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DON'T LET 'EM WEAR YOU DOWN!
John Underwood
November 14, 1977
For the "Little Eight," life in the Big Ten means living in the shadow cast by two giants, but Indiana's Lee Corso is a ray of hope
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November 14, 1977

Don't Let 'em Wear You Down!

For the "Little Eight," life in the Big Ten means living in the shadow cast by two giants, but Indiana's Lee Corso is a ray of hope

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In the first minute of the second quarter in its game with Ohio State last year, Indiana scored a touchdown and kicked the extra point. Lee Corso, the Indiana coach, immediately called time and huddled his players on the sideline, where he had a photographer take a picture of the happy group at an angle which allowed the scoreboard to fill the background: INDIANA 7, OHIO STATE 6. Asked why he did this, Corso said, "It's the first time in 25 years Indiana has led Ohio State in a game. I looked it up. Can you believe it? Twenty-five years! The goal of a lifetime!" Ohio State went on to win the game 47-7.

Moving right along with Lee Corso, you may remember that the last time we looked in (SI, Nov. 9, 1970), he was coaching at Louisville and making a name for himself by 1) coaching good and 2) having fun, a contradiction in terms by most accepted coaching tenets. At Louisville, Corso rode an elephant to attract attention to his program. The elephant was so big that Corso had to hunker down going under viaducts. He got plenty of attention and scars on his hands and the insides of his knees from holding on for dear life. In another episode, Corso got attention for coming onto the field waving a towel to signify Louisville's surrender in a game at Memphis State, but the rival coach, Spook Murphy, was running up the score and ignored it. An official said that if Corso didn't stop waving the towel he was going to draw a penalty. "Sir," said Corso, "the score is 63-19. How is 15 yards going to hurt us?"

At Louisville, Corso's motto was, "Nothing was ever achieved without enthusiasm," a poach from Emerson. Corso infused his teams with enthusiasm. He had enthusiastic players at every position and of every description. He had a 5'5" halfback, Howard Stevens, who led the nation in rushing. He had a bearded, beaded, barefoot Jewish hippie walk-on kicker. His 5'8" linebacker, Tom Jackson, made the Playboy All-America team. "Everybody laughed," said Corso, "because Jackson was 'too short.' I said, 'I don't care how short he is if he makes the tackles.' What are they gonna say? ' Jackson got the guy down, but he's too short'?"

Corso left no gimmick unturned. He held Italian nights at the training table, with spaghetti, garlic bread and spumoni on a checkered tablecloth. His pregame warmups were so flashy that Georgia Tech asked for the routine. "Don't you want any of my plays?" Corso said. For a Thanksgiving Day finale at Tulsa, Corso had his team captains escort a live (and hysterical) turkey onto the field. Corso offered Tulsa a deal: win the toss and take your choice, the ball or the turkey. Tulsa made believe Corso didn't say it and, when it won the toss, elected to take the ball. "Shortsighted," sniffed Corso. Tulsa lost the turkey and the game.

In the end, Corso left everybody laughing, especially the Louisville fans. In his four years they never had a losing team. He had whisked the program from the jaws of imminent cancellation to the blueprints for a new stadium. Under Corso, Louisville quadrupled its average attendance and in 1972 was ranked (16th) for the first time with a 9-1 record.

We now join Corso at Indiana, which is in the Little Eight Conference, a subdivision of the Big Ten. The other subdivision, the Big Two, is not a fun-loving group. It is made up of grim coaches who have high blood pressure and draw attention by rending yard markers and pummeling journalists. The Big Two is currently into the intraleague portion of its competition. From now almost until December, Ohio State and Michigan are required (allowed) to beat up on Indiana, Iowa, Northwestern, Illinois and the other four teams that comprise the Little Eight, an unofficial designation roundly despised by that body. There are occasional uprisings—three weeks ago Minnesota upset Michigan—but in the public's mind the Little Eight is only there to provide the Big Two with stepping-stones to the Rose Bowl. Coaches in the Little Eight hear two sets of footsteps, Woody Hayes' and Bo Schembechler's.

Corso came to Indiana in 1973 with his eyes open. "I got this job," he said, "because it was impossible to do." If the other seven found the sunlight sparse and growth difficult in the shadow of Michigan and Ohio State in the past nine years, when the imbalance grew to critical (not to say embarrassing) disproportions, Indiana could boast that it always had problems coping. In 75 years in the league, the Hoosiers had averaged less than two victories a season. "I can match that," said Corso.

Though he had only seen a Big Ten team play two times in his life, when he was an assistant at Navy and the Midshipmen twice lost to Michigan, Corso said it was an opportunity he had "dreamed of. The most prestigious conference! The biggest crowds! The greatest tradition!" Corso talks in exclamation points and sometimes in sound effects. He said he had "read all the books. Fielding Yost! Sixty points a game, and allowing zero. Phweeet! Amos Alonzo Stagg! What a man. Bernie Bierman! Fritz Crisler! Forest Evashevski! The greatest coaches of all time! Ray Eliot! Woody Hayes! Bo Schembechler!"

Awe and respect notwithstanding, Corso came in winging. For Indiana's first game he promised "the greatest pregame warmup ever." He said he couldn't guarantee what would happen once the game started. The game was scheduled for 1:30 in Bloomington. At 12:45 the largest crowd (51,000-plus) in four years was in the stands watching Illinois warm up. Indiana was not on the field.

Corso recollects the occasion, his voice thickening with pleasure. "Now it's one o'clock. Illinois is still warming up and looking around. Indiana is nowhere in sight. What's going on? The fans are mumbling. Mmmmmmm. At 1:15 the officials are on the field. Indiana isn't. Is Indiana going to forfeit? Is that the big surprise? At 1:29 a big double-decker bus, one of those red babies from London, England, comes roaring down the hill toward the north end zone, honking and raising hell. It rolls right onto the field and squeals to a halt. Eeeeek. Out piles the Indiana team.

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