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Leading with the Helmet

by Robb Reel

Indiana University football is pretty bad.

This is not breaking news.  Hoosier football has been awful for a while now.  The last head coach with a winning record was Bo McMillan, who has been dead for more than 60 years.  The Bill Mallory era was, by far, the best in my lifetime.  There was a glimmer of hope when the late Terry Hoeppner came to town -- I had the joy of working with Hep for three seasons when I did the Miami University broadcasts -- but a strong dose of Bill Lynch quickly snuffed it out.  Hiring Kevin Wilson away from Bob Stoops and Oklahoma was certainly a sign of commitment to improvement, even if that tree only bore only lonely fruit last season.

So... what to do, what to do?

Ever the optimist, Fred Glass -- the athletic director I like to call "Fred Glass-Half-Full" -- clearly looked west, young man, to the University of Oregon.  It's been a few decades but there was a time when the Ducks were as bad as the Hoosiers are now.  Rich Brooks started a long, slow climb that culminated in a then-Pac 10 title.  Successors Mike Bellotti and Chip Kelly elevated the team to national prominence and title contenders.

A big part of how Oregon did it was appealing to and attracting better athletes from across the country.  A key component in that plan has been style.  Being in Nike's backyard has sure helped with that.  Phil Knight ['59] put his company to work on myriad uniforms and helmets for his alma mater.  It's become almost a punchline how Oregon has a different, even-more-outrageous-than-the-last get-up for each game.  It's worked, though, because the flashy threads always seem to get the team on SportsCenter, even when times and records aren't so good.  Young athletes value being seen on TV as greater than been seen as winners.

To that end, Indiana University unveiled five new helmets at a special ceremony Monday.  The cream interlocking I and U on a crimson background will remain, but the photo-negative version now has a swath of red bigger than a stripe will join it.  Two throwbacks appear, one with the iconic block I of the Mallory era and a white helmet with player numerals, recognizable as similar to the current University of Alabama look, from the McMillan days.  Two designs are quite "forward," if you will.  One is bright and reflective with crimson and silver stripes -- you have to see it to believe it -- while the other, my personal favorite, takes the torch [literally] from the state flag and fashions it into IU's colors.

Now I must say that first on my college football fandom list is Notre Dame.  Love or hate the Fighting Irish -- and it seems those are the only options -- there's no denying the transcendence of that helmet to icon status.  A few others -- the aforementioned Alabama, Wilson's erstwhile home at Oklahoma and the Texas Longhorn, for example -- are in that rarefied class.  I don't know if any one of these new lids can manage that, but it will make the Hoosiers interesting to look at on the field and on TV, at least until the ball is snapped.