Seeing ‘The Forest’ for the trees

Tommy Lynch built an army of a student section and forever changed the Sycamore fan base.

Some people go their entire lives without discovering their life’s passion. Or worse, they know what it is, but never get to live it, to get up every day excited to do whatever it is that makes them whole.

Not Tommy Lynch.

This Indiana State senior has us all beat. He not only knows what inspires and drives him, but he also has it checked off his to-do list.

“I came to ISU thinking I wanted to be a teacher,” he said. “The game plan was to come to Terre Haute, get the teaching degree, go back home and really do as little as possible. I was the first-generation college student who knew I needed to go to school but didn’t really know what I was doing. It’s funny how the game plan has changed a lot since I got here.”

Perhaps the fact he’s from French Lick is a clue. They grow ’em a little different there, and it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say what the town’s best-known native son — Larry Bird — did for Indiana State basketball, Tommy Lynch did for the Sycamores’ student cheering section.

You may be thinking — what’s so great about a student section? Tommy Lynch got a bunch of students to dress up in blue-and-white costumes and face paint and go to a basketball game. So what?

The home crowd is the unquantifiable secret weapon that your opponent can’t practice for. Fans create momentum for their team. They can also crush the other team’s will to win. Fans are so important that Alabama football coach Nick Saban infamously told his student section last season to plan on staying all four quarters — or stay home. Literally.

“(The fans) help you compete. They help you fight. They inspire us to play well and to never give in,” said Greg Lansing, head coach of Indiana State basketball.

“When I think of Tommy, the first thing that comes to mind is ‘The Forest.’ That is basically his baby. He’s the godfather of it. His efforts made ISU basketball games the place to be,” Lansing said. “Before Tommy, there wasn’t really a student section.”

Sure, students went to games before Tommy Lynch came to Terre Haute. It’s free entertainment, after all, but Tommy recruited an army.

Dubbed The Forest, the student section in its present incarnation started in the 2012-13 season with about 150 Sycamores. After a rousing speech to incoming freshmen last fall, the number grew to 225. At the end of March 2014, 925 students were card-carrying members of The Forest.

When ISU hosted top-20-ranked Creighton for in-conference play, 2,000 Sycamores were there.

“They weren’t just there. They were engaged. They were dressed up, and they were cheering,” Tommy said.

The high-water mark was 2,200 students to host Wichita State, ranked in the top five at the time.

“Wichita is a very good team. They’re the Mecca of home courts. Their fan base is ridiculous,” Tommy said. “We didn’t win the game, but just the energy, atmosphere was there.”

“I’ve had countless faculty, alumni, community members reach out to us and say, ‘Wow, I don’t know what you guys are doing and how you’re getting students there.’ That was fun. It was such a good time,” he said. “Comparing it back to my first day on campus, I was going to be a teacher, I was going to go back home, I wasn’t going to do much in between. It’s just fun to put it in perspective.

“It’s still hard for me to believe that The Forest is where it is today. I take such pride and honor. It’s kind of become my legacy here at Indiana State.”

Tommy Lynch has a legacy at 22. That’s why he’s the Larry Bird of student sections.

Starting a ‘Forest’ fire

Tommy is the youngest of four sons and credits his parents’ support to his success.

His dad drives a semi and is gone most weeknights. Tommy calls him every morning on his walk to class and every afternoon on his way home.

“My dad is definitely the one who will wear the ISU shirt. I sent him The Forest T-shirt, and he wears it every weekend he’s home,” Tommy said.

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree: “My father always told me growing up, ‘You’re going to college one way or another. I don’t know where, I don’t know what for. We’ll find some way to get you there, to pay for it. We’ll make it work,’” Tommy remembers.

His dad lived up to his promise.

During Tommy’s first semester at Indiana State, he rushed the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity. It was his first taste of ownership — that Indiana State was his university.

Tommy also became a peer advocate for residential life for two and a half years. In this capacity, he was the first point of contact for students living on his floor and helped them get acclimated to university living. These experiences provided a natural segue into him joining the Student Government Association.

But it was during spring break his freshman year that the seeds for The Forest were planted. Tommy went with a group of fraternity brothers to St. Louis for the Missouri Valley basketball tournament.

“That was the year Indiana State won the tournament and got a bid to the NCAA tournament, which was a big deal around here,” Tommy said. “For the championship game on that Sunday, we had 30, 40 students in attendance. We were playing Missouri State, which has more St. Louis connection than Indiana State does, and the arena was packed with thousands of Missouri State fans.

“It was great, personally, to experience that moment, but then it was really discouraging that others (at ISU) didn’t want to be a part of it. My fraternity brothers — most of them were upperclassmen — explained to me how that’s been the norm on campus for a while.”

