Oct. 17, 2007
by Jeff Smith
This Saturday, much attention will be paid to the 80-year-old coach pacing the sidelines in Bloomington trying to keep Indiana's football team one game shy from gaining bowl eligibility for the first time since 1994. Penn State's Joe Paterno has always been tied to the Nittany Lion program and without question, his loyalty always will. But the Hoosiers have also had a loyal veteran on their side for a number of years in 92-year-old Harry Cherry, who starred as a halfback for Indiana in the mid-1930s.
Cherry was a part of legendary coach Alvin "Bo" McMillin's first recruiting class in 1934 and has been attending IU football games since 1937. Cherry and his wife Georgie, to whom he has been married an astounding 62 years, have been season-ticket holders since 1946 and according to the former Hoosier great, they have "made just about every home game" before they retreat to Florida for their annual winter getaway.
His loyalty to the Hoosiers has been amazing given the lack of success of the football program has had over the years. Indiana last qualified for a postseason bowl game in 1994 with a 6-5 record, but was not selected. The most recent bowl bid for the Hoosiers came the year before when they were selected to the 1993 Independence Bowl against Virginia Tech, a game in which IU lost 45-20. Indiana's current bowl drought is the longest for any team in the conference.
But the hiring of Terry Hoeppner in 2004 brought renewed optimism to Cherry and the rest of the Hoosier faithful. The vibrant coach immediately began building the Hoosiers' fan base, winning four games in his first season and five the following year in 2006. After his tragic passing from complications from a brain tumor in June, the Indiana program was yet again in a venerable state of falling back from the progress it had made.
"I was very proud that we had him," said Cherry, from his home in Seymour, some 60 miles to the southeast of Bloomington. "We are all sorry that we lost him, but I think the new coach is trying to do his best to continue the things that (Hoeppner) started."
One of those things current head coach Bill Lynch is looking to build on is continuing to enhance the fan base. In Bloomington, fans have become accustomed to winning during the month of March, while using the fall season to talk about the upcoming basketball campaign. The quick solution to building the fan base inside Memorial Stadium - dubbed "The Rock" by the late Hoeppner - is by simply winning. This season, the Hoosiers have been doing just that. At 2-2 in conference play, Indiana enters its Homecoming weekend 5-2 overall and one victory shy of the coveted six wins needed to become bowl eligible.
Two weeks ago when the Hoosiers hosted Minnesota, Cherry was honored by the Indiana athletics department during a break in the game. When his accomplishments as a player and his loyalty to the IU football program as a spectator was read over the public address system, all 32,009 fans inside the stadium gave him a standing ovation.
"Georgie and I enjoyed that very much," Cherry said. "We were very surprised and tickled to death."
Mindy Stanfield, the Cherry's daughter, was also in attendance and was taken back by the warm reception the IU fans gave her father, who admitted he didn't even notice the ovation.
"I was overwhelmed when the crowd went crazy like that," said Stanfield, who lives a little more than a block from her parents. "I know IU football has always meant a lot to him."
A multi-sport star out of George Washington High School in his hometown of Indianapolis, Cherry claims to have been recruited by 114 schools. Not only did he play football and basketball, but he was also an annual selection to the All-City tennis team and a state standout in the pole vault. He eventually signed with McMillin and the Hoosiers because he "liked what Bo stood for and the school was close to home."
Home was essentially the local Boys Club, which he grew up in from the age of 5 through his adolescent years in high school. By the age of 10 he was already doing odd jobs around the building and maintained his employment throughout his college years.
While at Indiana, Cherry was active in what he said McMillan referred to as his "5-man backfield." Cherry played halfback for the Hoosiers in 1935 and 1936, alongside IU's first All-American quarterback and the Big Ten's 1936 Most Valuable Player Vern Huffman. When recalling some of his fondest memories from his playing days, Cherry notes the two games played against Purdue - a 7-0 win over the Boilermakers in 1935 and a 20-20 tie in 1936. The latter game, which Cherry is still quick to point out that "Purdue tied Indiana" and not the other way around, was the last game he played in a Hoosier uniform.
In 1937, Cherry returned home to tend to his ailing mother and then enrolled in the Air Force in 1941. He served five years as a special service and physical training officer and made the last trip over Japan at the end of World War II. But even during the war, Cherry made time for his Hoosiers.
"I came home three times during the war and went to the football games," he said. "After the service, I came back and all the I-Men (former Hoosier letterwinners) received free tickets to the game."
Cherry's loyalty was not only to the Hoosiers on the field, but also in the classroom. He completed his degree by obtaining credits both before and after the war. Following his service, Cherry moved to Seymour where he became director of the town's Boys Club, a position in which he held for 47 years.
Ironically, it is because of his loyalty to the organization that Cherry will be absent this Saturday when the Hoosiers host Penn State in their Homecoming contest. It will be one of a few rare misses for Cherry since obtaining those season tickets in 1946, but loyalty has always been first and foremost in the long life he has led.
Should a win come the Hoosiers way on Saturday, or even just prior to season's end when Cherry will be enjoying the Florida sun, he will most likely feel disappointment that he was not in attendance for the long-awaited sixth win. However that's not to say he won't feel a sense of joy.
"Oh gosh, I think he would just be thrilled," said daughter Mindy. "He's been to several bowl games in his life, including the Rose Bowl. We just hope if it happens, it will be close to him in the Tampa area."
Cherry agrees: "I sure hope it's in Florida because we are down here eight months of the year. But I would go anywhere if I could."
At the age of 92, Cherry's loyalty to his alma mater and the efforts he displayed toward his ailing mother, his community, and his country, are worth a number of standing ovations.
And little did Terry Hoeppner know that when he began to first patrol the state in 2004, drafting Hoosier fans to join his service with his "Coach Hep Wants You" call to action, he need not recruit one particular Hoosier.
Harry Cherry was already on active duty.