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Posted on Tue. Nov. 20, 2012 - 12:01 am EDT

Feelin’ like 1953 with Hoosiers, Irish atop polls

So this is what 1953 looked like.

TV dinners. I Like Ike. A Caddy with big honkin’ tail fins in every garage, and Nikita Khrushchev under every bed.

Oh, yes: And bookend No. 1s in the home office for No. 1, the state of Indiana.

Down in Bloomington, IU was toasting Branch McCracken and hanging another NCAA basketball banner in the basketball state. Up in South Bend, Notre Dame was getting Frank Leahy for one last season and finding its accustomed seat – look, their name’s on it and everything – as America’s No. 1 college football team.

And today?

Well, this is as close to ’53 as we’re gonna get, or perhaps ’53 was as close to this. In Bloomington, Indiana’s basketball team is No. 1 again. In South Bend, Notre Dame’s football team is, too, after the Irish smacked around Wake Forest on Saturday and Kansas State and Oregon tripped over cracks in the sidewalk. That hasn’t happened in the same autumn since ’53 – and even in ’53, it wasn’t simultaneous.

That year, the basketball preseason poll confirming IU as No.1 didn’t come out until early December. By that time, Leahy’s boys were no longer No. 1; on the last weekend of November, the top-ranked Irish tied Iowa 14-14 and dropped to second.

So the symmetry is not quite exact. Not that there isn’t some symmetry at work here.

To the south, it has been 19 winters since Indiana basketball was at the top of the charts, a season of discontent that began with the slow unraveling of the final Bob Knight years and didn’t end until the hiring of Tom Crean restored the program’s moral compass. And now the Hoosiers are back, clearly and definitively so, and frankly college basketball is a better place for it.

And to the north and west?

Same deal. As with Indiana, it has been 19 years since the Irish were No. 1, and college football is better for that, too. You can wring a lot of scenery chewing from Bob Davie going 35-25 and Tyrone Willingham going 21-15 and Charlie Weis going 35-27, but sooner or later somebody’s gotta go 11-0 for all that drama to have context.

No one ever writes a syllable about the Fall of Notre Dame Football, after all, if Notre Dame Football doesn’t have anywhere to fall from. The same goes for Indiana basketball; without those five national championship banners swaying gently in Assembly Hall, there’s no particular significance that attaches to the Mike Davis years or the crash-and-burn of the program under Kelvin Sampson.

And, likewise, there’s no particular significance to Indiana going back No. 1 in hoops and Notre Dame going back there in football after all those years in the wilderness, either. Not that either Crean or Brian Kelly, deep inside the bubble of their respective seasons, will talk a lot about that.

“I think now, it’s just so much about the daily challenge of getting better. That to me is what the focus is,” Crean told Jim O’Connell of the Associated Press when the preseason poll came out.

And Kelly?

Hours after the Irish put Wake to sleep Saturday, he watched Kansas State go down and Oregon go down and knew immediately what that meant. And ultimately how little.

“It doesn’t mean much if we don’t prepare,” he said. “If we’re not prepared, we’re not going to win.”

Which is how, one end of Indiana or the other, you get back to where you belong.


Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by email at bensmith@jg.net; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648.


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