After a brief run of high level play, the IU football program was back in a familiar place — shambles.
The Hoosiers had gone 19-8 over a two and a half season span that included their historic run to the Rose Bowl following the 1967 campaign.
Indiana truly had the look of a program on the rise under head coach John Pont. And then, on their way to a third straight winning season, it happened. Soon after a 16-0 shutout win in East Lansing over Michigan State on Nov. 1, 1969, 10 African-American players boycotted the remaining three games of the season, compelled by what they believed were race-based personnel decisions.
The “IU 10” as they became known, included some of the best players on the team, including Larry Highbaugh, Bob Pernell and Mike Adams.
Pont’s remaining Hoosiers would go on to lose their last three games of the 1969 season and they amassed a paltry 4-20 record from that win over Michigan State through the end of the 1971 season.
After the IU 10 left the program, only six African-Americans remained with the team. During what was a racially-charged time in the country, the Indiana program had an identity crisis in the eyes of the black community, and that led to recruiting challenges.
Hailing from Chicago suburb Phoenix, Illinois, just a few miles from the Indiana border was a high school phenom many believed was the best prep athlete in the country.
Quinn Buckner could have gone anywhere he wanted to be play college basketball or football. He gave serious consideration to playing for John Wooden at UCLA, and both sports at Michigan. Many, including his father, thought Buckner was a better football player.
Buckner’s father William was a fullback on the greatest IU football team ever — the undefeated 1945 squad, so there was already a soft spot for the Hoosiers. William Buckner and his 1945 teammate, IU hall-of-fame member Howard Brown, asked the younger Buckner to carry a heavy burden for the floundering IU football program.
“It was right out of the difficulty that IU had with black players, and I was told at 17 years-old, and I’ve never said this publicly, but the truth is just the truth, that it would help if I went because it would show other black players that they could come to Indiana,” Buckner told Gerry Dick on the Business and Beyond podcast this week.
Ultimately the family connections to IU and the proximity of the school to home won out in Buckner’s recruitment, and he took on the challenge of helping to bridge a great divide.
Buckner snared five interceptions as a freshman in 1972 and three more in 1973, leading the team each year. He also led the team in kick returns in 1972 with a 19.0 average. He was named a second-team All-Big Ten defensive back in 1973 and was drafted by the Washington Redskins in 1976 despite not having played the game since that 1973 campaign.
On the hardwood Buckner was a starter, a 1974 captain, and he led the team to two Big Ten titles in 1973 and 1974. Despite his success in both sports, basketball coach Bob Knight told Buckner he should choose one and focus on it.
“You’re really good at basketball, and you’re really good at football, but as long as you are playing both, I don’t know if you can be great at either one,” is how Buckner recalls Knight’s assessment.
Of course Buckner chose to focus on basketball, a decision he had already reached before Knight spoke to him about it. His true passion was on the hardwood, and his focus on the game propelled Buckner to legendary status after he led the Hoosiers to a 63-1 record over his last two seasons and the 1976 national title.
Now the chair of the IU Board of Trustees, did Buckner help heal the divide in the football program? Truth be told, that was more than any one young man could handle.
It would take a decade.
The football transition continued during Buckner’s time with the program. Pont left following the 1972 season, and Indiana hired Lee Corso, who went 5-27-1 over his first three seasons before bringing the program back to respectability in 1976, and its first-ever postseason win following the 8-4 1979 campaign.
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