During his junior year, Tommy began recruiting other students who are as true-to-Blue as he is. This core group then went out to sell the idea of building a student section.

“I knew with the idea, there was a lot of support. It wasn’t like I was trying to develop an organization and having to sell it to people. Once I established it, I knew I had a group of students who were looking for the same experience I was. Once it was established, it quickly took off and invaded campus.”

Carrying the flag

When you talk to Tommy Lynch about his contributions to the university, the conversation immediately turns to not what he’s done, but to what he’s received.

“What Indiana State has given me in four years — besides an education, besides a degree — the friends that I’ve made, the opportunities I’ve had, the experiences I’ve gained, the lessons that I’ve learned. Indiana State has really helped me mature in the past four years and helped me grow as a person,” he said. “Understanding what the university has done for me as a person, I really feel that sense of gratitude, that sense of doing what I can to give back to the university.”

As you might expect, a sense of duty isn’t limited just to Indiana State. During Spring Break this year, he traveled with a group of Sycamores to the Dominican Republic for a community service trip known as Alternative Spring Break.

It’s with the mention of this poor Caribbean country, his interaction with the locals, his first trip abroad that Tommy’s demeanor changes. His contagious enthusiasm morphs into a profound thoughtfulness.

“That was hands down one of the best experiences of my life,” he said. “It was such an experience — something I was not prepared for. I thought I was, but I had no idea what I was going to experience and be a part of.”

The ISU students spent time interacting with youngsters and delivering rice and drinking water to homes, most of which had dirt floors and one bed for five to seven people.

Tommy had never seen poverty like that. Neither had some of his classmates, who were sometimes moved to tears after leaving a house. More striking than the poverty, however, was how happy the Dominicans are.

“They love each other, and they love life. It’s such positivity. Their outlook on life was just breathtaking,” he said.

Tommy bought a Dominican Republic flag and hung it in his room as a reminder of how fortunate he is.

“I’ve told people the next time I wake up and I have a headache or I just don’t feel well or I’m having a bad day, I’ll say, ‘Hey, there are people living in a lot worse conditions than I am,’” he said.

“Here in the U.S., we’re always wanting more. It’s the mentality of ‘I’ve got the new phone, but there’s a newer one coming out. I need that one.’ No you don’t. There are people out there who don’t know cell phones exist. Things like that really put it in perspective.”

‘A great ride’

Indiana State feels like home to Tommy Lynch, and he knows that feeling is special.

“Talking to classmates from high school that go to the larger institutions or other institutions, they talk about they don’t have that personal connection with a professor,” he said. “They don’t sit down and have a one-on-one conversation as frequently as you could here at Indiana State.”

Given Tommy’s affection for ISU, one can easily imagine how hurtful apathy might be for him to see.

“It was tough for me, at first, to do all this work for The Forest and then to see a student who would either bad-mouth ISU — for whatever reason, maybe they had a bad experience — or that student who would come to class and have on all their IU stuff. Ugh. ‘Why are you wearing that? Why do you think it’s OK to do that?’” he said. “It was tough at first to not go, ‘Hey, you punk, don’t do that!’ But I’ve learned to have more constructive conversations.”

In the off-season, Tommy continues his recruitment; after all, forests need to be replanted. Some of these recruits are a little closer to home, as Tommy is “Uncle Tommy” to five nephews. The oldest is a freshman in high school.

“I don’t think I’ve gotten him. His interest is more in the military, with his father being a soldier,” he said. “I’m working on the next two. I think I stand a chance with them.”

As he prepares to cross the Hulman Center stage this spring to accept his degree in communication, Tommy reflects on the past four years … and looks forward to the next two.

“I’m going to remember all the games we had. I say ‘we,’ because there were many of us working. Ultimately, what we were working for was that home-court presence. I could sit and tell all these stories until the sun goes down. It’s all been such a great ride.”

If you’ll recall, Tommy came to Indiana State University with the idea of being a teacher. He wasn’t entirely off the mark, just a different age group. Instead of elementary education, Tommy will return to Indiana State in the fall to pursue a master’s in student affairs and higher education.

His efforts the past two years have certainly introduced him to the world of academic research.

“That’s been one of my favorite parts of the year to get to travel and to get to introduce myself and The Forest and what we’re doing,” he said. “And then to hear what others are doing — and take notes. ‘We might be able to bring that back here.’”

His graduate studies will also bring an assistantship in the athletics department and working with The Forest’s new student leadership.

“I’d love to stick around. I’d love to work with the students some more,” he said. “To this day, I thank those students for really buying into what I was trying to establish. It definitely wouldn’t have worked if it were a one-man show, by any means.”

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