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.
"The fans go nuts. What an impact! One of the greatest things I ever did. Illinois is stupefied. We stop 'em after the kickoff, get the ball and, phweeeet, drive to a touchdown. Nothing to it. Seven-zip. Then reality sets in. We lose, 28-14."
The Big Ten's still reeling under the force of Corso's personality. Four years since he introduced himself, it still does not know what to make of him. Scarcely a day goes by that it does not wake to his thunder.
Corso says things. On the sweet mysteries of coaching: "The bigger, stronger, faster and meaner my players are, the better I coach."
On coaches who cheat: "Fire 'em. Don't just slap their wrists, cut off their hands! We demean the profession when we cheat. Coaching's not a job, it's a privilege."
On the sinister influence of gambling: "The amount of hate mail I get is directly proportionate to the times we beat the point spread. We beat the spread our last four games last year. I was a hero. I got letters: 'Helluva program you got going. Keep it up.' In those four games we had three losses and a tie."
Corso does things. He hired a woman coach in 1974. "An alltime first," he crowed. The whole idea, he said, "was my wife Betsy's. I said, 'O.K., but she has to be good-looking.' Betsy said I was a male chauvinist pig." When the NCAA cut the coaching limits to eight assistants, Corso redesignated the woman's job as 'counselor.'
For one game, Corso allowed his players to hand-paint their shoes in combinations of red and white (polka dots, diamonds, etc.) "to stress building our program from the ground up." In the week before a game with West Virginia, his players found their lockers had been equipped with flyswatters. "We were getting ready for Danny (Lightning) Buggs. How do you stop a bug? With a flyswatter!" Corso chirped. "We stopped him, too. He was hurt and didn't play."
In lieu of Italian Night, Corso inaugurated an annual Wimpy Contest for hamburger eaters. The contest drew an S.R.O. crowd to the Student Union this year and included some coed entries. "One player ran his finger down his throat to stay in the competition," said Master of Ceremonies Corso. "Gloop. Gaaaaaaagh. It was awful. The winner [Linebacker-Defensive Tackle Tom Fisher] wore a full-length shark suit. He called himself 'Jaws.' He put away 21 hamburgers."
In the Indiana athletic offices, Corso encountered Bobby Knight, the abrasive Indiana basketball coach. Basketball is supposed to be bigger than football at Indiana, and Knight has a reputation as the fastest tongue in the Midwest. "When they get to the bottom of Watergate," Knight quipped, "they'll probably find a football coach." Corso gleefully returned the fire. "We're gonna have our own bowl game in Oolitic, Indiana, which has a large Italian population. We'll call it The Italian-American Bowl, and we'll bring in a team we can beat, the way basketball coaches do when they bring in three teams they can beat and call it a Classic." When Knight got a new desk, Corso measured it with a tape and ordered a bigger one. He stood a ruler up in his new rug to make sure he had the thicker pile. "Bobby Knight," he said, "is an asset to the football program."
Except for uniform colors, Corso's Indiana teams are reminiscent of his Louisville teams. Which is to say, he has not lost his appreciation for the little things in life. "Some athletes," he says, "aren't small, they're just short." Just last season his 5'7" running back, Mike Hark-rader, was the first freshman in Big Ten history to rush for 1,000 yards. Corso said it was a matter of finding the right man to fit the holes Indiana's line made. Asked how he had the guts to start a 5'9" defensive back (Dale Keneipp), he said, "We're not looking for rebounders." (Corso himself did some enthusiastic quarterbacking as a 5'9" 150-pounder at Florida State in the '50s.)
Nor did he neglect the ranks of the volunteer Jewish kickers. His current placekicking star, David Freud, is an Israeli Army veteran from Jerusalem. Freud is a 26 year old, with a five-o'clock shadow. He is also 5'6" and a free spirit who admonishes Corso for yelling at him. "You must show me the respect due an older person," Freud says.
"Do you want me to whisper?" Corso asks.
"That would be nice," says Freud.
Freud spends a lot of time in Ann Arbor, Mich., his wife's hometown, and likes to drop in on Bo Schembechler. He says he tells Bo that "Coach Corso is proof you do not have to be a bastard to be a football coach."
