Kevin Wilson and Butch Parker vacation together at least once a year, usually in the summer.
Parker is an old friend and confidant from Wilson’s hometown of Maiden, N.C. They speak every week, sometimes several times per week. Parker has enjoyed a front-row seat, watching Wilson become reputed as one of the greatest offensive minds in college football, a national champion, the mentor of a Heisman Trophy winner and a Big Ten head coach.
Two summers ago, during their annual holiday, Parker and Wilson were talking about Indiana, about how Wilson thought his team might be shaping up in year two.
“I’ll never ever forget two years ago, on our vacation,” Parker says, “when I made that stupid statement: ‘Well, how many you think you’re gonna win, six or seven?’
“He said, ‘We do not, under any circumstances, think like that. All I can do is ask my guys to get better.’”
Parker learned an important lesson: Never ask that question again.
How do you quantify success at Indiana? Is it a bowl berth? A winning season?
Kevin Wilson said recently that he's been more pleased with his last offseason than any other he's had in Bloomington.
What makes a coach, his players and staff successful in a place where football has in the last generation become an afterthought to basketball, men’s soccer and even at times an intramural bike race? And is Kevin Wilson, no longer a novice head coach and poised to lead an apparently bowl-worthy team into his third season, ready to achieve that kind of success?
Those close to him, those who play for him and those who work for him all believe the answer is yes. Yes, because of his program’s overall profile change, because Indiana’s schedule falls out so well and, perhaps most importantly, because Wilson himself has grown and changed in important ways.
Wilson, heading into his third and most promising season in Bloomington, doesn’t want to quantify success, because from his view, that’s the most dangerous thing he can do.
“Even when we’re doing good, we win a game that maybe somebody doesn’t expect, let’s do it again,” Wilson says, “instead of thinking: ‘Well, we won that one game, we hit that one good shot, we had one good golf round.’ Do it again.”
This is an extension of Wilson’s most oft-repeated narrative since taking over the head coach’s office at Indiana in the winter of 2011.
When he arrived from Oklahoma, Wilson believed he walked into a program culture too poisoned by negativity and a lack of competitiveness to foster consistent success.
Under Bill Lynch, Wilson’s immediate predecessor, Indiana had practiced the policy of redshirting nearly all of its freshmen, and most starting spots were handed out to upperclassmen.
Indiana won twice in the Big Ten after the loss of Tre Roberson (5). IU will rotate its quarterbacks — Roberson, Cam Coffman and Nate Sudfeld — Thursday in the season opener against Indiana State.
But Wilson believed, and soon made publicly clear, that he felt he had walked into a locker room where competitiveness did not exist, because it was rarely rewarded. A redshirt freshman had little chance of beating out a redshirt senior for a starting job, so why try?
Multiple positions, nearly all of them in fact, were thrown open through Wilson’s first offseason and spring season. Veterans chafed at being pushed by younger players, who the coaches began to prefer because of their willingness to buy into a new culture. Veterans believed they deserved more preference than the new staff gave them, and Wilson and his coaches felt they weren’t getting the commitment they needed from their more experienced players.
“He’s a tough nut to crack, and he expects and demands a lot out of everybody around him,” Parker says.
Many of Lynch’s players decided not to meet that demand. Roster turnover soared.
In his first year on the job, Wilson saw 31 players (including about a dozen walk-ons) leave his program. The Hoosiers started true or redshirt freshmen at quarterback, wide receiver, guard, center, defensive end, linebacker, cornerback and safety. They played more rookies than any other team in the country.
A culture war
In the public eye, Wilson’s image suffered. Fans bothered by so many player departures were equally put off by their coach’s blunt nature. Wilson, meanwhile, openly criticized the fan culture that existed around football games, one that included plenty of tailgating and less actual attendance.
Through all of that, Wilson suffered from the first impression he left on the fan base, the weight of which Parker says his friend still feels.
The signing of highly rated players like Darius Latham (98) has only fueled expectations for the coming season.
Shortly after his hiring, during a late-semester visit to Bloomington, Wilson was housed briefly in the McNutt Residence Center, in the campus’s northwest neighborhood.
