TERRE HAUTE, Ind. — Memorial Stadium is a three-mile drive from the campus of Indiana State University. The best way to get to the stadium from the campus is by heading east on Wabash Ave., the main drag through downtown Terre Haute.
One word comes to the mind of a visitor from Fargo while making the stop-and-start trek along Wabash: tired. Terre Haute looks worn out with its old storefronts, the occasional abandoned building and precious little renovation or new construction.
Memorial Stadium sits at the intersection of Wabash and Brown Ave. on a grassy, wooded lot and after walking through the impressive arch — built in 1924 as part of the original baseball park that sat on the site before the facility was converted for football in 1968 — the same word comes to mind in trying to describe what you’re seeing: tired. This is the home field for Indiana State football team.
There is seating on only one side of the artificial surface, basic bleacher seating for 12,000. Behind the visitors’ sideline is a small grassy berm meant for casual seating. Behind that is nothing but grass, ground once used for the outfield when baseball was played here. A semi-circle of a nearly century-old wall forms the boundary of the former outfield. In what was once center field, an old flag pole base sits among some shrubs. Behind the west end zone is a low-slung building painted Sycamore blue, where the locker rooms are located.
If you want to know how far away a Missouri Valley Football Conference program could get from the North Dakota State juggernaut that’s been built in Fargo, Indiana State and Memorial Stadium provide the best examples. The distance should not be measured in miles, but perhaps light years.
Visitors to the Fargodome are electrified by a rock-concert video show prior to the Bison’s entrance onto the field. Indiana State officials are juiced because the school’s administration just sprung for new lights to properly illuminate night games. Next year, a new playing surface will be installed.
“Do we need a new stadium? Yeah. What we have isn’t great,” said ISU assistant athletic director John Sherman, who oversees the football program. “It’s a goal. The problem is we have a basketball arena that hasn’t been touched since 1973. That’s the priority.”
That would be the Hulman Center, located near campus in downtown Terre Haute. It’s the same place where Larry Bird electrified the nation during the 1978-79 season, leading the Sycamores to the NCAA championship game against Michigan State and Magic Johnson. The state of Indiana is providing half of the $75 million needed to spruce up the Hulman Center and add a convention center. The arena is used not only by ISU but the city of Terre Haute and the entire Wabash Valley for sporting events, concerts and trade shows.
So the football program will wait for whatever comes its way, as usual. In basketball-crazy Indiana, college football programs — other than Notre Dame — don’t draw much attention and the Sycamores might the ones hidden most deeply in the shadows.
It’s been 30 years since ISU consistently strung together winning seasons and in the interim there was a 33-game losing streak from 2006-09 that made national news, plus a wild-fire rumor a couple of years ago that the school was considering dropping the program altogether. The administration denied eliminating football was ever considered.
But the fact the idea was taken as seriously as it was shows where the program lies, somewhat of an afterthought in this aging town. The coach who ended the losing streak, Sycamore alum Trent Miles, left in 2012 for a bigger paycheck and his good work paid off for his successor, Mike Sanford, who took ISU to the FCS playoffs in 2014. The Sycamores even won a first-round game that year before falling in the second round.
Sanford had back-to-back losing years following that and surprised ISU by leaving to be an assistant coach with his son at Western Kentucky after last season. ISU hired Curt Mallory, son of popular longtime Indiana University coach Bill Mallory and — again — believes it’s on the right track.
“He’s brought in Indiana kids, which hasn’t always been the case in the past,” said Sycamores radio play-by-play man Luke Martin. “Coach Sanford was a West Coast guy and he had a lot of California kids on the roster.”
Is this another rebuild?
“I would say it is a rebuild because there’s lots Coach Mallory had to deal with from a behind-the-scenes perspective,” Martin said.
This is a diplomatic way of saying the new coach moved out some of the old coach’s players for reasons that went beyond football skills.
“There is a different philosophy in recruiting. There is a different philosophy in how you’re going to act on and off the field,” Sherman said.
If they are more talented remains to be seen. The Sycamores are 0-4 going into their game Saturday against the Bison, but the belief around here is that Mallory is building for the long run by focusing on defense. There have been a couple of close losses, including one to then-ranked Liberty.
The hurdles are many for the Sycamores. If there is an FCS conference in which you wouldn’t want to be rebuilding, it would be the brutal Missouri Valley. Despite a bump in coaching salaries and some other amenities added to the program, the Sycamore football budget will never match that of the top programs. Sherman said ISU will bus to the University of Kansas in 2019, for example, as a money-saving measure. It’s a seven-hour drive. The Sycamores bus to Youngstown State every other year, a similar bus ride.
But there there’s also the belief that Mallory will be able to hit nearby metro areas like Indianapolis, Louisville, Cincinnati and St. Louis for talent. Miles was able to move the Sycamores from 0-12 and 1-10 seasons to three straight winning years, including what is likely the biggest victory in program history.
That would be the 2012 win over No. 1-ranked and defending national champion NDSU at the Fargodome, when Bison quarterback Brock Jensen threw two pick-sixes and the Sycamores won 17-14.
That game was lightning in a bottle. The Sycamores haven’t been able to sustain that excitement, or anything close to it, since that day.
The program needs a jolt of something — money, fan support, victories, you name it. Maybe that means it needs a jolt of many things. Just something to make it seem not quite so tired.