The question for the moment, however, is not what you have to be but what you have to do to beat Bo. Or to beat Woody. When reality sets in in the Big Ten these days, it sets in hard. In four years at Indiana, Corso has not had a winning season, and in 1976 he was still a game away from .500, at 5-6. In this, his fifth year, he is currently 4-4-1 and 3-2-1 in the conference, with Ohio State still to play. (Corso has Michigan where he wants it this year—off the schedule.) In four years against the Big Two, Corso's Indiana teams are 0 and 8, which is not unique in the Little Eight. Just about everybody else in the sub-conference has a similar record for this period.
Much has been made of this dilemma, the figures being hard to ignore. Since 1968 only Michigan and Ohio State have won conference championships. During that period the two have played 138 league games and lost only 15—and six of those were to each other. Depression, déj√† vu and a group facsimile of the rejected-child syndrome are not uncommon when a Little Eight team plays a Big Two team. Neither are scores of 45 and 55 to nothing. Desperate solutions have been proposed. Alex Agase, who coached at Northwestern and Purdue for nine years, says, "The way things are going, the only way anybody is ever going to beat Ohio State and Michigan is to cheat." Alex apparently didn't.
Athletic directors search their souls and wring their hands when asked to explain the disparity, but would just as soon not talk about it. Illinois' Cecil Coleman says he is "sick of talking about it." Michigan's Don Canham says he doesn't know why the lopsided conditions persist and doesn't know anybody who can tell you. (Maybe Can-ham wouldn't tell you if he knew.) Ara Parseghian, who coached at Northwestern before giving Notre Dame his best years, contends that the problem "defies a logical explanation."
This is not to say that "explanations" are not available, only that it is difficult to separate them from the Swiss cheese of which they mostly consist. Here is a smorgasbord of reasons why the situation exists, and also some possible solutions:
1) THE WE'RE NOT TO THE ONLY ONES, YAH-YAH ARGUMENT. This was recently expanded on by Big Ten Commissioner Wayne Duke in a seven-page pamphlet. Duke contends that Alabama dominates the Southeastern Conference (having won 10 of the last 16 titles), Oklahoma and Nebraska the Big Eight, USC and UCLA the Pacific Eight, and Texas and Arkansas the Southwest, and why doesn't somebody pick on them? The flaw in the argument is that although those teams do indeed hold sway, during the period of 1968-76 their leagues also produced teams from Mississippi, LSU, Georgia, Auburn, Florida, Tennessee, Missouri, Colorado, Kansas, Iowa State, Stanford, Houston, Texas A&M and Baylor which either ranked in the Top Ten or went to a major bowl, or both. Since 1968 no Little Eight team has managed to do either.
2) THE SILVER SPOON ANALYSIS. This one comes with figures to show that Michigan and Ohio State bully the others because they have the best teams tradition can buy. They are blessed with the largest numbers of a) stadium seats, b) budget dollars, c) high schools in their areas and d) alumni to influence recruits and get them summer jobs. Michigan's whopping $5 million gate and Ohio's 900 high schools are just a couple of the numbers, but you get the idea. This theory, however, does not explain why Michigan won only one Big Ten championship in the 18 years before Schembechler's arrival in 1969. Or why other big-tradition teams such as Minnesota and Illinois are no longer in the battle. Despite the Michigan upset, Minnesota's Big Ten record is 2-4-0, including a 38-7 drubbing this season by Ohio State. Illinois has so many high school prospects that 58 were playing for Big Eight teams last year.
Besides, there are no breadlines in the Big Ten. As Duke likes to point out, the league is No. 1 in affluence. "Two million living alumni," he boasts, "the greatest football attendance of any college conference or the pros [average: 60,000 a game conference-wide], the largest student enrollments, the largest population area, and nearly one-fourth of the nation's television sets." Everybody makes money on football in the Big Ten; most (excepting possibly Northwestern and Indiana) make a lot. And they all benefit from a socialistic monetary structure which calls for equal sharing of Rose Bowl and television revenues. Because athletic dormitories are not allowed, no one Big Ten school can spend more on its athletes than any other can without breaking the rules. A sirloin steak tastes pretty much the same in Madison as it does in Columbus. "Tradition, after all, is what you make of it," says a former Big Ten coach. "I'd think little Miami of Ohio or little Bowling Green would love to have Purdue's tradition. But even without it, they still beat 'em."
