After a break, back home again

Jim Martinho

When Gerry DiNardo took a year off from college football in 2000 — his first away from the sideline since 1974 — he had no intention of staying away too long.

“It’s like I never left,” said DiNardo, who took over as Indiana’s head coach in January. “I’ve been doing this all my life, other than one year. That one year is a distant memory, and the 1975 season seems like yesterday. I wasn’t in Dick Vermeil retirement or anything, it was just a little bit.”

Vermeil, the emotional coach of the Kansas City Chiefs, spent 15 years away from the game after retiring from the Philadelphia Eagles in 1983. He returned to coaching in 1997 and led the St. Louis Rams to a Super Bowl title in his third season back.

Hoosiers fans can only hope DiNardo has similar success in his tenure in Bloomington.

History may be on his side. The 25-year veteran has turned programs around as the head coach at Vanderbilt and LSU. He now comes to Indiana with the goal of revamping a program that has posted seven straight losing seasons under coaches Bill Mallory and Cam Cameron.

“I’ve learned that it takes time,” DiNardo said. “One thing I’ve tried not to do is to get it done right away. I think strong relationships take time to build, and it takes a while to have players buy into your system and have confidence in you.”

DiNardo made news when he made recruiting trips across Indiana during his first week as head coach. He said recruiting within the school’s home state is important in rebuilding the program.

“We believe there’s probably eight to 12 Big Ten-caliber players in the state of Indiana each year,” DiNardo said. “When Purdue went to the Rose Bowl in 2000, about 20 of their 85 players were from Indiana. That seems to be about the right mix to me.”

Indiana has compiled a 3-5 record (1-3 Big Ten) in DiNardo’s first year. The Hoosiers went 5-6 last season despite outstanding performances from quarterback Antwaan Randle El and running back Levron Williams, both of whom are gone. Playing without Williams and Randle El, one of the nation’s most exciting players, has been a major adjustment for this year’s team.

The battle to find an offensive general was won by senior Tommy Jones, but graduate student Gibran Hamdan replaced him early in the season and has emerged as one of the conference’s better signal callers.

Still, DiNardo said his offense doesn’t put too much pressure on any one player.

“One of the reasons we’re in this offense is it isn’t based on your quarterback or your running back having a good day or bad day, ” he said. “It’s a balanced offense, so if someone’s struggling, we can take the pressure off that part and excel in another part.”

In 1974 DiNardo graduated from Notre Dame, where he played in three bowl games as an offensive lineman. The next year he took his first coaching job as an assistant at Maine, a Division I-AA program.

DiNardo took over at Vanderbilt in 1991 and went 5-6 in his first season, a dramatic turnaround from the Commodores’ 1-10 record one year earlier. He moved to LSU in 1995, taking on a team that had suffered six straight losing seasons.

He posted a 26-9-1 record in his first three seasons in Baton Rouge, all of which culminated in bowl games. But things started going south for DiNardo in 1998. The Tigers went 4-7 and 2-8 in his final two seasons, and rumors circulated that he was going to be fired.

After coaching for nine seasons in the Southeastern Conference, DiNardo now pioneers a program in another of the nation’s power conferences. The SEC is known its wide-open, speed-based style of play, in contrast to the smashmouth, between-the-tackles style of the Big Ten.

“I think after a year standing on the sideline I’ll be better able to compare the SEC and the Big Ten,” DiNardo said. “Over the course of any 10-year period I would be hard-pressed to say any conference is superior to the other. At the end of 10 years, the Big Ten is going to stand up to the SEC or the Big 12, so at the end of the discussion they’re all balanced.”

DiNardo pioneered legislation that allows Big Ten teams to oversign scholarships on signing day. This tactic was legal in the SEC and would be key for the Hoosiers, who currently have just 65 players on scholarship.

After just four games in his new league, his team has shown signs of improvement. But DiNardo has no timeline to engineer one of his patented turnarounds.

“I came into this not knowing where we were,” DiNardo said. “I knew where we wanted to go and I knew how to get there, but I didn’t know — and I still don’t know — how long the road would be.”