Few people are enjoying what could be Indiana's breakthrough football season more than former coach Bill Mallory.
Mallory finished his career in 1996 as the Hoosiers' winningest coach and still lives in Bloomington. He's familiar with second-year coach Kevin Wilson, his son Doug is the co-defensive coordinator and he goes to practices and home games.
Mallory said he sees in Wilson — who in 2011 became the Hoosiers' fifth coach in 14 years — a leader capable of winning consistently at a place where winning seasons have been few and far between.
"I do believe," Mallory said this week. "I've got a great passion for this school and this program. I definitely want to see it succeed and feel very strong it's going to."
The Hoosiers (4-5, 2-3) are coming off back-to-back Big Ten wins for the first time since 2007. If they knock off Wisconsin (6-3, 3-2) in their final home game Saturday, they would gain the inside track to representing the Leaders Division in the conference championship game. Ohio State and Penn State, the teams ahead of the Hoosiers in the division standings, are ineligible to play in the game.
The 77-year-old Mallory said he tries to contain his excitement, revert to his coaching ways and look at the Wisconsin game as just the next one on the schedule.
Mallory acknowledges it's more than that.
"If they could finish out with a winning season and get to a bowl, that would be great," he said. "That would be a great plus and something you can build on."
Mallory remains invested in the program. He shows up at every Tuesday and Wednesday practice and will pop in on Thursdays if he's not playing golf. He talks to Wilson and the assistants regularly but is no meddler.
"He never says anything unless you ask," Wilson said. "He just loves the smell and sound of being around it."
Mallory said he's optimistic for a few reasons. First, he likes the way Wilson goes about his job and how he stays upbeat in what is one of the nation's most challenging places to coach football. Mallory also likes the commitment shown by school president Michael McRobbie and athletic director Fred Glass.
The North End Zone Student-Athlete Development Center opened in 2009 and houses the football program and one of the largest weight rooms in the nation.
Indiana's recruiting classes still rank at or near the bottom of the Big Ten, but Wilson is getting more talented prospects to give the Hoosiers a look. Thirteen players have pledged to the 2013 class, including three four-star prospects. Two of those four-stars are from Indiana.
"The state of Indiana plays a lot better high school football than sometimes people realize, and they're really hitting this," Mallory said. "We made a living off this state. A lot of good coaches and players come out of here and Kevin knows it."
Indiana long has been a basketball school — the Hoosiers are No. 1 in the preseason poll — with football almost an afterthought.
Mallory said things are in place to become good in both sports.
"We're serious," Mallory said. "We want to make it a go."
Indiana has been playing football since 1885 and in the Big Ten since 1900. Wilson is the 28th coach, and only six of his predecessors had winning records. The Hoosiers have had only 12 NFL first-round draft picks since 1936 and none since 1994.
The 1945 team coached by Alvin N. "Bo" McMillin won the school's only outright Big Ten championship. The 1967 team under John Pont started 8-0 and lost to eventual national champion Southern California in the Rose Bowl. The Hoosiers had only one more winning season until 1979, when Lee Corso coached them to a Holiday Bowl win over BYU.
Mallory came along five years later to start his 13-season run. Mallory's teams account for six of the school's nine bowl appearances.
The Hoosiers had only five winning seasons in almost 40 years before Mallory arrived. But after a 0-11 start, Mallory went 64-49-3 in the next 10 years. He was the Big Ten coach of the year in 1986 and '87.
When athletic director Clarence Doninger announced Mallory's firing after eight games in 1996, he said Mallory was a victim of his own success. The six bowls came in a span of eight years, and expectations rose.
His 2-9 record in 1995, followed by a 2-6 start in '96, cost him his job.
Mallory's 68 wins are an Indiana record. So are his 75 losses.
Cam Cameron followed and never had a winning record in five years. Gerry DiNardo won a total of three Big Ten games in three years. Terry Hoeppner was 9-14 in two years. Bill Lynch took the Hoosiers to the Insight Bowl in 2007 and then won three Big Ten games the next three years.
Wilson went 1-11 and 0-8 last year. He started 46 different players, including a Bowl Subdivision-high 12 freshmen.
This year he has only three senior starters. Still, the Hoosiers have scored 24 or more points in each game this season and 10 straight overall, a school record. They've score more points in nine games than they did in 12 last year. They lead the Big Ten in passing and kickoff returns and are second in total offense.
Outwardly, Wilson downplays the Hoosiers' progress.
"But I think down deep he's excited with what he's seeing and the improvement being made," Mallory said.
Mallory said Wilson is dealing with success the way the coach of a long-struggling program should.
"You don't get satisfied because when you get satisfied, that's when you level off, and when you level off you go downhill," he said.
"When you're in the process of building a team like he is, and like back when I was involved here, it's something you build on."