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Bleeding blue


Former IU football player Jim McDonald holds his blue IU hat Oct. 17 outside Memorial Stadium. The hat, which is monogramed with “The Dickens Boys” on the side, calls back to the blue jerseys then-IU coach Phil Dickens had the team wear during the 1958 and 1959 seasons. Matt Begala

Members of the 1958 IU football team stood on the field of Memorial Stadium on Sept. 15. 

On their heads sat powder blue hats that mirrored the jerseys former IU Coach Phil Dickens had his 1958 team wear in hopes of turning the program’s fortunes around. 

Coming off an 18-0 loss at Notre Dame to start the season, the Hoosiers ran out to face West Virginia wearing those blue jerseys rather than the usual cream and crimson. Players were confused after the jersey box was opened, but they went ahead with the concept.

“I think it was a boost,” former player Tom Kendrick said. “My impression was, we’re a different team. We were whoever we wanted to be.”  

Former IU football players Tom Kendrick, left, and Jim McDonald, right, stand at Miller Plaza on Oct. 17 outside Memorial Stadium. They were part of the 1958 and 1959 seasons under then IU Coach Phil Dickens, who had the team wear blue jerseys during those seasons in hopes of building a new culture. Kendrick, McDonald and other players from those seasons still wear blue IU hats to honor the team.  Matt Begala

Fans were surprised as well, but after years of struggles the "Dickens Boys" closed out the season with an overall record of 5-3-1 and 3-2-1 in the Big Ten.

The style of play was different then, so many of the final scores were in the single digits with IU barely sneaking by. That small advantage could have came from the spirit of the jerseys.

“It made a difference,” Kendrick said. “Who knows by how much, but we were winning games by one point, so maybe it made enough of a difference to put us over the edge.”

Former IU football player Tom Kendrick talks Oct. 17 about playing football during the 1958 and 1959 seasons outside Memorial Stadium. Kendrick played as a quarterback during the 1958 season under then-IU Coach Phil Dickens. Matt Begala

Sixty years later, those hats resembled the blue-collar nature of many of the players. It resembled the confidence and unique personality of Dickens. 

It resembled the bond that kept the team together even after 60 years passed — years that included wars, marriage, grandchildren and funerals of former teammates and coaches.

“One of our teammates, in his final months of suffering various ailments before turning fatal, wore his blue hat every day, all day long,” Kendrick said in a letter to the Indiana Daily Student. “So, you see, the hats and what they symbolize, are still important to us.”

The bond is something even fans and members of the Indiana University Alumni Association who were not around for the Dickens era still notice.

“It’s a good implication of what makes these guys special, because they were able to do something so unique like that,” Director of the I Association Brian Brase said. 

Dickens came to IU in 1957 after spending time at the University of Wyoming, but he could not coach IU until 1958 due to recruiting violations. 

He was forced to coach in an era that had rules limiting how many substitutions could be made in a game. As a result, players were forced to play all three aspects. 

Kendrick often found himself playing quarterback, tailback, kicker and various positions on defense. 

Freshmen were not allowed to play in their first season, but they spent most of their time at practice playing against the regular starters. 

That did not stop Dickens from being tough on his team.

In 1959, members of the team approached captain Ted Smith asking him to convince an assistant coach to take it easier on the them. Smith approached Dickens about the issues, in which Dickens said he would take care of the issue himself.

Dickens went to the assistant and told him to push the team even harder. 

“He had a soft side, but he got things done,” Smith said.

After the final home game of the 1958 season, IU traveled to Michigan for the first of two road games to close out the season. 

The Hoosiers had only beaten the Wolverines once since 1946. Michigan wore its home navy blue uniforms, which meant IU could not wear its powder blues.

The Hoosiers still wore blue shirts underneath their white jerseys, and the football gods seemed to be on their side. 

“He went out and got some cheaply dyed blue T-shirts to wear under our pads,” former player Jim McDonald said. “With the sweat coming through on the white jerseys — in fact there was even a little rain — these blotches of light blue came out all over the jerseys. And we won.”

Former IU football player Jim McDonald smiles while talking with former teammate Tom Kendrick on Oct. 17 outside Memorial Stadium.  Matt Begala

Following the game, then-IU President Herman B Wells was presented with the game ball that he had sitting in his office for many years afterward.

“It was a great victory, one that will ever be a shining page in our athletic history,” Wells said in a letter to Smith. “I thank you and am grateful to you and your colleagues for remembering me.”

The win over Michigan marked the fourth straight win against a school whose name started with the letter ‘M’ — Miami, Minnesota, Michigan State and Michigan — which lead to the IDS running a headline reading “Beat Murdue” before the final game.

The game ended in a 15-15 tie, but the spirit of the Dickens Boys stayed just as strong. 

And those spirits remain high as the current IU football team wraps up its season in hopes of reaching a bowl game.

“Our best wishes go to the current team who have been playing as a team that does the right things,” Kendrick said in his letter. “We think they will continue to do well. We doff our blue hats to them.”

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