Bloomington, Ind. – This is the sort of work environment IU Coach Bill Lynch enjoys being around.
Lynch's IU team is in the midst of a long week of preparation for its Dec. 31 Insight Bowl match-up with Oklahoma State. With a week of no classes for the players and few distractions for everyone, Lynch has the Hoosiers practicing nine times at the Mellencamp Pavilion.
But these isn't the same sort of arduous sessions that the team goes through in August. Sure, they're spending plenty of time getting ready for Oklahoma State quarterback Zac Robinson, and they're working with the IU freshmen as well in an effort to get them ready for spring ball. But it's also a time that the players and coaches seem to be thoroughly enjoying as they gear up for IU's first bowl appearance in 14 years.
"They're still practicing hard, but they are having fun," Lynch said Wednesday. "That comes with having a little success. They realize you can have fun doing this as long as you work hard and understand what it takes."
It's been a while since either Indiana or Lynch had the opportunity to go through a set of December practices in preparation for a bowl game. Indiana's last bowl trip was the 1993 Independence Bowl, while Lynch's last trip came in 1996 when he took Ball State to the Las Vegas Bowl.
Lynch says the team's enthusiasm is not only from the chance to play a 13th game, but also because the team has developed an affinity for each other.
"I've been around some grumpy teams, and they aren't any fun to be around," Lynch said. "If they're that way, they don't enjoy football or they don't enjoy each other. This group enjoys football and each other, and that's why they have fun and are loose."
While there are many benefits being derived from IU's bowl trip, one won't become apparent until March.
That's when the Hoosiers will open spring practice. As is the case every season, IU will be able to spread 15 practices over a three or four-week period. Spring practice will also mark the last opportunity for the team to work with the coaching staff before it returns in the fall for camp.
But this time around, Indiana will be able to build on what it's been able to accomplish in its bowl preparation. While IU spends plenty of time working with the first and second stringers while getting ready for Oklahoma State, the staff is also spending a good portion of each practice session working with the freshmen and scout team players as well.
That will give the team a leg up once spring ball arrives.
"I think when you start in the spring you're just that much further ahead, you're further along with knowing the offense and defense," Lynch said. "You only get 15 practices in the spring, and with the young guy you're (spending) about four or five installing the offense and defense because they really haven't been taught it."
The Hoosiers are getting an additional 17 practices in this month, including nine during this week's two-a-day sessions. Many of the young players who have spent the entire fall on the scout team learning opposing teams' offenses and defenses are getting an opportunity to learn IU's system, which will pay off in March.
"Having gone through this, your first day of spring, your offense and defense are in and away you go," Lynch said.
While Indiana's bowl berth was the culmination of a season-long goal to "Play 13" in memory of Terry Hoeppner, Lynch is now hoping that this year's trip to the Insight Bowl is just the start of bigger and better things in Bloomington.
The Hoosier coach said getting to the Insight Bowl is the first step on the journey of building a consistent winner. The next step will be to become a consistent bowl team, followed by trying to compete for conference championships and BCS bowl berths.
"You have to take it one step at a time, like everything else we've tried to do here," Lynch said. "So we've reached that first step. Now we have to take advantage of it. We have to take advantage of it by getting better in the preparation, we have to take advantage of it by competing to win the football game, which I think is important."
According to that formula of success, the next step for the Hoosiers is showing this year's trip wasn't just a blip on the radar.
"The mark of a really good football program is one that's really consistent," Lynch said. "That doesn't mean they're going to win every game, but they're competitive week in and week out, and they are going to win their share of games, and they're going to go to bowl games and then they're going to have years where they compete for championships."
While final grades don't have to be reported until Wednesday night, Lynch felt confident Wednesday afternoon about how his team performed in the classroom.
If any players were ruled academically ineligible they'd be unable to play in the Insight Bowl, but Lynch said early indications were that his team was in good shape to be at full strength when it departs for Arizona next week.
"So far, it's been a really good semester," Lynch said. "This is a good group of guys that worked hard and really took care of business, and it seems they really took care of business in the classroom. If you learn to do things right on a consistent basis, it's going to pay off in a lot of ways."
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