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BLOOMINGTON -- Kevin Wilson rapidly twirls a whistle on its lanyard as if he's trimming invisible hedges. The Indiana football practice clock ticks way past the normal ending time, not that anyone can see the clock because Wilson guards it as closely as the Mad Men TV series finale script.
Players run sideline to practice field sideline, nearly 54 yards each way. Mellencamp Pavillion looms on one side, Memorial Stadium on the other. Clouds and the arrival of yet another polar vortex leave it cool and breezy, as if it is October rather than August. If ever there's a day to push beyond the norm, this is it.
Wilson considers that, plus the fact this is the day's only scheduled practice and, in his view, the team's lack of hard-hitting enthusiasm.
It's mid-way through preseason camp and time to test for toughness while delivering a get-after-it message best reinforced by discomfort. So the players run and run some more, not so grueling that it resembles the brutal sprint-skating scene in the hockey movie “Miracle,” but enough for one player to buckle to his knees at the end.
Wilson watches and twirls.
He likes this team. It's important to note that because, when he first arrived in Bloomington, that wasn't always the case, and, for some veterans from the Bill Lynch era, the feeling was mutual.
But four years later the lineup is loaded with players Wilson recruited, guys who fit his image of what a winner should be, with the talent to match. After seasons of 1-11, 4-8 and 5-7, after firing a well-respected defensive coordinator in the wake of last year's horrific numbers, turnaround time has arrived.
Wilson takes nothing for granted. There is potential to maximize, expectations to meet, victories to achieve, a grueling schedule to overcome. That won't happen just from we-are-family moments.
Sometimes, harder-core methods are necessary, so the Hoosiers run for the first time this camp, and Wilson watches and twirls. He is not the brute force Woody Hayes was in his feisty prime, but neither is he one to inspire hugs and getting in touch with one's gentler side.
“I'd like to see us play faster and be a little more physical at every position,” he says.
He turns the sprints into a football game, with first and second halfs, then makes players a deal that if everyone makes a designated time, the running is over.
And so the players do.
“We're in shape,” Wilson says. “We've gotten stronger, but as we go through this, it's about getting in the right frame of mind. I'd like to see it better. I'm not disappointed, but we took advantage to have a long go.”
Wilson has moved into Memorial Stadium's state-of-the-art weight training facility. If this still isn't the nation's largest college weight room, it's right near the top, and perhaps the best example of the university's commitment to football excellence. Practice is over and Wilson's whistle is out of sight, although you sense he's twirling it in his mind.
“I didn't think we hit hard. That's why we did a bunch of running.”
Wilson is dryly funny, although it's often cloaked in sarcasm and sprinkled with message.
“They ran and made all their times and looked good running,” he says with a smirk, “but I'd rather us hit better and run less.”
Wilson was hired after a ridiculously impressive stretch as Oklahoma offensive coordinator to turn Indiana into a consistent winner. That hasn't happened since Bill Mallory's coach-to-glory run stumbled to a halt in the mid-1990s.
The offense has become one of the Big Ten's best (quarterback Nate Sudfeld is a candidate for the Manning Award given annually to the nation's best quarterback), while the defense remains an unwanted anchor, although that seems poised to change with experience, more talent and a new defensive approach emphasizing “controlled chaos.”
But that must be proven. For now, two weeks until the Aug. 30 season opener against Indiana State, there's mindset to establish, toughness to build.
“During the moment it (stinks),” cornerback Kenny Mullen says about the extra conditioning. “It was a long practice and a lot of conditioning after, but we know to be in those fourth-quarter games we're going to have, we need to push through that. All the tough scenarios at the end of practice is so we can persevere in those tough fourth quarters.”
And so Wilson pushes and praises, striving to build an edge his players will embrace.
“Our team has gotten stronger and more physical. I'd like to see that transfer into our play. I didn't sense that, so we did some running. I made a little point there. We can be a well-conditioned team, or we can be a well-conditioned hitting team.”
He pauses. Smirks. Somewhere, an imaginary whistle twirls on its lanyard.
“I prefer to hit and run well.”