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BOZICH | In challenging times, Penn State win great tonic for Indiana, new AD Scott Dolson

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — This was Scott Dolson’s honeymoon period as the new athletic director at Indiana University:

Finding ways to pay bills with the novel coronavirus wiping every event off the IU sports calendar.

Understanding and acting on the concerns of IU athletes invested in social justice issues.

Making plans for a football season when the Big Ten seemed uncertain it wanted to play.

Fun, fun, fun.

Last Saturday the games finally began. Indiana did something Indiana never does: Beat No. 8 Penn State, 36-35, in overtime at Memorial Stadium.

Competition and celebration overtook consternation. Dolson’s first football game as Indiana’s athletic director was a four-hour and five-minute reminder of why the games matter.

"For me the hair on the back of my neck was standing up, standing there as close as I was, just watching that unfold," Dolson said.

"At a time when it seems like there’s not been a lot to hope for, not a lot of excitement, to have that type of game for all of our fans to come together..." 

There is video evidence.

IU quarterback Michael Penix Jr. stuck the point of the football into the pylon on the front left edge of the North end zone for the Hoosiers’ final two points — after a replay review that Dolson says "seemed like about an hour."

That football went from Penix to IU coach Tom Allen to Dolson in front of the players in the locker room after the game.

Dolson has given the ball a featured spot on his desk. He also decided duplicate game balls will be awarded to every player, coach and staff member.

"I was speechless at first because I just didn’t expect it," Dolson said. "But it just meant a lot.

"That was not just for me, but Tom has been so great for our whole administration. I almost felt like I was accepting it for our whole medical team, our whole marketing team, who did a great job of bringing atmosphere into the stadium …

"I told Tom (Monday morning) that we wanted everybody to have that ball to remember that if we all come together and believe, anything could happen."

Dolson was a student manager on Indiana’s 1987 NCAA championship men’s basketball team. As the top assistant to retired IU athletic director Fred Glass, Dolson has been on the scene for remarkable moments by the IU soccer, swimming, baseball and basketball teams.

But he’s never been around a scene like that scene, his first football game as the IU athletic director.

After Dolson left the locker room, he retreated to his office to answer dozens of phone calls, 220 text messages and a string of emails. He called his wife, Heidi, and told her he would be late. Dolson is a people person in a people industry. He wanted time to respond to as many alums, former players and donors as possible.

"It’s one of those nights, one of those games when sometimes you can feel just the energy of Hoosier Nation," said Dolson, who grew up in Michigan City, in the north central part of Indiana.

"You could feel it big time after that game."

Some Indiana University athletic directors only cared about basketball, basketball, basketball. Others had no clue what they could do to make IU football even mildly relevant in the Big Ten.

Don’t put Dolson or Glass on that list. Yes, Dolson was an IU basketball student manager under Bob Knight.

But Dolson has also been a fierce advocate for the extensive changes that Glass started bringing to the football program a decade ago.

Enclosing Memorial Stadium and upgrading the scoreboard and lights. A locker room, weight room and training room that impressed recruits. Coaching staff salaries that no longer looked like misprints.

And, of course, the belief that Tom Allen, a man with no FBS head coaching experience, was a better choice to energize IU football than a guy on the way up who might be looking for a better job or a guy on the way down looking for a soft spot to land.

Glass and Dolson believed in Allen. Critics mocked him for being a former Indianapolis area high school coach. Glass and Dolson thought that would help him relate to current Indy area high school coaches in recruiting.

Media members wrote that Indiana was simply being cheap. IU’s head football coaching salary has regularly been the least in the Big Ten. They made fun of Allen’s spirited press conferences or his trademark sign-off — #LEO — Love Each Other.

Glass and Dolson tuned out the skeptics. After back-to-back 5-win seasons, Allen and the Hoosiers won eight last season, including games against Nebraska and Purdue. Saturday’s victory over Penn State bumped the Hoosiers into No. 17 in this week’s AP college football poll.

Neither Glass nor Dolson has to justify hiring Allen any more. But Dolson can.

"He’s just so genuine," Dolson said. "It’s just real. Believe me — kids are smart. Players know. Students know. They know when somebody is phony or someone is telling them what they want to hear. It’s real. It’s genuine. They really know Tom means what he says.

"He said it in the locker room. People have rolled their eyes or mocked him — for the LEO and how he feels. His heart is on his sleeve. But it's genuine and it was never more evident than it was in the locker room ...

"... when we’ve had success here, it’s not only been someone who’s the right coach, but it’s a great fit. You look back at the Bill Mallorys of the world, the Terry Hoeppners. The more you’re around Tom, he was just the perfect fit for us. It’s clear.

"Certainly on the outside, people maybe didn’t know him like we did or get that feel around him. But he fit and he continues to fit and he’s exactly what we needed. He cares so much and he wants to be here."

For Dolson and IU, the beat goes on. Indiana visits Rutgers Saturday for the classic trap game before the Hoosiers return home to host Michigan Nov. 7. There will be missteps. There always are.

Dolson is waiting for word from the Big Ten on basketball schedules for its men’s and women’s teams. Both could start the season ranked in the Top 25. Dolson said he was optimistic that a 27-game schedule would be attempted, including the ACC/Big Ten Challenge as well as the Crossroads Classic in Indianapolis.

Dolson said he was uncertain if any fans would be permitted to attend home games at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall. He said it was likely attendance for Big Ten football games would be limited to four tickets for family members of every player for the entire season. In other words, similar to the 'crowd' of 995 for the Penn State game.

In that environment, which could lead to a $60 million budget shortfall, Dolson launched "Never Daunted," a fund-raising campaign to generate at least $20 million to cover athletic scholarships.

"We’re dealing for today as best we can, but planning for the future at the same time," Dolson said.

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