Football and poetry have few things in common.
The brutish and violent sport presents too easy of a contrast with harmonic sequences created by Homer and Shakespeare.
But, beneath the surface, there lies a wealth of parallels.
Look no further than Welton Academy, the fictional prep school from “Dead Poets Society,” for a source of inspiration ahead of Saturday’s matchup between IU and No. 24 Michigan State.
IU Coach Tom Allen and John Keating, an English teacher played in the film by Robin Williams, both returned to their spiritual homes looking to change the culture.
Allen returned to the state of Indiana in 2016 to help turn IU’s defense from a liability into a strength, which he has done, all while being thrust into the role of head coach. Keating, a Welton Academy alumnus, came back to change the way students studied the English language, altering their outlook on life.
In his first class of the semester, Keating introduces his students to the concept of carpe diem, a Latin aphorism usually translated as “seize the day.” He connects this sentiment to former students at Welton, who he says believed they were destined for great things while at the school.
Keating then leans in behind the group of current students, and with a low, raspy voice reminiscent of Allen during a postgame press conference, utters the central theme of the film.
“Carpe diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.”
So often during the last 96 years, the Hoosiers have failed to seize the day against the Spartans on the gridiron.
IU is 16-46-2 all-time against Michigan State. Of those 16 wins by the Hoosiers, only three have come since 1995. History won’t be with IU at Memorial Stadium on Saturday night as the teams meet again to determine who gets the Old Brass Spittoon.
But just as Keating instructed his students to rip out the introduction section of a poetry textbook, Allen should implore his players to rip from their memory past conceptions about what happens when IU plays Michigan State.
“I want it gone. History. To leave nothing of it,” Keating requests as bewildered students slowly begin to fill the room with the sound of tearing paper. “Make a clean tear. I want nothing left of it.”
Now, it wouldn’t take much convincing by Allen to get the Hoosiers to wipe their history against the Spartans from their minds. IU has lost to Michigan State in all ways and manners — from last year’s 17-9 road defeat in which IU led a ranked Michigan State team late in the fourth quarter, to the 10 double-digit victories the Spartans have recorded against the Hoosiers since 2002.
One could give forgive Hoosier fans for being rightfully pessimistic about IU’s 3-0 record with conference play starting Saturday.
IU hasn’t gone .500 or better during its Big Ten schedule since 2001.
But, regardless of what might befall the Hoosiers later this season, it shouldn’t affect the game against Michigan State — a game IU has every chance in the world to win.
Cue Keating’s advice to IU football fans.
“Just when you think you know something, you have to look at it in another way,” he said while his students took turns standing atop his desk. “Even though it may seem silly, or wrong, you must try.”
The Spartans began their season with a lackluster victory at home against Utah State before losing at Arizona State. Michigan State’s rushing attack was particularly bad against Arizona State, producing just 63 yards as star senior running back LJ Scott left with a leg injury.
From the Spartan offensive line not blocking effectively to junior quarterback Brian Lewerke scrambling less out of the pocket, it appears the young Hoosier defense will be able to hold its own against the Michigan State ground game.
Perhaps more significant, though, than IU’s individual on-field assignments is the mental ability of the Hoosiers to close out games.
The examples come via late-game blown leads like last year’s Michigan State contest, or when the Hoosiers push ranked Big Ten opponents into overtime at home, only to lose in agonizing circumstances.
It’s the same concept Keating proposes through Walt Whitman’s poem “O Me! O Life!”
“O me! O life! Of the questions of these recurring,” Keating reads out to an assembled circle of students. “Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish. What good amid these, O me, O life?”
Keating stops short of reciting the entire poem, but Whitman’s prose might as well have been written from Section 19 of Memorial Stadium, following another close IU conference loss on a chilly October day.
“Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,” the poem continues. “Of the empty and useless years of the rest.”
For his part, Allen knows this. He knows what the next step is for his Hoosier program.
“Win Big Ten games, period,” Allen said. “That’s what’s next. We got to win Big Ten games. One at a time.”
By doing just that, winning conference games, everything would change for IU.
Bowl games would become consistent occurrences rather than once-in-a-blue-moon gifts. Recruiting against bigger, brand-name Big Ten programs would become just a bit easier. Getting fans to file into Memorial Stadium would be a dependable event, not something that only happens when a ranked opponent comes to town.
Not all of it would be solved with a victory against the Spartans. In fact, very little, if any, of it would.
But it would be a step toward progress for IU, and the reason Allen, like Keating, returned home: To change the culture.
With the students still standing around him in a circle, Keating reaches the end of Whitman’s poem.
“That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.”
Keating then adds a question of his own.
“What will your verse be?”
The same question awaits the Hoosiers on Saturday night.
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