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The Cardiac Kids: Indiana's Improbable Run To The 1967 Rose Bowl

Memorabilia from Indiana's appearance in the 1967 Rose Bowl is on display in IU's Heinke Hall of Champions.

Memorabilia from Indiana's appearance in the 1967 Rose Bowl is on display in IU's Heinke Hall of Champions. (Indiana University Athletics)

The year was 1967.

The U.S. had nearly a half million troops in Vietnam, ‘The Graduate’ topped the theater box office, the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s, the Monkees were daydream believing and the Summer of Love was in full bloom in San Francisco.

In Bloomington, the Indiana football team was coming off a one-win season and gearing up for John Pont’s third year as the head coach.

And there were no expectations that season would turn out so rosy.

“Oh, golly. I’m not sure anybody foresaw what we were able to do in 1967,” said Harry Gonso, IU’s starting quarterback in 1967. “I certainly didn’t.”

The Hoosiers had gone just 1-8-1 in 1966 and finished in ninth place in the Big Ten for the second straight season.

But waiting in the wings were three rising sophomores who would help transform the offense and help propel the Hoosiers to their one and only Rose Bowl appearance.

Indiana unveiled a spread option utilizing Gonso, tailback John Isenbarger and flanker Jade Butcher, none of whom could not play in 1966 when freshmen were ineligible.

Gonso and Isenbarger had been in a tight battle for the starting quarterback spot leading up to the season.

“It was, at the most, two weeks before the opener, maybe just the Saturday before the opener, that they finally decided to go with Gonso and put Isenbarger at tailback,” former Bloomington Herald-Times sports editor Bob Hammel said. “Well, he's learning a whole new position back there.

“But what it did was give them an extra quarterback back there. So that added that third option where he could take the pitch and pull it back and pass it. That was dynamic with Butcher.”

And the offense was something new to the league.

“We really opened up the Big 10 to a different look that it wasn't used to,” Gonso said. “It was a lot of, you know, attacks on the corner. Just a variety of new and really impressive things that caught a lot of teams by surprise.”

The Hoosiers also had a veteran defense back, anchored by linebacker Ken Kaczmarek. Pont switched Doug Crusan from offensive tackle, where he would start for the Miami Dolphins in the NFL, to defensive tackle and changed from a 5-3 formation to a 4-4.

“He called me in one day right before spring ball my junior year and said, ‘We’re moving you to defensive tackle. OK?’ ‘Yeah. What do you say, it’s Coach Pont?” Crusan said. “And then he said, ‘What do you weigh?’ Now I said, ‘About 275.’ He said, ‘I want you to report in August at 235.’ I went, ‘OK.’

“But I did say, ‘Coach, are we done yet?’ I may have already gone to one side of the ball, but I'm down 40 pounds and wondering what I was going to eat.”

But it worked out well for the defense. Both Kaczmarek and Crusan were named All-America and the defense allowed an average of just 14 points a game all season.  

“Well, you know, obviously, the cocky sophomores of the ‘67 team got all the media attention,” Gonso said. “But, believe me, the really good athletes that won more than half of the games were on the defense. They were seniors and juniors that were just spectacular athletes and great teammates.”

With a new offense and defense installed, Indiana opened the season with wins over Kentucky and Kansas by a combined five points. Then came a 20-7 win at Illinois, sealed by a late Kaczmarek interception return for a touchdown.

Kaczmarek hurled the ball into the stands, setting off a celebration.

“I can remember Pont coming and jumping on the pile in the end zone, and he hadn’t shaved that day and his beard was rubbing against my neck,” Kaczmarek said. “But on the way back from that game, we got into Bloomington and had dinner and people were starting to get enthused.”

A 21-17 home win over Iowa that was not that close followed. Then Indiana went to Michigan, which was having a down year.

Indiana, which had led 20-0 at one point, was clinging to a six-point lead when Isenbarger, who was also the team’s punter, took off running from inside the Indiana 10 instead of punting the ball on fourth down. He fumbled at the 16 and Michigan scored to tie the game at 20-20.

The fake punt, which had worked the week before against Iowa, left Pont less than thrilled.

“He goes up and grabs him by the shirt and basically says, ‘You will never play another play another down for Indiana University, go sit down,’” Gonso said. “And so I saw him do that. And so gradually, in about a minute or so we had to take the field. And so I went up to Coach Pont, and I said, ‘Hey, coach, I don't think we can win this game without Isenbarger on the field. How about letting him play and then punishing him some other way?’ He goes, ‘OK.’ And John gets back on the field.”

The Hooosiers went on to win that game, 27-20, and earned Indiana the No. 10 ranking in the nation.

“We were 5-0 at that point,” Kaczmarek said. “We knew that, hey, we’ve got a pretty good chance.”

After routing Arizona, a win at Wisconsin made them 7-0 and the Hoosiers found themselves featured in Sports Illustrated as the little team that could and introduced the world to the ‘Punt, John, punt’ catchphrase. It came from the last line of a telegram from Isenbarger’s mother to her son after the debacle at Michigan.

