Second in a three-part series comparing special Indiana University football seasons 1945, 1967 and 2020.
In a season bursting with sweet memories, perhaps the tastiest was beating Purdue to capture the Old Oaken Bucket. Maybe in its own way it meant more to the 1967 Indiana football team than winning the Big Ten title and going to the Rose Bowl.
Maybe. Sometimes those brother-versus-brother wars stoke the emotions the deepest. And all of that other stuff was riding on victory.
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“We had to win it,” said Doug Crusan, captain of one of IU’s greatest football teams.
It was the last game of the regular season and it would be the last game of a glorious fall if the bus ride home from West Lafayette to Bloomington was accompanied by depressing silence.
Yes, the Hoosiers had to beat the Boilermakers to frost the cake and claim the regional and national spoils. An assistant coach’s pep talk resonated with the defensive players. They understood what was at stake at Purdue.
“The Big Ten title and the Rose Bowl,” said All-American linebacker Ken Kaczmarek. “Isn’t that what you play for?”
Crusan, who became a No. 1 draft pick of the Miami Dolphins, and Kaczmarek, may have been hungrier than most Hoosiers for team glory. That’s because in 1966, Indiana finished 1-8-1 and in 1965 Indiana finished 2-8-1.
The college football world did not see 1967 coming when Indiana thrust itself onto the national scene with a 9-2 mark and a No. 4 national ranking. It was the high-point season for more than a quarter century with a win total that in 53 years since has yet to be equaled.
Who are those guys?
With few seasonal exceptions, including this 2020 season, the Indiana University football team has been more underdog than powerhouse.
One reason the Hoosiers’ No. 7 national ranking this fall was so hard to come by is historical precedent. Voters begrudged them attention because they haven’t been one of the Big Ten’s top teams for years.
Same in 1967, The Hoosiers entered the season unheralded and then blindsided their first eight opponents. IU did not swamp foes, Almost every game was close and somewhat low-scoring. No one proclaimed Indiana a juggernaut, yet the wins stockpiled.
The ‘67 season began with a 12-10 non-conference victory over Kentucky on Sept. 23. A week later the Hoosiers edged Kansas, 18-15. The Jayhawks had Bobby Douglass at quarterback, who had long NFL career.
IU won its first conference game, 20-7, over Illinois and then edged Iowa, 21-17. The Hoosiers topped the Wolverines, 27-20 in the Big House in Michigan and completed the non-league schedule with a 42-7 thumping of Arizona.
“Our non-conference schedule was pretty good,” Kaczmarek said. “There were no breathers.”
Indiana was 6-0 and at the end of October IU was ranked 10th in the weekly college poll.
This was the program’s third season under coach John Pont. Two seasons in, his record was 3-16-2. No wonder nobody figured on this emergence.
“We made some changes,” Crusan said.
One involved him.
“Coach Pont called me in one day,” Crusan said after the 1966 season, “and he said, ‘I’m moving you to defense. By the way, I want you to lose 30 pounds. I reported that year at 232.”
A strong sophomore class supplemented the holdover players.
The important sophomore was quarterback Harry Gonso, who was born in Findlay, Ohio, in his first of three seasons as the starter.
Pont, who had coached Miami of Ohio and Yale before Indiana, was also from Ohio. This was the beacon season of his career and he and Gonso connected.
“He was a very dynamic guy,” Gonso said. “”He did not degrade a player. He was always positive. He would be fiery. We had a special chemistry. He was just such a wonderful man. He was like another father to me.”
Gonso was an inexperienced, but dependable leader whose statistics were not flashy in an era when big numbers for passers were more elusive. In 1967, he completed 67 of 143 attempts for 931 yards and 9 touchdowns. In three seasons he threw for 32 touchdowns and 3,446 yards.
“It was a combination of the young guys and the older guys,” Gonso said. “Our confidence in each other grew with every game. The seniors and upper-classmen provided the stability.”
The spotlight finally turned on Indiana produced a glow for Gonso, who was selected as first-team All-Big Ten that season, as well as academic All-Big Ten and Academic All-American.
Indiana’s leading rusher, that year, and for the next two seasons, was John Isenbarger, He churned for 579 yards, averaging 4.8 yards per handoff in 1967, and improved from there, reaching 1,217 yards, in 1969.
The Hoosiers were more likely to grind down opponents than dazzle them. They beat Wisconsin, 14-9 and then Michigan State, 14-13. In 1966, the Spartans manhandled IU, 37-19. That team shared the national championship behind defensive stalwarts Bubba Smith and George Webster.
Smith was notorious as a sacker of quarterbacks and home fans exhorted him with the phrase, “Kill, Bubba, kill!”
Before switching to defense, Crusan went head-to-head with Smith in 1966.
“I did OK,” Crusan said. “I survived.”
That next season, following the two dismal campaigns, when the Hoosiers beat Michigan and Michigan State, the Spartans, 14-13, Crusan said, “was a reward for everything we went through.”
