Not long after John Pont's Rose Bowl football team had become Indiana's greatest export since Wendell Willkie, the coach was given a Day in his home town of Canton, Ohio. After the usual cornet-band serenade and cr√™pe-paper-parade type of thing, there was a banquet attended by, as John put it, "all my old friends and their wives—steelworkers, shopworkers, just ordinary people." Concerned that the $5-a-plate fee for the affair might be a bit much for ordinary people, Pont mentioned the price to a man with him on the dais. He replied, "Yeah, it's a little steep, John, especially when you figure a year ago they might not have paid $1.25 to see you."
Well, the fickle flame of fame did light up John Pont and his Hoosiers last year, and with it came a full quota of $5 banquets, Coach of the Year prizes and all the old-saw awe that Americans reserve for Horatio Alger legends come true. Pont's 1967 Big Ten co-champions were indeed zero-to-zillion heroes in the moldiest penny-dreadful mold.
The tale has been oft told and retold this summer in the flickering glow of Indiana campfires and chafing dishes: of the old days around Bloomington where Ye Olde Regulator and the Stardust used to resound with hurrahs after the Hoosiers had held Minnesota or Ohio State or Michigan to a mere five-touchdown margin. Of John Pont's arrival in 1965 after Indiana had won only 27 of 90 games over 10 years. Of intrepid John's unrelenting courage in attempting to stamp out the easy acceptance of defeat at IU. Of how after two years of encouraging his boys to "Think Win," he had amassed a 3-16-1 record. Of how, dramatically, out of the rags rose riches in the form of last season's 9-1 record and Rose Bowl trip.
But what happens after Horatio Alger has succeeded? What happens after Cindy finds the prince is mad about her? Does the gold get tarnished and do the glass wedgies start to pinch? Well, as they say after the episodes in any hairbreadth thriller, the Indiana football saga was To Be Continued Next Fall. Now it is time for that continuation. John Pont may be an optimist, but he is not a fool. He admits that in squeezing out victories in the final four minutes of six different games last year "we had our share of good fortune." He also knows that the Hoosiers will sorely miss the precious psychological advantage they had in '67. "We've lost the element of surprise that worked for us then," he says. "People just couldn't believe we were real right up to the end of the season. That's all changed now. Our opponents will point for us."
September 8, 1968
But Pont has 32 lettermen back, and he does not foresee a return to the haplessness of yore. "I'd be out of character and something less than honest if I claimed we won't have a good football team," he says. "The big thing last year was that our players didn't think they could lose. They feel the same way now."
Among the brash veterans of that mad season are the Psychedelic Psophomores who made it happen. There is Harry Gonso, the dashing young quarterback who completed 67 passes for 930 yards, rushed for 512 and consistently offered a kind of madcap generalship that Pont has called "carefree football." And there is John ("Punt, John. Punt!") Isenbarger, the inventive halfback who rushed for 579 fun-filled yards, including a few that he picked up when he occasionally chose to amuse himself by terrifying the crowd, his coaches and his teammates with a surprise decision to run instead of punt on fourth down. It did not always work, but Pont is not a believer in robot football and he likes excitement as well as the next man. "I don't say that I don't get mad at some of the things Isenbarger does," says Pont, "but I don't worry about it. He's refreshing, and I still think there's a place for enthusiasm in the game." And there is Jade Butcher, the flanker who caught 35 passes for 611 yards and led the team in scoring with 10 touchdowns. The only loss in Indiana's offensive back-field was at fullback, where Pont is grooming two sophomores, Tom Fleming and Hank Pogue, to support senior Roger Grove.
Because of its experience, the offense should be improved over '67. But Pont did lose the middle of his line and will have to go with relatively untried men at both guards and center. The tackles, Bob Kirk and Rick Spickard, are regulars from last year, and so are Tight End Al Gage and Split End Eric Stolberg. They should be sound, if not sensational. Pont concedes that the Hoosiers will not push anyone around with this line—¬¶ just as they didn't last year. "Oh, I imagine we can power the ball inside if we have to," he says. "But if we had our druthers, we'd go outside."
The middle of the defensive line, too, is going to be short on experience, and Pont also lost three of his top four linebackers. This could make for some huge holes in Indiana's defense, which Pont describes as "four-four and gambling." The only returning linebacker is Jim Sniadecki, 6'2", 214, but he is magnificent. "Jim is so tough," says Pont, "that people ran away from him all last year." Sniadecki, an All-Big Ten selection who made 59 solo tackles last season, will play the key middle-linebacker spot. One other linebacking position will go to Bob Moynihan, who weighs only 198 pounds and is another of those frequent cases where speed makes up for muscle in what is thought of as a muscleman's position. The other two linebacking spots are still open and may be until kickoff time, for there are numerous candidates.
As for the deep secondary, Pont has always favored a flamboyant strategy there. "I know," he says, "that you'll get hurt if your backs are too aggressive, but they'll also throw somebody for eight-or 10-yard losses now and then." Most of the gambling Indiana secondary is back, but Pont is extremely enthusiastic about a sophomore named Larry Highbaugh, a sprite of a man (5'9", 158 pounds) but a speedster who has run the 100 in 9.2—with the wind. Highbaugh may play safety or on offense, and will certainly return punts, along with Gary Brown.
Indiana has a fairly easy early schedule with Baylor, Kansas, Illinois, Iowa and Michigan, but then winds up the season against an improving Michigan State team, Minnesota and Purdue. Says Pont of his overall prospects: "There's no doubt in my mind that this club is good enough to rank in the top 20 teams in the country right now. What happens as the season progresses is just up to fate and we'll have to work like the devil to stay up there. I don't think there's any chance for a letdown on this squad. The seniors have gone through 1-8-1 and 9-2 seasons and there's great pride now on our campus."
If Gonso, Isenbarger & Co. come anywhere near their happy-go-lucky heights of 1967, Indiana should have a year to be proud of. But it won't be one of those $5 banquet jobs. About $3.50 sounds right.