WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. – A little after 4 p.m., the dream was still alive. Indiana had just held off a late Wake Forest rally which saw the Demon Deacons driving with just under two minutes and a chance to tie. The Hoosiers were heading off the field, 4-0 for the first time since the first Bush administration. And as the team bumped to “We Dem Boyz” in the locker room, the tweets weren’t stopping: #iufb4gameday continued to pick up steam.
What started the same way most internet things do – a joke that had a kernel of truth behind it – grew in earnestness. This wasn’t just a rallying cry or a hashtag anymore. It was a possibility.
It should have been a reality.
Indiana’s football team hasn’t been to a bowl in Kevin Wilson’s tenure. The last appearance was a loss in the Insight Bowl in 2007 under Bill Lynch. Before that, the team hadn’t been bowling since 1993. There’s never been a 10-win season in Indiana history (although there has been one Rose Bowl appearance).
When some people say a 4-0 start with an almost certain death to come at the hands of the reigning National Champions the following weekend isn’t a thing to celebrate, those people aren’t Hoosier fans. If anything, this silly hashtag, which took on a life of its own, represents what is great about college football in the first place. Every season is a misshaped ball of clay that can become a Rodin sculpture, or it could turn into a lopsided pencil-holder you give to your mom on Mother’s Day.
For a lot of college football enthusiasts, College GameDay is part of the Saturday experience. You get up, you make breakfast, you throw on your colors, and, if you’re at home, then you watch the show. If you’re tailgating, you have the show on satellite at your lot. If you’re driving to your game, you listen on ESPN Radio (albeit with a short delay). Each week, websites scramble to put up the best GameDay signs. They Vine Lee Corso’s predictions. Fans at the host school get up early as all heck to stand and get ready for the show. Sure, there’s sponsorships everywhere – from Coke Zero to Cheez-It, not to mention the strange “Rece Davis is changing his name to Reese Davis” PR pitch emails – but as college football goes, it’s as pure as we’re going to get.
It’s just some folks talking about football, making jokes, playing with mascots, and laughing a lot. They don’t try to overcomplicate things, and when something doesn’t work (gambling point spreads cover alerts gambling), they tend to abandon it. But they’re usually not afraid to take risks, and that’s something we need more of – not just in college football, but in sports in general.
That’s why it’s such a disappointment to see GameDay go the safe route and pack up their bags to head to Clemson rather than embrace the chance to go to Bloomington.
“Your biggest argument is definitely going to be they’ve never been here before,” Kyle Robbins said. Robbins runs Indiana’s SB Nation site, Crimson Quarry, and fostered the #iufb4gameday hashtag somewhere around the time the Hoosiers finally put away Western Kentucky last weekend.
By Tuesday, the thing had a life of its own.
“Why not?” Robbins continued. “If not now, when? That’s the whole thing about Indiana football is if you’re not going to come now, when are you going to come because we don’t know the next time they’ll have this shot. It’s difficult to win at Indiana, and acknowledging that, you have to embrace this moment. You’ve been to Clemson or Alabama or Georgia six million times.”
Aside from some bickering about who really started the initiative (and commentator Dan Dakich certainly staked his claim, in his own way), it continued to grow and grow. College GameDay producer Lee Fitting told Dakich on his radio show that Indiana was on the to-be-considered list. Coach Kevin Wilson addressed it on his own radio show, saying, “First, you’ve gotta fill your stadium, which we haven’t played well enough to do. We actually blew all that up, because it’s a wasted conversation for our football team.”
After the win on Saturday, I asked Wilson about stamping out the GameDay talk and what it means for his team to be 4-0 with the reigning champs coming to town – whether ESPN would be there or not.
“I wasn’t trying to temper GameDay except you need to win,” Wilson said. “It’s not my job, or my players’ job, to worry about that. In this day and age of social media, it’s so easy for people to not play well week after week because you have so many influences. You’re always better than you were, or worse than you were. When, in reality, you just are what you are. We’re a good team that needs to get a lot better, and that’s all we want to talk about. But it’s nice that we’re on ABC, and it’s nice that GameDay‘s talking about us. It’s nice we’re going to start getting better highlights. It’s going to help recruiting, and the fans are going to be stronger. Everything’s going the way we want it, but for our football team, we want to keep the main thing the main thing, and the main thing is we have to keep getting better.”
To their credit, the Indiana players said what they were supposed to say after the game. Linebacker Tegray Scales said it was huge to be 4-0, “to get momentum going into our next game, and we just gotta keep it going.” Defensive end Nick Mangieri talked about staying focused.
“I haven’t really tried to pay much attention to that,” Mangieri said. “If that happens, that’d be awesome, obviously, but it’s something you can’t really think about.”
Safety Tony Fields tried to keep a poker face when he was asked about the GameDay chatter. But even he couldn’t stop his eyes from lighting up when asked what’d it be like if it did happen.
“As a team, we’re not focused on GameDay,” Fields said. “It’s really we’re more excited about the fans being more involved this year. I feel like it’s an a tribute to the way we play. We continue to want that fan support each and every week. So whatever happens, happens.”
That’s the power a show like College GameDay has for these kids. This is a huge deal, and for as much as they try to hide their excitement or claim that this stuff is a “distraction” or “noise” or “smoke and mirrors,” when those TV trucks are on campus, the players are just as hyped up as the fans and students are. This would’ve been a huge deal for Indiana, and it was an incredible opportunity for ESPN to go against the norm and highlight a school that maybe won’t get another opportunity like this. Sure, there are “bigger” games in play, but there will always be bigger games in play.
GameDay‘s been to Clemson, more than once. It’s been to Georgia. It’s been to Alabama, and Florida, and Ohio State, and USC, and Florida State, and every other big school. We’ve seen the same B-roll, the same signs, the same traditions.
There are unique experiences at each and every school in college football, and despite whether you think Indiana earned the right to be on College GameDay or not, it still would’ve been cool as all getup to see the Hoosiers rewarded for the traction they showed all week leading up to the Wake Forest game.
After announcing that the show would be heading to Clemson for the game between the Tigers and Notre Dame, Fitting tweeted out: “Thanks for the passion from the IU fans over @CollegeGameDay. Really impressive. Good to see. We need to get there one day….”
That one day arguably should’ve been this coming Saturday. But that doesn’t mean GameDay can’t spotlight other teams waiting for their shot over the rest of the season. Who knows, there might be another silly hashtag ready to grow up and take on a life of its own before we know it – and a fanbase hungry and crazy enough to rally behind it. All they need are their 15 minutes to shine.