A surprise stumble
The Bloomington faithful were giddy about being 8-0. Then the Hoosiers traveled to Minnesota Nov. 18 and got smacked, losing 33-7. Bye-bye undefeated record. Maybe au revoir to the Big Ten title.
“We just had a bad game,” Kaczmarek said.
Players were morose, as if something special had been yanked out of their hands. Returning to campus the team was shepherded into the Gladstein Fieldhouse. Shocked, the football men were greeted by thousands of cheering supporters — Gonso remembers it as 3,000, Kaczmarek said 5,000.
To Gonso, the reaction was a human get-well card.
“To me, it meant, ‘You’re forgiven,’” he said. “’We love you. You’re great.’ It just really lifted our spirits.”
That was a salve, but the team still had to watch the game film. Kaczmarek said he remembers an assistant coach pausing it with the spotlight on him and berating him, “Last week you would have killed this guy.”
The point was that against Purdue he’d better kill the new guy opposite him on the line.
Everything hinged on the Purdue showdown. Going into the Nov. 25 game, the Boilermakers were ranked third nationally. Running back Leroy Keyes, a two-time All-American and future pro, rushed for about 1,000 yards. Quarterback Mike Phipps became an All-American and played 12 seasons in the NFL.
“Defensively, we had to stop Leroy Keyes,” Crusan said.
They did. They stopped everyone when they had to do it. This was the eighth time the Hoosiers prevailed in the final minutes of a game, fighting off Purdue, 19-14, a year after practically drowning in that Old Oaken Bucket in a 51-6 loss.
The day began cloudy, but the weather changed.
“Right before the game, the skies became as bright as could be,” Gonso said. “I thought it was for me.”
In a dual role unheard of for a starting quarterback in 2020, Gonso also returned kickoffs. A Purdue player hit him in the head early, leaving him woozy. But he liked what he saw when his vision cleared. Especially seeing back Terry Cole play the game of his life with 155 yards rushing.
“We played a beautiful game,” Gonso said. “They were a great team.”
Purdue was tough, talented and favored, but IU wouldn’t yield.
“Purdue just kept gnawing at us,” Kaczmarek said. The Hoosier defense hit Keyes hard, trying to sting the zip out of him. But still the Boilermakers advanced to the 4-yard-line at the end.
The carry went to Perry Williams, later drafted by the Green Bay Packers. Williams came right at the 6-foot, 218-pound Kaczmarek, who drilled him.
“I hit him and he fumbled the ball,” Kaczmarek said.
IU’s win was critical in determining the title and the Rose Bowl designee.
The Hoosiers spent New Year’s in Pasadena, California, meeting Southern Cal with O.J. Simpson, in a 14-3 loss.
Indiana has never been back.
Highs and Lows
Fans and players believed things might change for IU football.
“I really thought we were beginning something,” Crusan said. “We really changed the whole atmosphere of the place.”
Only temporarily. The Hoosiers went 6-4 in 1968. They began the season ranked 15th and were still No. 19 going before falling to Purdue 38-35.
The years 1967, especially 1968, and 1969 were a time of great turbulence across the United States, where sports frequently took a back seat to real life on campuses. This was the height of the Vietnam War. There were Civil Rights protests. President Lyndon Johnson announced he would not run for re-election. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. So was Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. Racist politicians proclaimed strident views.
In 1969, as the Hoosiers began a descent under Pont’s leadership, the team finished 4-6. Ten African-American players boycotted the team, saying there was unequal racial treatment by the coaching staff. Those players became known as “The IU 10” and were estranged from the school until 2015.
A reconciliation was effected and the 10, who all earned degrees, retroactively received letter blankets.
Pont never had a winning year at IU after 1968 and left following the 1972 season. Rather than establishing a true foundation, the 1967 is remembered as an anomaly.
Some stars of 1967, now in their 70s, who hold five-year reunions, see 2020 as symbolic of a fresh start. To them, this 6-1 team headed to the Outback Bowl with a national ranking, has revived echoes of their own accomplishments.
Kaczmarek tried out with the Minnesota Vikings, earned an MBA degree, and was a long-time fundraiser with the IU Varsity Club. He also endowed a football scholarship.
Crusan played in three Super Bowls and was a member of the 17-0 Miami Dolphins of 1972. He has been very excited by this year’s Hoosiers under coach Tom Allen.
“It just takes me back to ‘67,” Crusan said.
Gonso, now a retired attorney, and a current member of the Indiana University Board of Trustees, has loved the Hoosiers’ 2020 success — annoyingly from afar. Like non-family fans he has been locked out of attending games because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’ve been so frustrated,” Gonso said. “I haven’t been able to go to a game.”
Yet Gonso has savored each Hoosier victory the way the fans of ‘67 reveled in his team’s Rose Bowl ride.
“Man, isn’t it fun?” Gonso said.