An occasional foray onto the nation's hottest seats. Part of the Doc's Big Ten Week.
You've got to feel a little sorry for both Indiana and its coach, Bill Lynch. After firing Gerry DiNardo in 2004, the long-suffering Hoosiers hired Terry Hoeppner away from Miami-Ohio, and just when it looked like Hoeppner might be turning IU around, he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. He sat out spring practice in 2007, and that June decided that he would take a medical leave of absence for the entire season, with Lynch, his assistant head coach and offensive coordinator, taking his place. Just four days after that announcement, Hoeppner was dead.
Faced with an untenable situation, Lynch somehow made good on Hoeppner's rallying cry to "Play 13," leading the Hoosiers to their first winning season since 1994 and its first bowl berth since '93. Accordingly, the university offered him a five-year contract within two weeks of the conclusion of the regular season. The inspiring success of 2007, however, gave way to a miserable '08, which culminated in a 3-9 record and a single win over a Big Ten opponent. And if the buzz around Bloomington is accurate, the season was disastrous enough to wear whatever benefit of the doubt Lynch had with the administration perilously thin. With a new athletic director taking the reins, Lynch may need another borderline miraculous bowl season to keep his bosses from hitting the reset button.
Why he was hired. Lynch's status as Hoeppner's right-hand man surely played the biggest role in the decision to make his interim tag permanent, but Lynch was hardly a newbie at the wheel: He had head coaching stints at Division I-AA Butler for five years in the late 1980s, finishing with a 36-12-3 record, and later at Ball State, where he was rather less successful (37-53 over eight seasons, including a Las Vegas Bowl appearance but also an 0-11 campaign in 1999). Lynch also made a favorable impression as IU's offensive coordinator, devising a 2006 offense that scored its highest season point total in five years.
"Uh-oh" moment. The Hoosiers' losses to Ball State and Minnesota early last year, while frustrating, looked a lot more forgivable by the end of the season. But there was nothing good to say about their midseason loss to Iowa, in which a Hawkeye team on a three-game losing streak outscored the Hoosiers 28-0 in the second half on their way to a 45-9 win; fans booed the team throughout the game, and the IU student section was a ghost town by the time the fourth quarter started. When that loss was followed immediately by a 55-13 bludgeoning at Illinois, the season was officially on life support.
Morale deteriorated even more after the embarrassing, 62-10 blowout at the hands of the worst Purdue outfit in a decade in the finale: One player was charged and three teammates were implicated in a pointless robbery last December, and at least eight returning players had left the program by spring practice. They were quickly joined by Kellen Lewis, star quarterback of the 2007 bowl campaign, who was moved permanently to receiver in March and then booted from the team for good in April.
Embarrassing attempt to right the ship. Like fellow hot-seater Mike Sherman, Bill Lynch's head-coaching tenure has been fairly free of overtly embarrassing sound bites or motivational tactics, but one quote from his press conference the week after last season's Northwestern game, responding to a question about nagging delay-of-game penalties, stood out: "When we were getting booed, I was booing too, because it's unacceptable." Seriously? You joined in the booing, coach? And this was after what would turn out to be the team's lone conference victory of the season.
Can this marriage be saved? John M. of the Hoosier blog Crimson Quarry wants this relationship to work out as much as anyone, but that doesn't mean he's a Pollyanna about it:
"Losing seasons are nothing new at IU, unfortunately, but 2008 was not a garden-variety losing season. ... It's arguable that the 2008 season was IU's least competitive season in the last 37 years, and against what Sagarin ranked as the No. 83 schedule in Division I-A. IU hadn't lost to a MAC school since 1977, but lost two home games to MAC schools in 2008. IU inexplicably upset Northwestern, but that was IU's only win against a true Division I-A team (Western Kentucky was in its first season of I-A play). The 62-10 loss to Purdue was IU's most lopsided loss ever to a team with a losing record. I don't want to relive 2008, but I make these points to illustrate that 2008 was not a minor setback. It was a disaster. ...
"As for the numbers, I don't think there is any doubt that winning six or more games will save Lynch's job. I find it hard to believe that he would survive a season with two or fewer wins. It's tougher to handicap three, four or five wins without knowing who IU might beat or how competitive they were in the losses. IU's AD Fred Glass, who assumed the job on Jan. 1, 2009, has never been an athletic director before, so we really have no frame of reference for how he will handle personnel decisions. Like his predecessor, [Rick] Greenspan, he seems passionate about making IU's football program successful. After 2009, only two years will remain on Lynch's contract, which will make him practically a lame duck by the standards of modern college football. IU probably has to either extend Lynch's contract after 2009 or fire him. That makes me think that three wins would result in termination, but I think it's anyone's guess what will happen if IU wins four or five games. I'll set aside my preseason optimism and say that I think it's more likely than not that IU will have a new coach in 2010.
"This may sound trite, but I desperately hope that I am wrong. Bill Lynch is a good guy and has recruited reasonably well compared to his predecessors. IU recently moved into a new north end zone facility that will provide outstanding resources for the football program and dramatically improves the appearance of Memorial Stadium. A new coach would mean IU's fifth transition in the last 14 seasons."
Approximate hotness of seat. Not quite nuclear, but certainly volcanic, right around 800 degrees. It'd be damn near impossible to boot Lynch if he takes IU to a second bowl in three years, but new ADs have a long-standing habit of giving inherited coaches a quick hook so that they can "put their stamp" on their respective programs; anything less than a bowl bid, even if it's a respectably hard-fought 5-7, could well prompt Fred Glass to send Lynch packing and begin the search for his "own" guy.