Our ongoing Mount Rushmore series continues with the four best players/coaches in the history of Indiana Hoosiers football. For the most part, it’s been tough sledding for the IU program on the field. But throughout its 123 seasons, there have been plenty of standout players and a few coaches who’ve made their mark in Bloomington.
Indiana began playing football in 1887. Yale graduate Arthur B. Woodford, a political and social science professor, introduced the sport to the school and coached the team during its opening two seasons. Three years later in 1891, the Hoosiers played Purdue for the first time. They would lose to the Boilermakers 60-0.
The rivalry that would eventually be known as “The Old Oaken Bucket Game” (the trophy was added in 1925) was pretty one-sided in its early days. Purdue would win the first six games over Indiana by a combined score of 227-6. Five of those games ended in shutouts.
The Hoosiers would join the Big Ten (then known as the Western Conference) in 1899. Under coaches James Horne (1900-04) and James Sheldon (1905-10), IU finished .500 or better in eight of their first 11 seasons as conference members. But, for the most part, winning has been difficult to come by for this program from its inception.
In its 117 year Big Ten history, the Cream and Crimson have managed just 30 winning seasons. Since Sheldon left the program in 1913, just two coaches have ended their tenure as IU’s head coach above .500. Ewald Stiehm went 20-18-1 in his five seasons as coach from 1916-21. And Bo McMillin finished 63-48-11 from 1934-47. McMillin’s time in Bloomington included Indiana’s only undefeated season, a 9-0-1 campaign in 1945. The Hoosiers won the Big Ten title for the first time ever that year and was ranked fourth in the final AP poll.
The only other conference championship for IU came 22 years later in 1967. It was then that John Pont led the “Cardiac Kids” to a 9-2 record that included a 19-14 victory over Purdue in the season finale to clinch the crown. They would face top-ranked USC in their lone Rose Bowl appearance in school history, a 14-3 defeat.
WATCH: 1968 Rose Bowl – Indiana vs. USC
Perhaps IU’s most sustained period of success came under Bill Mallory in the late 1980s and early 90s. But since his departure in 1996, the Hoosiers have managed one winning season and just two bowl appearances. All in all, Indiana has been to a total of ten bowl games and has a 3-7 all-time record in the postseason.
It should be apparent that rarely has it been smooth sailing from a winning standpoint when it comes to Indiana Hoosiers football. Fans of the Cream and Crimson have had to remain “never daunted” as the IU fight song exclaims more often than not. But the program has had its moments. And the following four figures played a major role.
Mount Rushmore of Indiana Hoosiers Football
George Taliaferro, running back, quarterback, punter (1945-48)
The 1945 Indiana Hoosiers football season was likely the greatest in program history. Under 12th year head coach Bo McMillin, the team went 9-0-1 en route to its first-ever conference title. The team’s finish to the season could aptly be described as dominant. In their final four games, IU outscored their opponents by a score of 121-8.
Taliaferro was the go-to guy in the backfield that made it possible. As a freshman, he would lead the Big Ten with 719 rushing yards while also adding six touchdowns. In subsequent years, he showed great versatility on the field, lining up at quarterback and punter as well as his familiar running back position. And over the course of his college career, he collected all-American honors three times.
But Taliaferro is on this list not just on account of his prowess on the field. His presence on the Indiana Hoosiers football team served to break the color barrier in the Big Ten two years before Jackie Robinson did so in baseball. And in 1949, he became the first African-American to be selected in the NFL Draft when the Chicago Bears picked him in the 13th round.
He played professionally for seven years, getting named to the Pro Bowl three times (1951, 1952, 1953). In 1981, he was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame. The now 89-year-old Taliaferro still resides in the Bloomington area.
Bill Mallory, head coach (1984-96)
There are three coaches worthy of inclusion on this list. And it may be questionable to exclude the two that brought a conference title to Bloomington. But here’s why I’m going with Mallory.
When he arrived in Bloomington, Mallory entered a Big Ten with its fair share of immensely competent coaches. Bo Schembechler at Michigan. Earle Bruce at Ohio State. Hayden Fry at Iowa. The competition to finish among the conference’s best was cutthroat to its core, much like it is today.
