and Kenney in their tweets. Fans caught on and did the same, although fans are not allowed to influence recruits per NCAA regulations. Soon after, a movement was started to get the Indiana prospects to play their college football at home.
All the while, Dutra and Griffith befriended Kenney, attending games with him and persuading him to change his commitment to the Hoosiers. Kenney, Latham and Allen were all friends prior to their senior year of high school.
Even though IU did not have much on-field success, choosing to play for the Hoosiers became an honorable choice.
“We said we wanted to be the class that turned IU around,” Dutra said. “We wanted all the top talent to be at the same school and have us be the ones who changed it around.”
On Oct. 14, Kenney announced he would no longer attend Iowa. Less than 24 hours later, Latham decommitted from Wisconsin.
One week after he left Iowa’s recruiting class, Kenney committed to IU. He became the second four-star recruit in the Hoosiers’ class, ranked as the No. 244 prospect in the nation.
As in-state recruits made the move to IU, out-of-state prospects took notice. On Oct. 24, four-star athlete Rashard Fant from Fairburn, Ga., committed to IU instead of Florida State.
His reasoning in choosing IU over a program like FSU, a school that is closer to home and far more successful in football, was simple.
“I wanted to go somewhere where I could build a program, get a great education and make a difference,” Fant said. “I wanted to help a school not known for football and put the name on the map.”
One month after Fant committed, Latham made the decision to join the Hoosiers’ recruiting class.
Since then, nine other players have chosen IU, including Georgia high school teammates Noel Padmore and Kristopher Smith.
Other recruits have joined Griffith and Dutra in enhancing the social media presence of IU football. Fant even said he is going to be playing with his “brothers” in Bloomington.
On Wednesday, the 22 prospects made their pledge to IU official as each signed a National Letter of Intent, a binding document that notifies the NCAA they have accepted a scholarship offer to play for the Hoosiers.
Wilson has said that IU “is too good of a school to not have a good football team.”
Now, he and his staff have made the highest ranked recruiting class in program history official.
For the players committed to play for IU starting fall 2013, the fact that the Hoosiers are 5-19 in the past two seasons doesn’t matter. They said this class is geared toward changing the tide of Indiana football, from one of failure to one of success.
“With them, we want to be a part of something that has never been done before,” Griffith said. “We want to be the ones that put the home team back on the map.
"We saw that vision that Coach Wilson saw, and are ready to be a part of something special.”