3) THE PLAY MORE PATSIES SOLUTION. Corso loves this one. The idea is to schedule fewer Big Ten games, not more (the league is going to a full round robin in 1983), and do what Big Ten people think SEC and Big Eight teams do—load up with pushovers to produce records good enough to attract bowl bids. Alas, evidence indicates that the Big Ten ought to steer clear of patsies (see above: Miami, Bowling Green). Since 1968 non-conference opponents hold a staggering 133-73 edge over Little Eight teams, none of which as much as broke even in these games (Michigan and Ohio State, by contrast, are 43-11). Losing non-conference games ruined good Minnesota seasons in 1968, 1969 and 1973; losing five of six non-conference games hurt Michigan State in 1971 and 1972 when it was 10-5 in the league. Last year outside losses cost Purdue, Indiana and Illinois winning seasons. This is not to say schedule makers haven't tried. Oregon, North Carolina, Northern Illinois, Western Michigan, Wake Forest and Syracuse have appeared on recent Little Eight schedules. This year Big Ten teams have played two fewer out-of-conference games than last season—and had their best non-conference record since 1964: 16-12.
Along this line, it is argued that if Big Ten bowl policy had been relaxed earlier (Rose Bowl exclusivity was ended in 1975), other teams besides Michigan and Ohio State would have been getting bowl paychecks and prestige. This is a comforting analysis that holds absolutely no water. Except for Purdue's solid 8-2 in 1969, no Little Eight school has had a record worthy of a bowl's second glance.
4) THE CRIME IS BAD FOR BUSINESS PRINCIPLE. A dubious argument at best, but here goes: Little Eight teams did things they shouldn't have in the past. They got caught. While Michigan and Ohio State were keeping their noses clean, Indiana, Illinois and Minnesota were being penalized by the NCAA. Michigan State has been on NCAA probation three times in 25 years. The moral: scandals and probations offer very few advantages to a football program.
5) THE DESEGREGATION DOUBLE REVERSE. Also of dubious influence. For years some of the finest players in the Big Ten were black athletes from the South and Southwest who couldn't get into their own lily-white institutions but found a friend in Michigan State's Duffy Daugherty (among his really good friends: Bubba Smith, Gene Washington, George Webster) and other open-armed Big Ten coaches. Time marches. Nowadays Bear Bryant loves his good old Alabama blacks. Mississippi State starts three blacks in its backfield. Florida has four. Eureka! The four top rushers in the Big Ten in 1976 were white. But this excuse requires careful handling because of potentially hazardous implications, including the fact that some Big Ten schools—like their counterparts in the Big Eight and SEC—were not always so faithful to academic standards when they loaded up with imports.
6) THE HEARTBREAK HOTEL TREATISE. Or, it was sure lonely being so good but we wised up, all right. Advanced by Commissioner Duke in his pamphlet, this one is saved for last because it offers the best set of excuses. The Big Ten, Duke recalls, went Ivy League from 1957 through 1961, basing the dollar amount of scholarship grants on the "need" principle, the ability of an applicant to pay. This policy permitted schools from other conferences to raid Big Ten territory at will, passing out full scholarships like drugstore handbills. The need rule was finally hollered down by the Big Ten coaches in 1962, but, Duke argues, the effects were long-lasting. The Big Ten also hurt itself by imposing lower scholarship limits (30 a year compared with, say, the Big Eight's 45), and having junior college transfer restrictions (until 1970) and anti-redshirt rules (until 1973). These arguments would be more convincing in explaining the current status of the Little Eight, except that Ohio State and Michigan kept winning throughout the period in question. Ohio State, in fact, won with fewer players than the Big Ten limit, and still does, despite the NCAA's phasing-in of a rule limiting football scholarships to a total of 95 over the course of any four-year period. (Hayes had only 87 players on scholarship last year.) It also must be pointed out that 1962 was a long time ago.
So much for the party line. Now it is 1977, and, you ask, what is our hero Lee Corso doing about all this? Well, naturally, Lee Corso is saying things. Some of the things he says get him in trouble with Commissioner Duke. For example, Corso says, "We're on the road to self-destruction. Ohio State and Michigan won't die, but there's no question in my mind the conference is in trouble." (Corso is saying this to support his plea for fewer conference games and more outside patsies. See Argument 3.) A "friendly letter" from Duke suggested that Lee try to be more positive. Corso says, "Heck, I'm the most positive guy in the world. I love the Big Ten."