Trying to find his room one night, he became lost and stopped to ask resident assistants for help, according to an article published in the Bloomington Herald-Times. When he was told he needed to wait for the RAs to finish what they were doing, Wilson became angry and had “a few choice words, not at the RAs, but in general,” IU Athletics Director Fred Glass said at the time. Wilson later apologized for his actions.
There were other moments, including some verbal sparring with Fox Sports Radio hosts Wilson felt were being unprofessionally flippant about his program. But the McNutt incident came to embody the public perception against which Wilson fought, and according to Parker, feels he still fights.
“I think some of the isolated situations that came to formulate some peoples’ perceptions of him early on were just wrong,” Glass says now.
If those perceptions still need letting go, wins will certainly help.
Indiana has not been to a bowl game in six seasons, and it has been to just one since 1993. In 2012, the program improved from Wilson’s 1-11 first-year record to 4-8, and it lost four more games by a combined 10 points. Even without original starting quarterback Tre Roberson, lost in the second quarter of Indiana’s second game to a broken leg, the Hoosiers put together the best passing offense in the Big Ten.
Eight home games and a relatively soft Big Ten schedule in Bloomington have built, quietly, expectation for a bowl game to follow the coming campaign, considering what the Hoosiers have returning and the recruiting class just added, Indiana’s best in the ranking-and-analysis era.
Wilson credits his strength and conditioning staff, Indiana’s nutrition personnel and his players for Indiana’s improvement. In his first pre-game week press conference of the season, Wilson, a sometimes-notorious taskmaster, said his team never had a practice in fall camp he wished he could have done over.
Wilson has over the last 2 1/2 years combated a culture within and around his program that he now believes is turning in the Hoosiers' favor ahead of the 2013 season.
But those close to him, and to the program, have seen changes in Wilson that have led Indiana to this place as well, some wrought of introspection and some perhaps simply part of the maturation every first-time head coach must endure.
‘His motor runs 24-7 on football’
When Parker and Wilson go on vacation, they don’t talk much football. The sport, though, is rarely far from Wilson’s mind.
“Kevin, his motor runs 24-7 football,” Parker says. “He’ll tell you that, his wife will tell you that, his kids will tell you that.”
That approach comes from a healthy respect for the sport, but it overwhelmed Wilson in his first season, according to his friend.
Parker says he saw Wilson trying to control all the minutiae around him, rather than delegating responsibilities to members of his staff.
Bob Stoops and Randy Walker, two of Wilson’s primary mentors in the profession, had given him exceptional leeway in running the kind of offense he wanted to run, and Wilson got to be the details man. But as a head coach, those details added up too quickly, stressed Wilson unnecessarily and disorganized his life.
“It beat him up pretty bad,” Parker says.
Glass invested in personnel, with extra strength coaches and a nutritionist. Wilson has also been able to fill new recruiting-specific positions and hire support personnel not available to the old staff, because of rule changes.
Wilson also spent time with Michael Lombardi, now the general manager of the Cleveland Browns. Parker says Lombardi lent Wilson advice on structuring his time, on delegating responsibilities when possible and moving quickly and purposefully through the ones that couldn’t.
On one of those vacations, where Parker says Wilson doesn’t talk about the trade that defines his life, Wilson began reading in earnest a book by former San Francisco 49ers coach Bill Walsh, highlighting passages he found interesting.
None of this is rare, or even perhaps unusual. But having watched it unfold over the last two-plus years, Parker points to all of it as evidence of a critical step forward: Wilson, forever the assistant, has learned how to become a head coach.
“Last year,” Parker says, “he came to realize that, ‘I’ve got people that can do this stuff. I need to let them do it. I need to let them do their jobs.’”
Wilson’s boss, who now meets with him for 90 minutes each week to discuss IU football, agrees.
Glass has always been a preacher of patience with his football program. He is a disciple of the blueprints handed down by Gary Barnett from Northwestern and Barry Alvarez from Wisconsin. He routinely cites their work as proof that a good football program should be built through time and commitment, and having the right decision makers.
It’s why he handed Wilson a seven-year contract when he hired him, and why he was undeterred by Wilson’s disappointing first year on the job. As the program has grown from that low starting point, Glass’ faith has looked more and more likely to be repaid, perhaps soon.
