Sunday, June 21, 2009

2009 Season Will Be Lynch's Make-or-Break Moment

Indiana head football coach Bill Lynch came up big under pressure during the 2007 season.  His predecessor, Terry Hoeppner, who seemingly represented the program's ticket to success, died tragically of cancer after just one season at the helm.  So it was then-assistant head coach Bill Lynch that drew the job of taking over for the beloved Hoeppner.  It was always going to be a tall task for Lynch because Hoeppner's charisma, passion, and coaching style made him a tough act to follow.  "Coach Hep" as they like to call him in Bloomington brought strong hope to a previously lifeless football program.  And it was Lynch's job to uphold the promise that had set in the collective mind of Hoosier Nation. 

The pressure associated with the situation was great, but the new head man in Bloomington was up to the challenge.  Lynch was focused on the task at hand, going about his business with a calmness that seemed supernatural during such a hard time.  The Indiana players responded just as positively by performing well enough on the field to post a 7-6 record.  The winning season was good enough to clinch a berth in the Insight Bowl against a Big 12 opponent, Oklahoma State.  Despite a loss in the bowl game, Lynch's accomplishments dazzled Hoosier fans.  While the bowl game was the icing on the cake, there was no question that Lynch's crowning moment that season was Indiana's late-game victory against their intense rivals, Purdue.  Austin Starr's 49-yard field goal put the dagger in the Boilermakers, giving IU a 27-24 Old Oaken Bucket game victory.  If you're not familiar with the IU/PU rivalry, let's just say Lynch couldn't have picked a bigger game to win if he wanted to impress the Hoosier faithful.  And for that game to actually clinch the team's first bowl game berth since 1993 was impressive.  

Things seemed to be looking up for both Coach Lynch and his football program.  In fact, the unbelievable 2007 season led to Indiana's athletic department choosing Lynch to be the team's next official head coach.  Despite his great first-year efforts, many people familiar with the program were skeptical about the decision, feeling that IU could have perhaps gotten a bigger name.  But Lynch was apparently their guy and he was quickly offered a 4-year contract.  The question then quickly became whether or not Lynch would respond well to the pressure of a permanent head coaching position...the answer unfortunately slapped Hoosier fans in the face just months later...and not in a good way.  

Even after returning most of the players from the previous year, Lynch and his team struggled mightily last season.  The Hoosiers' schedule last season was favorable; the Big Ten gods allowed them to have a season free of both Michigan and Ohio State.  The out-of-conference games were against mid-majors at best.  But Indiana only notched one Big Ten win, and managed to get blown out in most of their losses.  The team looked lifeless and the swagger gained from the storybook season in 2007 was completely gone.  Lynch didn't have the answers to anybody's questions.  Frankly, I think both the Indiana fans and the Indiana athletic department (while they won't admit it) were left wondering if they made the right hire. 

Fast forward to this summer...Bill Lynch's Hoosiers are back on the field and preparing for battle.  Only this time, Lynch could be on a short leash.  Now I guess when I said "could," I really mean "should."  The fact is that Indiana's brass may not have the balls to ax Lynch even if he has a second straight brutal year.  But I think he should be on the hot seat.  When you go from a winning season and a great bowl game to a one-win Big Ten year, something obviously went wrong.  And as I said, the Hoosiers didn't even appear to be competitive.  In fact, Indiana dropped the most recent Old Oaken Bucket rivalry game to Purdue 62-10.  Don't tell me that the Boilermakers got that much better since the 27-24 win in Bloomington just a year before.   

Indiana football practically has a new stadium this year.  It features a beautiful addition with more seats, a state-of-the-art training facility, and an IU Sports Hall of Fame.  And on top of that excitement, there are still a great deal of Indiana football fans out there that still cling to the hope and energy of the 2007 run.  But one more bad season under Lynch could completely kill what the program still has going for them.  Lynch passed with flying colors in the wake of Terry Hoeppner's death, being able to downplay the great deal of pressure.  But then Lynch failed under the pressure of trying to prove himself as an official head coach the following year. For me, this next season will be the real test for Lynch.  Will he reach back and grab the fire from 2007 or will he revert to the embarrassment of last year?  

The Hoosiers won't get a break from the scheduling gods this year.  As a matter of fact, after a few cupcake non-conference tilts, Indiana will kick off the Big Ten season against the big boys, away at Michigan and home against Ohio State.  So while I won't be ready to crucify Coach Lynch after those games, the season as a whole will ultimately give me enough insight on what he can accomplish moving forward at IU.  And I'll put it out there right now...I'm skeptical.  I'd at least like to see him show some emotion this year!

I realize that very few people care about Indiana football in comparison to an SEC school or something, but the program is very close to becoming a mainstay in the Big Ten contender discussion.  I've got to give Lynch credit on his recruiting.  The classes the past few years have looked pretty good, but I feel like you can only wait so long for them to get going.  So as a fan, I really believe that the university needs to be very careful with Lynch because if they have another season full of blowout losses, the program could go back in the tank.  It would be a shame to see the nice new stadium addition go to waste and it would be awful to see the hope that Hoeppner instilled dissipate.  I think Bill Lynch is a good man with positive intentions and a great passion for football, but that isn't going to change the fact that I think he should be on a short leash this season.  Because when you've got a program on the brink of success, you can't afford to mess around for too long. 

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