Bucket Full of Questions

Indiana and Purdue head to the gridiron in West Lafayette Saturday for the 86th battle for the Old Oaken Bucket. Each and every year this game has significance for the two schools, but this year that rivalry is shrouded with intrigue for the Hoosiers. Questions abound and surround the IU program as they enter the ultimate game of the 2010 season and today we look for some answers.

Indiana and Purdue head to the gridiron in West Lafayette Saturday for the 86th battle for the Old Oaken Bucket. Each and every year this game has significance due to the heated rivalry between the two schools, but this year that rivalry is shrouded with intrigue for the Hoosiers. Questions abound and surround the IU program as they enter the ultimate game of the 2010 season and today we look for some answers.

Will Coach Bill Lynch return next season at Indiana?

Lynch will be looking for his first Big Ten win of the season and just his third in the last three seasons. Some wonder if this may be his last attempt at IU. It's certainly been another dismal season in Bloomington, despite some highly competitive games. Lynch has one year remaining on his contract and an Athletic Director in Fred Glass who believes in the sanctity of contracts. That being said, entering 2011 as a lame duck isn't ideal and extending the coach's contract based on his record would be difficult in the current climate of fan support.

This week's game at Purdue will certainly be another interesting chapter in the saga, but it won't necessarily be a determining one. There are far too many factors going into this decision and perhaps some of the answers below will give insight into that decision process.

What went wrong this season?

The 2010 season can be easily summarized using the program's own terminology—they simply couldn't finish. After watching several hotly contested games slip away last season, the coaching staff made turning close losses into big wins a priority all off-season. "Finish" was a mantra heard early and often around the football complex in 2010, but that focus on results unfortunately didn't provide many positive ones this season.

An agonizing loss to Michigan in a shootout in Bloomington cost the Hoosiers a big dose of early momentum. A win at home against Northwestern could've provided some relief from the building pressure of a season heading the wrong way. One more catch against Iowa could've provided the program with a signature win and made bowl-eligibility a legitimate discussion in Bloomington. But each and every game slipped away in a very familiar fashion. The only game the Hoosiers were able to win in the final moments was a Homecoming game against Arkansas State. A loss there and things would have really got ugly.

There were, of course, other reasons for the Hoosiers lack of success this season. Injuries hit early and hit hard all season. Losing Darius Willis and Chris Adkins for most of the season took two key playmakers away from each side of the ball. But every football team faces injuries and the Hoosiers proved their margin was simply too thin to overcome them.

Has the program improved and is it on schedule for continued improvement under Lynch?

Perhaps it's best to start with a quote from Lynch himself:

"We've been very, very competitive. I think in the last two years, we've had 15 Big Ten games and 10 of them we've had the lead or were within a score in the fourth quarter, and we've only won one of them. So, that's the reflection of us not finishing and not getting it done, but certainly a reflection on us being competitive."

It's certainly a double-edged sword for Lynch and his program. While the Hoosiers have shown impressive mettle in many games during his tenure, it's the stinging losses that stick with most fans. Glass is certain to have a more nuanced view of the coach's body of work and watching the Hoosiers come to the precipice of turning a real corner can certainly be viewed as a positive sign. But to really gauge the program there are bigger factors to be examined.

Has the program recruited well enough to sustain a competitive program? Has the coaching staff developed that talent to provide enough depth for success? Have their coaching decisions been sound and led to improvements? Have they built an atmosphere of respect and discipline? Are they turning out quality student-athletes and good citizens? The list goes on and on.

While you can certainly question some of the on-field results, Lynch has produced stellar results off the field. You don't see Hoosier players in the newspapers over and over again for bad decisions. The team graduates players and sends quality men into the world each season.

That counts for a lot at Indiana, but will it overcome some of the seeming negatives. Indiana has been unable to produce the type of depth of talent in the trenches that they need to be consistently successful in the Big Ten. Despite massive redshirting, the Hoosiers still lack depth and high-end talent on their defense. Special teams remain an enigma. For every piece of offensive wizardry developed over the years, there have been equally glaring decisions made on defense. There is a lot to consider when sizing up Lynch and his staff, including the next question.

What's the alternative?

Ever since Bill Mallory was shown the door the Indiana athletic department has operated under the same model of decision-making when it comes to their football program—hire and fire, with little time in between. It's become a bit of a chicken-and-the-egg discussion in local circles. Are the Hoosiers mired in mediocrity at best because they are constantly turning over the program and creating upheaval by replacing coaches every few years? Or has their hand been forced each and every time by making the wrong hire and no longer being able to accept the results?

It's clear that the Hoosiers have suffered from the constant upheaval in the program and the constantly changing coaching philosophies with their football team. Ideally, a coach would be able to come in and really build a program from the ground up and have time to let everything take hold and gain momentum. But how long do you allow for this, and more importantly, how do you know you have the right man for the job?

Perhaps the answer is to spend big money and make an unprecedented commitment to a proven name at head coach. But even that comes with its own pitfalls. Lynch's deal amounts to around 600K after his media deal is considered. Imagine paying two million for a losing record in Bloomington. Factor in that IU's history of replacing coaches quickly doesn't exactly make it a premier coaching destination and it appears that getting a "big name" coach isn't the simple answer it seems to some.

These are among the biggest questions facing Fred Glass right now. How do you go about changing institutionalized habits regarding program turnover and contracts without risking letting the football team fall into an economic sinkhole of repeated losing seasons? It's a challenge that has bested many who came before Glass.

Is this Judgment Week for Bill Lynch?

Unfortunately for those looking for answers, it's impossible to say as only Fred Glass knows the answer. What can be said is that there is only one thing that is a bigger threat to Lynch right now than an embarrassing loss in West Lafayette this weekend—losing commitments from a talented 2011 recruiting class. If more recruits break their pledge to Lynch in the coming months Glass' decision might get a lot easier.

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