But Corso also says things that, once you stop and think about them, make you stop and think about them. For example, he believes that Schembechler is responsible for the whole mess. "Bo Schembechler," says Corso, "will go down in history as the greatest football coach. He knows the game, he works hard. And he's not a crook. If you said, 'Give me two coaches to represent the U.S. anywhere,' I'd give you Joe Paterno and Bo Schembechler."
But, says Corso, pacing the den of his suburban Bloomington home in his stocking feet, Schembechler caused a lot of trouble when he took over at Michigan. "Bo woke up the sleeping giant. Michigan always had good teams, but when Bo came along Michigan got good enough to scare Woody."
Corso, reenacting the drama, grabs his head with both hands. "Oh, dagnabit! Now we're in trouble. The other guy [Woody] says, 'Weell, I can't just let this happen.' Bo is Woody's protege. Woody knows Bo, and he knows he can't afford just to be good anymore, he has to be better. So Woody got better. And then Bo got better."
Corso, standing erect, puts one fist over the other, depicting Bo getting the edge on Woody.
"And then Woody got better." His Woody fist piles on Bo. "And then Bo got better, and on and on." Corso is on his tiptoes, his fists working over his head.
"Now they're up here," Corso stretches—"and we're down here"—he bends to his knees, his fists on the floor—"eating each other up." He collapses in a chair.
"The difference in football, in the Big Ten or anywhere, is coaching. Bo and Woody are great coaches. It was bad enough just having Woody on top, now we've got both of 'em trying to outdo each other. They won't let anybody beat 'em now. I almost beat Woody. I. almost beat Bo. The next year they killed us.
"I gave Bo a helluva game in 1974; he was hanging on to win 21-7. The next year he had me 42-0 with seven minutes to play in the first half. In the first half. I called upstairs. 'Find the press book. See what the alltime record for points against Indiana is.' 'Why?' 'I think We're going for it.? We were behind 55-0 when we finally scored. We looked all over the place for the tee to kick the extra point. I told the referee, 'We didn't think we'd score.' I had to go over and borrow Bo's tee. He said sure. Bo's all right, just don't beat him.
"Indiana beat Woody his first year at Ohio State, in 1951. He said, 'That school will never beat us again.' My first year he beat us 37-7, then 49-9. I said, 'Woody, I was three years old when you made that vow.' Actually, I was 17."
Corso giggles and lights a cigar. He says that if you don't have a sense of humor in this business you're liable to go crazy. Some people, he says, misread his enthusiasm. He has been called a clown and a huckster. "But I read once that a sense of humor is not a sign of weakness, and I believe it, so I don't let what people say bother me. The people who know me don't say those things." On the den wall over his head is an autographed picture of Woody Hayes with the inscription: "To my good friend and great competitor."
"People think it's terrible because Bo and Woody don't win the Rose Bowl [six defeats in the last eight years], that it's a reflection on the whole league. Bull! If they're going to judge the Big Ten on one game, they should change the format. They make the Big Ten teams go out there 10 days early. Everybody wines and dines 'em and fattens 'em up, and then they feed 'em to a Coast team that's been hard at work since before Christmas—on its own field. The timing is all wrong.
"Everything in life is timing. If coaches are going to win anything, they've got to have the proper time. That's the crux of the problem right now. How many coaches have been in the Big Ten as long as Bo? None. None except Woody. A coach gets hired with a lot of fanfare and promises, and he starts out...."
Corso begins to pace, making exaggerated stiff-legged step-one, two, three, four—"and doesn't win enough games, and they fire him, too." Stop. Turn. Step, step, step. Corso marches back and forth over the same spot. "Every time you bounce a coach you start from zero. You can't build a program this way. You can't establish recruiting areas or get much continuity going with your staff and players, or anything. Unless you get lucky, you'll be out before you win.
"Some jobs take longer than others, but anybody can tell if a team is improving, and that should be the key. If you've got a lousy coach, you'll know it. It won't matter how many years he has. But if a guy is making progress.... People don't realize it, but Tom Landry was in his sixth year with the Dallas Cowboys before he even broke even. He had five straight losing seasons, and then he was 7-7 his sixth year! He finally broke even."
Corso grins through the smoke of his cigar.
"I just thought you should know that."
