By Gene Conard
Winning is the ultimate, but victory without character is empty and meaningless. Effort minus integrity is a total waste of heart, but hope is never out of style as long as the spirit is willing. The size of the dog doesn’t matter.
Tri-Central’s football program has stuttered for most of its 41 harrowing seasons — a perennial doormat with but six winning campaigns and a dungeon-like 85-310 record dating back to 1972. Highlights have been very few: a 6-5 record in 1990; 10-2 in ’91; 5-4 in ’93; 7-3 in ’94; 6-4 in 2004 and 6-4 in 2011 — scant joy in the battered remains of 34-293.
Suddenly, there’s a new flood of adrenaline and a grand resurgence ignited by a defiant Trojan breed that has aroused a heretofore silent football environment. The brisk, refreshing attitude of a pleasantly rebellious TC troupe has declared, “Enough is enough!” Concession patrons, cheerleaders and fence jockeys no longer outnumber bleacherites.
Granted, the opponents have been less than monster-like. But heretofore bully opponents are now shredding their smirks for concern, respect and long, silent bus rides. The Blue and Gold rush has become black and blue mementos.
Proof? Try a 2012 school record start of 8-0, bettering the previous best start of 5-0; a 395-86 scoring advantage, 459.9 total yards per game and a stout defensive effort — perhaps not trophy stock or a summons to greatness but mind boggling to big-eyed witnesses and calculators.
For what it’s worth, the Associated Press’ pollsters have stamped TC an unheard of No. 10 in Class A, and the coaches’ poll has it No. 9, a shocking leap ahead of perennial power Sheridan, setting up something of a historic clash for the Hoosier Heartland Conference title at Lucas Oil Stadium on Saturday (7 p.m.).
Seemingly, coach George Gilbert has been around forever. Not really, just 34 years, the bulk at Clinton Central before landing at Tri-Central. He’s seen the valley and has been to the mountaintop with the same trip ticket — hard work, no nonsense, bare bone honesty, compassion and “one size fits all.”
He explained this to players, parents, fans, etc., at his initial meeting prior to his 2009 Trojan debut: “I’m here as long as players dedicate themselves. When they don’t, I’m out of here. We can and will win, but it’ll take time.”
An 0-10 start had eyes rolling and everybody wondering, Gilbert included. A 3-7 mark in 2010 hyped attention; the 5-0 start and 6-4 finish in 2011 confirmed the promise, and the current 8-0 splash has the giddy masses asking, “How high is up?”
In a lengthy discussion last week, Gilbert — recalling his first TC roster of 16 — remarked: “A change of attitude has been the big thing. We’re getting more kids  thanks to the efforts of senior veterans A.J. Tentler, Austin Horn and Martavius Hunt, but our success last year got us going in the right direction.
“We now have kids with a football mentality, and they’ve responded tremendously. Teams used to delight in beating TC, now we’re beating them. It’s been a fun ride for the team, school and community that is only going to get better.
“But we’ve also recruited some outstanding people,” Gilbert added, referring to assistants Shane Arnold, Memo Perez, Jason Tolle, Josh Hunter, Tony Blades, Tim Johnson, P.J. Hatcher, Mike Keller, Jeremy Kennedy, Jerry Reeves, Jason Leininger and Jovon Rayl. “I’m truly blessed to have such a great staff, the best I’ve ever had,” he finished.
Offensive coordinator Arnold offered: “The kids have been amazing. They’re like sponges, they soak up everything, ask questions and dig deeper than any group I’ve ever seen or associated with. Best of all, they care for one another.”
As to the resurgence, Tentler remarked: “We’re so much more focused. Coach Gilbert has simplified things and made them easy to understand. He’s made us believe we can be very good to the point we expect to win every week.”
Hunt stated: “The coaches have us really pumped and have instilled the will to win. We bring it every day and will not be denied. A lot of people don’t respect us, but we’re going to make them respect us.”
Horn added: “Coach Gilbert has been like a second father. Before he came we didn’t know how to play the game. He gave us the tools we needed to win and a plan that worked. He taught us football, but also about life.”
Two-way junior lineman Darius Stanley offered: “We’ve really come together because the coaches have put their hearts and souls out in such a positive way. They’ve brought a new feeling about playing football and the will to win.”
The improvement and leadership of sophomore quarterback Cody Howell and receivers Seth Blunck, Bryce Dowell and Jade Pickett has steadily grown, and with 1,000-yard rushers Horn and Hunt the Trojans have served due notice.
TC has 10 juniors, nine sophomores and 10 freshmen to go with the three seniors. All have been involved which means Gilbert is inching toward the magic number of 40. Rumor has it the list will grow in 2013.
The Trojans have won 14 of their last 18 outings since Gilbert’s rude 0-10 awakening in 2009. He didn’t flinch or make excuses, and neither did his Trojans. They paid the price with a stubborn will and a greater determination but well understand they must prove their mettle every step of the way from now on.
The numbers are for real but are no more glaring than the smiles and convictions of a gang of young warriors who’ ve proven it’s not who gets knocked down but who gets up. And the band plays on.
• Gene F. Conard covers Tri-Central for the Tribune. He may be reached through the sports department.