Like Schembechler, Mallory’s career as a head coach began at Miami of Ohio. The school has been dubbed the “Cradle of Coaches” for a reason. In addition to these two, both Woody Hayes and Ara Parseghian had stops in Oxford before becoming legends at Ohio State and Notre Dame respectively. And even John Pont coached there before arriving at Indiana.
In a Big Ten pond full of big fish, Mallory proved to be more than just a minnow. Though the Hoosiers went 0-11 during his first year in 1984, the Hoosiers would improve in the win column for each of the next four seasons. And his 1987 squad came as close to winning the Big Ten as any IU team in recent memory.
That year, the Hoosiers got off to a 4-0 start in conference play. Two of those wins came against Ohio State and Michigan by a combined score of 45-20. Heading into their October 31st game against Iowa, Indiana was ranked 11th in the AP poll which was the highest among Big Ten teams. The prospect of their first Rose Bowl in 20 years seemed a distinct possibility.
But the Cream and Crimson fell to the Hawkeyes 29-21. Two weeks later they would drop a decision to eventual conference champions Michigan State 27-3. After dominating Purdue 35-14 a week later to finish the season at 8-3, the Hoosiers would accept a berth to the Peach Bowl that year. They would face Tennessee, losing 27-22.
Mallory’s 1988 team finished 8-3-1. It marked the last time an Indiana team was ranked in the final AP Poll (20th). Perhaps the highlight of the season was a 41-7 drubbing of Ohio State on October 8th. Another one was a 52-7 blowout of Purdue which marked the most lopsided win for the Hoosiers in the history of the series. And they closed the season with a 34-10 win over South Carolina in the Liberty Bowl.
Overall, 60 percent of IU’s bowl appearances came under Mallory. And since making the Rose Bowl, Indiana has had nine winning seasons. Mallory was responsible for six of them. He would finish his 13-year tenure as the winningest coach in Indiana Hoosiers football history.
Anthony Thompson, running back (1986-89)
Perhaps no other player defined the success during the Bill Mallory era than Anthony Thompson. There can’t be much doubt that Thompson will go down as the greatest running back in IU history. And you can also make the argument that he was the greatest player to ever suit up for the Cream and Crimson.
Thompson led the Hoosiers in rushing yards during all four of his seasons in Bloomington. He finished with over 1,000 yards in three of them. And his final two seasons were particularly noteworthy.
In 1988, Thompson would rush for 1,686 yards and 26 touchdowns. His dynamic play in the IU backfield played a huge role in Indiana’s 8-3-1 season that concluded with a Liberty Bowl victory. A year later, he added 1,793 yards and found the end zone 24 times. He was named Big Ten Player of the Year and Consensus All-American both seasons. And his senior year concluded with him being named a Heisman Trophy finalist. He would end up finishing second to Houston‘s Andre Ware.
His 67 career rushing touchdowns ranks third in Big Ten history since 1956. And only Colorado State‘s Steve Bartalo ended up with more plays from scrimmage in FBS history than Thompson’s 1,263.
Antwaan Randle El, quarterback (1998-2001)
The final former Hoosier on this list will go down in history as one of college football’s most dynamic dual-threat quarterbacks. Randle El wowed fans with his playmaking ability, both through the air as well as on the ground. The real tragedy of his era is him being unable to play in a bowl game, mostly due to IU’s horrific defense during his time there.
The Riverdale, IL native was named Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 1998. And he certainly made a bold entrance in his first start. Against Western Michigan, Randle El accounted for 467 yards of total offense and six combined touchdowns (three passing and three rushing). That yardage total was an NCAA record for a player starting his first game.
Randle El’s most productive season came as a junior in 2000. It was then that he finished with 1,783 yards passing and 1,270 yards rushing while combining for 27 touchdowns. A year later, he became the first player in FBS history to throw and run for at least 40 touchdowns in his career. He would be named 2001 Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year while finishing sixth in the Heisman Trophy voting.
The Pittsburgh Steelers would draft Randle El in the second round of the 2002 NFL Draft and convert him into a wide receiver. He would go on to play nine years in the NFL, five with the Steelers and four with the Washington Redskins. He made two Super Bowl appearances with Pittsburgh, including the Steelers 21-10 win over Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XL. And in that game, he threw a 43-yard pass to Hines Ward on a trick play that resulted in a touchdown. In so doing, he became the first wide receiver to throw a touchdown pass in Super Bowl history.