(Bump Elliott, the Iowa athletic director, recently made a study of "coaching stability" in the Big Ten. Elliott found that whereas the league enjoyed a "stable" lineup of relatively successful coaches well into the '60s—Daugherty at Michigan State, Elliott himself at Michigan, his brother Pete at Illinois, Jack Mollenkopf at Purdue, Murray Warmath at Minnesota, Milt Bruhn at Wisconsin, Hayes at Ohio State—the substitution rate since then has been frantic. Save for Woody and Bo, the only coach who started the 1970s at a Big Ten school and is still on the job is John Jardine at Wisconsin, who may be rewarded for his patience with a winning season this year. No other coach has served more than five years. Three new coaches came in with Corso in 1973, and two already have been relieved. Two more were hired this year, and it is significant to recite their pedigrees: Jim Young at Purdue was once on Schembechler's staff; Gary Moeller at Illinois coached under Schembechler and played for Hayes.)
But so much for what Corso is saying. Besides providing a sanctuary for short players, what is Corso doing? To examine that, one must first understand the possible value of such an examination: that if Indiana can win in the Big Ten, anybody can.
These things Corso inherited in 1973: a school with the worst won-lost record in the Big Ten; one that had never had an unbeaten-untied season; one that had had only three winning seasons; one that had only three winning seasons since 1947. The Hoosiers had also been caught cheating in 1960 and put on a four-year probation, the stiffest sentence in Big Ten history.
Now for the bad news. There was also a race problem. "Indiana blacks won't come to Indiana," Corso was told. Indiana blacks proved it. In 1969, 14 black players had walked out of practice, and in the next two years Indiana was able to sign only one black all-state player. But then, Indiana whites weren't all that eager to come, either. When those few outstanding athletes Indiana produced from its 180 high schools (compared with Ohio's 900, remember?) decided to stay in the state, they went to other schools. Vagas Ferguson to Notre Dame, Mark Herrmann to Purdue.
And lest all this should go to his head, after his first year Corso had his budget cut 15% by the Indiana athletic director, Bill Orwig, who has since retired, and was told not to take too many trips.
Corso says it was a good time to be philosophical. "If you want to create something, a chance to leave a legacy, you look for a job like this," he says. "Then you look for an administration that will give you enough time. Somebody asked me, 'Can you win big at Indiana in a hurry without cheating?' I said, 'No.' 'Can you win more than you lose?' 'Yes.' I told President [John W.] Ryan, 'It'll take 10 years to have the winning program I want.' President Ryan said, 'You'll be coach as long as I'm here.' I said, 'How long's your contract?' "
The mistake in taking Corso too lightly is not just to overlook the fact that he encourages a marvelous esprit, but also to miss the essential ingredient: he is a tireless worker with a keen sense of organization. As he had at Louisville, he brought to Indiana football a breathtaking thoroughness. He prides himself on his thoroughness. "We even practice our halftime routines—going to the bathroom, getting a Coke, sitting down, having a pretzel," he says. "We argued 20 minutes over whether to have round or straight pretzels. We leave nothing to chance around here."
And what of his progress? On the lay-away plan, progress can be a lot of things: signing Al Darring to an Indiana scholarship, for one. Darring was the best high school football player in Indiana in 1976. He is black. Progress is recruiting "kids we can count on," Corso says. "I've only had to go to the jailhouse twice in four years. That's an amazing record." Progress can be getting alumni support for a new $300,000 weight room.
Progress on the field is usually defined on the scoreboard, but sometimes there are other measures. "When we played Michigan last year," Corso says, "a Michigan player said they actually had to practice for us. They couldn't look past us the way they used to. A breakthrough! My first year Woody gave Ohio State Monday off the week they played us. The first time he'd done that in 26 years. But he hasn't done it since! Two years ago in Columbus we had his lead cut to 17-14 in the fourth quarter. All those fans, 83,000 people, just sat there. It sounded like death. Woody gave Pete Johnson the ball nine straight times, and they beat us 24-14. That's progress."
In January 1976 Corso got some rather spectacular support from an unexpected source. Indiana hired Paul Dietzel to replace Orwig as athletic director. Dietzel is a former big-time football coach (LSU, Army, South Carolina) who likes to keep an athletic department's priorities in order: i.e., "with an emotional and physical emphasis on football." Dietzel looked at the figures. "We can't afford the luxury of averaging 17,000 empty seats a game," he said. "Football pays the freight."