“This is who Kevin Wilson really is,” Glass says. “Kevin’s the kind of guy who enjoys trusting his players, enjoys being trusted, can be playful, along with his demanding professional approach.”
“This is the biggest crowd we’ve had for an opening talk show ever,” IU Radio Network play-by-play man Don Fischer says in the minutes immediately following the first episode of Wilson’s Monday radio show.
Indiana will open with Indiana State for the second year in a row, this time on a Thursday, so this is Wilson’s last public appearance before kickoff. He runs through the injury report with Fischer and confirms news believed to be coming for some time: Indiana will rotate its quarterbacks against the Sycamores.
When he’s done, the room, which was indeed more full than normal for a football show, stands and cheers.
This is what Wilson has created in Bloomington. Expectations are high. At the moment, more major preseason projections have the Hoosiers in a bowl than don’t.
Analysts like CBS Sports’ Bruce Feldman still raise very real concerns about Indiana’s preparedness for a postseason appearance. The program stands at a historical disadvantage, in both the near and long term.
“I think Kevin Wilson’s a really good offensive coach and a really sharp mind,” Feldman says. “It’s just such a tough road in the Big Ten, where you’re basically punching up against a lot of these teams.”
Here is where Wilson — who, for all his maturation as the chief operating officer of his program hasn’t changed much as its coach — points to concern.
He worries still about the culture he found upon arriving from Norman, the one he insisted was too toxic to be allowed to survive within his program. He won his war then, against what he saw as entitlement, but any disease, real or perceived, is hardest to kill when it has retreated the furthest.
What happens if Indiana wins four games, or five, and becomes overconfident? Can the Hoosiers handle success where before they could not?
“I think the challenge,” Wilson says, “is gonna be when we win, when people start telling you you’re doing good, do you stay humble, keep working hard? Because we’ve still got to keep getting better.”
Say that happens, then a still-young roster learns how to win. The best three-year recruiting stretch Indiana has enjoyed in the recruiting ranking/analysis era pays off with extra bowl practices now, and with the experience required to make the postseason a habit later.
Or none of that happens. Indiana slips on those old weaknesses, on its disappointing history, and Wilson’s is just the latest in a long line of false dawns created in a program that can add another headstone to its coaching graveyard.
So there’s reason for Wilson to be on edge. But while he still won’t play the win-loss expectation game, Wilson hasn’t ever been more outwardly relaxed.
He jokes routinely with the media, and he has shed his disapproval of a multi-quarterback system, at least for the time being. During an impromptu post-practice rendition of the then-popular Harlem Shake after one spring practice, Wilson ran between his players and dove into the snow outside Mellencamp Pavilion, before flipping over and making snow angels, despite the fact that he was wearing shorts.
“This is who he is,” Glass says of the laid-back Wilson that was hard to imagine in his first season on the job.
“He has changed dramatically,” Parker says of his friend’s demeanor and approach as a head coach.
All Wilson has done, in his words, is “ask my guys to get better.”
“What does good get?” Wilson says, speaking rhetorically. “Does it get you to eight (wins), nine, 10, 11, 12? I don’t know. But right now, I know if we keep getting better, we’re gonna see a lot more results.
“Hopefully those scoreboards will be right.”
That’s as far as Wilson will go. Or maybe it’s not.
Outside of the team’s general meeting room in the North End Zone facility, in Wilson’s first two seasons, the staff has pinned mug shots to the wall each week for offensive, defensive, special teams and scout team players of the week. There have always been 14 slots, 12 for IU’s regular-season games and one each for the Big Ten Championship Game and the BCS National Championship Game.
The joke was always in the apparently lofty ambition of putting the Big Ten title game there, much less the national title game, but Wilson has always set a high bar.
This year, though, the 12 games have gone up, as has the Big Ten title game. But that last slot, the bowl slot, remains empty, clear Plexiglas held to the wall by circular chrome fixtures. There is no national championship logo in the middle.
It remains open, waiting to be filled.
Clarification: An initial version of this story identified Fox Sports Radio hosts as Indianapolis radio hosts. The show in question was aired on an Indianapolis station.