IU football head coach Tom Allen has never been shy about his ambitions for his team.
From the moment he became head coach in December 2016, he set a goal for the program to win the Big Ten Championship, an accomplishment the team hasn’t achieved since 1967.
The 54 years since winning the Big Ten have been barren for IU football. The 80 years before then weren’t much better. No team in the history of college football has lost more games than the Hoosiers have.
IU has only won the Big Ten twice and appeared in the Rose Bowl once, the fewest appearances of any team to join the conference prior to 2011.
54 years after the Hoosiers’ last conference title, Tom Allen’s current group is looking to do things they haven't done since the 1967 squad pulled off the unthinkable.
IU won just one game in 1966. It finished the season 1-8-1, good for the worst record in the conference. The year featured a 35-0 loss at the University of Texas and a 51-6 defeat at the hands of rival Purdue. The previous season in 1965, the team won twice.
“I can remember sitting at halftime, sitting next to my
good friend and roomm
ate Bob Russell, we were sitting in Ross-Ade Stadium, and we were getting hammered,” Gary Cassells, 1967 first team All-American offensive guard at IU, said. “I leaned over to Bob and
said, ‘If you leave now I'll go with you.’ It was horrible.”
Going into 1967, everyone knew something had to change.
“We changed our offense and we changed our defense around, we took off weight and went to more of an Alabama style of defense,” 1967 All-American linebacker Ken Kaczmarek said. “We had quick linebackers and we used our speed on defense to contain people and pretty much attack offenses rather than let them come to us.”
While the coaches changed the team’s playbook, the team’s senior players changed the approach to training.
“The next season starts off with seniors thinking, ‘Let's do it the right way. We've done it the wrong way. Let's really work hard. Let's stick to the training rules, you know and do everything the right way,’” Cassells said. “And everybody did. The first game came, and then things got better after that.”
In 1967, the Hoosiers went from last to first in the Big Ten, making history and beating the top competition along the way. In his third season, head coach John Pont was named the National Coach of the Year.
The dramatic turnaround was surprising, but everyone in the locker room knew how special the team was.
“Our season, we kind of came out of nowhere,” Cassells said. “That's the thing — we surprised everybody. To a certain extent, I think even ourselves.”
The 1967 Hoosiers started the season 8-0 before losing on the road to Minnesota. When the team got back to Bloomington, they were amazed by the crowd waiting for them.
“On our way back from Minnesota, we were on the buses coming back from the airport, and you could see people along the way honking,” 1967 IU wide receiver Eric Stolberg said. “We pulled into the parking lot where Assembly Hall is now, and there were thousands of people there to greet us.”
Stolberg said the team held a pep rally, where Pont told the team he knew they would beat Purdue. With the intense support of their fans, the Hoosiers readied for their biggest game of the season against the No. 3 ranked Boilermakers.
Not only were bragging rights and the Old Oaken Bucket on the line, a shot at a conference championship and a spot in the Rose Bowl game were too. What followed was one of the most important wins in the history of IU football.
“I was scared to death until the last minute because they were still driving and they had a great quarterback and a great team,” Stolberg said. “When that gun finally went off, it was such a relief. It was an amazing moment, and the fans went nuts.”
The Hoosiers beat their rival 19-14. IU was voted into the Rose Bowl game where they would face star running back OJ Simpson and the top-ranked University of Southern California. While the Hoosiers would ultimately lose the game 14-3, the memories of Pasadena have stood the test of time.
“I remember coming onto the field and looking at it and I was just awed by its size,” Stolberg said. “I mean, it’s the most beautiful stadium I have ever been in. You've got the mountains and the blue sky and 108,000 people in there. You had the colors, I remember the IU logo and the Southern Cal logo. It was mind boggling.”
Players from the 1967 see the same bond they made with teammates in today’s Hoosiers.
“We were a very close team, and we got closer and closer as the season went on, because obviously, with more and more games being won, there was more and more pressure,” Stolberg said. “We had a lot of trust in each other, and I also see that in Tom Allen’s team. These players — they trust each other.”
The similarities between the teams run deeper.
“I got to know Allen a little bit, and it’s just his passion and his enthusiasm, you know,” Kaczmarek said. “He’s like our coaching staff. They were young, they were enthusiastic. I think he's built a very good coaching staff.”
Doug Crusan, a team captain and All-American offensive tackle, said Allen has his team engaged the same way the 1967 team was.
“The hardest thing is mental, and he has got the mental and psychological part of it in place,” Crusan said. “It’s that head part, and he is really good at that.”
While this group of Hoosiers is looking to accomplish another historic feat, the 1967 players are just as ready for the drought to end and confident in the current group’s ability to make it happen.
“This is the year. They have worked so hard to get to this point,” Crusan said. “They’ve got a tough schedule, but I’d like to see it be very, very successful for them.”