Dietzel didn't know Corso, but he had heard a lot about him. He ignored that. "I wanted to see what kind of football coach he was. So I sneaked around and watched practice in a place where Lee couldn't spot me. You can find out things watching practice, what a coach is trying to do, how he's going about it. I learned a lot about Lee.
"People say Corso's a clown. They think he's a clown because he laughs off failures. I can assure you Corso is no clown. He's a sound, solid football coach. His staff works their butts off, and they're all first-class people. They reflect him. Lee's a wild stallion,' but it's easier to tone down a stallion than to put life in a dead horse.
"Indiana isn't interested in undercutting Ohio State or Michigan. Indiana wants to join 'em at the top. I think we can do it with Lee Corso. I'll tell you something not many people know. A motel operator somehow got hold of Iowa's game plan last year and gave it to me. I was going to throw it away when I decided I'd ask Lee if he wanted it, to see what he'd do. He said, 'Get rid of it. I don't even want to look at it.' "
Dietzel "freed" the budget for Corso. A boosters club that had raised $300,000 Corso's first year raised $660,000 in 1976. A billboard on the edge of town declared Bloomington THE HOME OF THE BIG RED, and Big Red placemats, salt and pepper shakers and sugar packages began to materialize on tables all over town.
After a victory over Iowa raised Indiana's 1976 record to 3-3, Dietzel and President Ryan did an extraordinary thing: they gave Corso a three-year extension of his contract. "With a raise!" Corso says. "Most coaches would have been fired in that situation—we had Ohio State and Michigan coming up." Indiana lost those games, of course, but finished strong, beating Wisconsin and archrival Purdue in what Corso calls his j.s. (for job saver) game. "It was only the second time in six years we'd beaten Purdue. I slept with the Old Oaken Bucket right there in the bed between Betsy and me. I put my arm around that thing and held it all night. On Thanksgiving we put flowers in it and used it as our centerpiece."
Earlier this year Indiana upset LSU, an SEC power, 24-21. It was no fluke. The Hoosiers, even without the injured Harkrader, rushed for 300 yards. Indiana had Nebraska on the ropes in the fourth quarter, trailing only 17-13, but then gave up the ball on a fourth-down gamble in its own territory and lost 31-13. Two years ago Nebraska beat Indiana 45-0. Nebraska Coach Tom Osborne told Corso it was "the greatest two-year improvement I've ever seen." The week after Minnesota upset Michigan, Indiana scored 21 points in the fourth quarter to beat the Gophers 34-22.
"We've learned how to bite," Corso said one afternoon recently, fidgeting in his office before a practice. "We have gone from a dog quivering in the corner to a dog that bites. Biting's better."
He said he was glad to have Dietzel to talk to because "now I've got somebody who can tell me how long the tunnel is when I tell him I can see the light at the end of it. I've learned a lot from Coach Dietzel. I go to him. Half of knowledge is knowing where to find it. I used to go see Paul Brown when he was coaching the Bengals in Cincinnati. I'd drive up, spend 15 minutes and then drive back. It was like going to see the Pope.
"Paul Brown taught me three things. One, come out smoking. Two, when you're ahead 14-0 in the fourth quarter, grab your tail and hold on. And three, travel first-class. When we beat Cincinnati University one year, I said I owed it all to Paul Brown. Paul called me up. He said, 'Listen, be careful who you give credit to. I live in Cincinnati, you know.' "
Corso giggled and leaped up from his desk to go to practice. He put his cap on and carefully squared it. "If you look good, you practice good, then you play good," he said.
Things were indeed looking up, he said, but to reassure himself one morning after a particularly heartbreaking defeat, when he was still feeling blue, he got up before anyone and drove all the way to Louisville, "just to see that new stadium we built. My program did that. I wanted to remind myself." He said he looked at it, then turned around and drove back, reassured.
He tugged at the bill of his cap, picked up his schedule for the day and breezed toward the door of his office, passing as he did the two engraved plaques that are prominent on his paneled walls. One, burned in wood, reads: "Let me win, but if I cannot win let me be brave in the attempt." The other, lettered over polished wood, is the familiar lacerated Latin: "Illegitimi Non Carborundum."
Glancing at the latter, Corso grinned happily and shouted, "Don't let the bastards wear you down!"