The following week at Michigan State, Isenbarger accounted for 59 of the 69 yards and scored the go-ahead touchdown with 2:50 left to clinch a 14-13 win. It made the Hoosiers 8-0 and earned them the No. 5 ranking in the country.

“Everything seemed so improbable,” Hammel said. “And the correlation with this year was the national disbelief that Indiana really is a legitimate team. But that zero in the loss column, and they're moving up the polls. They were top 10, this is after going 1-8-1, and that being the normal.”

Then came Minnesota. Indiana trailed 13-7 heading into the fourth quarter. But heading into the teeth of a cold, strong wind in the final period, everything went wrong for the Hoosiers.

“It that was a bizarre experience,” Gonso said. “Quite candidly, I don't know what happened to us. We made a lot of mistakes on offense, and I think failed to stop them on defense. You know, they were a great team.”

The loss left Indiana needing to beat No. 3 Purdue to force a three-way tie for the Big Ten title and have a shot at the Rose Bowl.

And it did. holding on for a 19-14 win when Kaczmarek forced a Purdue fumble and Indiana recovered inside the Indiana 5-yard line in the final minutes to seal the win.

Seven of the Hoosiers’ nine wins were by a touchdown or less, and eight of the games were decided in the final four minutes, earning them the nickname, “Cardiac Kids.”

“My gosh, three points, two points,” Crusan said. “Geez, Louise. I mean Michigan State, what? 14-13? So, it was one of those that you just held your breath and everybody played and the result was good.”

Good enough to earn them a trip to Pasadena, California, where they would face No. 1 Southern Cal.

In the days leading up to the game, the Hoosiers were more tourists than football players.

They went a theme park, took part in photo ops, banquets and even had an eating contest with the Trojans at Lawry’s Steakhouse. The Marching 100 band performed in the Tournament of Roses Parade and at the game.

“It was like going to Disneyland,” Gonso said. “I mean, we actually went to Disneyland and interacted with USC. But it was like, you're going out there for a party. And, it's very difficult to get ready for a team, especially about a month after the end of the season.”

To get the Hoosiers away from the hoopla, Pont had the team stay at a monastery in the foothills outside of town the night before the game.

So, the first time the Hoosiers actually walked onto the field in the Rose Bowl was the day of the game.

“I found that the turf was just incredibly, it was all painted green.,” Gonso said. “So it looked good for TV. But the, you know, the grass was just really bizarre. It was a different type of grass than what we were used to. I mean, that was not an excuse for our performance.”

No, that had more to do with a Trojan team loaded with talent. They had five players selected in the first round of the 1968 NFL draft. And that didn’t include running back O.J. Simpson, who was only a junior.

“They were loaded.” Crusan said. “They were, that was a good, great football team, but we held him pretty good. Surprisingly, we really did.”

Said Kaczmarek: “We could come off the ball quicker than they could. So, that helped us all day, and we kind of attacked them rather than allowing their offense to attack us. We did a lot of blitzing and filling gaps, because we wanted to make sure that O.J. didn’t have a lot of running room. And we did.”

Simpson still finished with 128 yards on 28 carries and scored both of USC’s touchdowns.

His first touchdown put the Trojans up 7-0 in the first quarter. Indiana cut into the lead late in the second quarter when it settled for a 27-yard field goal.

“It was three rather than seven because Al Gage, who was the most dependable guy in the world, dropped a wide open pass in the end zone; it just slipped right through his hands.”

Indiana’s only other threat came in the fourth quarter on a pass from Gonso to receiver Eric Stolberg. But USC defensive back Mike Battle hit Stolberg just as he was receiving the ball at the 5-yard line.

“He just crushed Eric as the ball got there and broke his ribs,” Hammel said.

And then it was over. Southern Cal won 14-3.

“It was such a unique experience,” Gonso said. “I mean, it was it was 100,000 plus people there and playing such a great team. We were in it, but we made too many mistakes. And I think that that really cost in the end of the game.”

Indiana has never made it back to the Rose Bowl, which is now part of the New Years Six bowl rotation. This year, the Hoosiers got close.

As a member of the IU Board of Trustees, Gonso has a birds-eye view of the current and what they’ve accomplished under fourth-year coach Tom Allen.

“I think that's just been remarkable to be able to watch how this team is jelled,” Gonso said. “And I genuinely hope that they can capture this moment. And keep it and expand upon it. Because that would, that would really be fantastic for IU.”

Even if it means the 1967 team has to share some of the glory.

“What are we talking about? 53 years? Yeah, 53 years ago,” Crusan said. “And it’s kind of like when I was there, all you heard about was 1945. Now it’s 1967. What I would like is to get more teams and we can start quoting a whole bunch of different dates. So this year has been a good one. This one, they’ll remember what a year it’s been.”

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