Tom Allen wants to talk about the way forward.
Indiana’s football coach has stuck to the motto “Don’t blink” throughout the pandemic. Now that the Big Ten is heading into a fall without football, Allen has labeled the Hoosiers’ new mission as “sharpen the axe.” He even shared a line from Abraham Lincoln during his Zoom call Thursday.
“If he was given six hours to chop down a tree, he’d spend the first four sharpening his axe,” Allen said. “That’s all about preparation. That’s all about improving the tools you work with and getting them to the highest level possible.”
That’s the positivity Allen is trying to bring to the situation now. If they can’t play — and they wanted to play — the Hoosiers can work toward the future. This is a time where strength coach Aaron Wellman can prove his worth.
But in all honesty, there wasn’t necessarily a straight line to that positive perspective. Not emotionally. Not when the Hoosiers were coming off of an eight-win season, returning more contributors than most teams. Not when 2020 was a season his program was pointing toward.
“It was a season I had been looking forward to here for a while, and then you get it pulled out from underneath you,” Allen said. “It is tough. It’s hard. Initially, there was a whole bunch of disappointment.”
“It’s going to be hard to watch games on the weekend when you can’t play yourself,” Allen added, ” … and not necessarily looking forward to it.”
Throughout the Big Ten, last week’s decision to pull the plug on fall sports led to an airing of grievances. Nebraska coach Scott Frost was especially vocal in his discontentment. A star quarterback, Ohio State’s Justin Fields, started a petition to push the conference toward a reversal. Groups of parents from multiple schools sent letters to the office of commissioner Kevin Warren, and Warren eventually clarified his position in an open letter Wednesday.
Allen wasn’t going to strenuously oppose the decision, especially when he’s said all along that doctors should have the final say. He did hint at shortcomings in how the Big Ten communicated its ruling, saying “When there’s a void in communication, negativity often fills that void.”
But now it’s time to move on.
“I don’t have to always agree with things, but a decision was made, and I had to flip the switch in my mind. OK, now that the decision has been made, how do we make the best of the situation?” Allen said. “How do we continue to build this program? Because I’m not going to look back, I’m not going to dwell on the past or dwell on the things I can’t control.
“But I am responsible for my response. Talked about that to our team. As we already know, events happen in life, and circumstances happen in life, that we can’t control. But how we respond to those events … that really defines the outcome of what’s next.”
With one promising fall season wiped away, Allen and the Hoosiers have to look forward to the next one, even if it’s unclear what exactly it will look like.
In his open letter released Wednesday, Warren said the Big Ten is looking to resume fall sports “as soon as possible,” looking at possible winter and spring models. Purdue’s Jeff Brohm mocked up a plan with games beginning in late February. Penn State’s James Franklin has speculated games could kick off even sooner, playing in domed stadiums in the conference’s geographical footprint.
Of course, Lucas Oil Stadium is an hour up the road from Bloomington.
“You would need to play indoors if you were playing in those months, prior to spring,” Allen said. “Just trying to be creative, I’m sure, and just utilizing those facilities that fall within the states that we have Big 10 schools. And that’s pretty much the hope.”
While Allen said he hasn’t been a part of those discussions, he did express a preference to play as early as possible to preserve the fall 2021 season.
“The later it goes, the less I feel good about it,” Allen said. “A shortened spring and a shortened fall in 2021, I would not be in favor of that. Keep 2021 secure in that season, and then do the best we can within the parameters to create a good scenario this winter or spring.”
The course of the COVID-19 pandemic will dictate whether that will ultimately be feasible. Personal choices will shape what the Hoosiers’ roster ultimately looks like, as well.
As of now, no IU football players have opted out of the coming season, but Allen is having conversations with athletes and their parents about how to proceed. He just hasn’t always had clear answers, especially following the Big Ten’s decision to postpone the fall season.
“Our parents and our players, they know that I truly care about our guys and their safety,” Allen said. “Yes, we all want to play, and we all want to play in the worst way. But never at the expense of their health and safety. So I think we’re on the same page with that.”
The eligibility piece, Allen added, is the next big question, though it appears the NCAA is moving toward granting fall athletes another year. The NCAA has also clarified that idled football programs will have 12 hours a week to work out and hold meetings during the fall.
That brings the focus back to “sharpening the axe.” That brings the conversation back to Wellman and the work he can accomplish with the Hoosiers in the weight room.
“I want to challenge them all to develop mentally, physically, and spiritually over this time,” Allen said. “And that way, when we are told that it’s safe to play, whenever that may be, we will be ready. And that’s the goal.”