As a familiar rage built inside of Nate Dorsey, three words called him to attention.
“Look at me,” said his 24-year-old coach, Tom Allen, who had used these words so many times before.
Dorsey, brought up in the projects of Tampa, had this habit of lowering his gaze from those in authority. But the head football coach at Temple Heights demanded his full attention. Allen wanted to connect with him, to relate, and deliver a message.
He understood why his star running back, this 6-foot-5, 220-pound specimen, was so mad. Dorsey had just looked in the stands and saw his mother. But she was at every game. Football, basketball, or baseball, it didn’t matter. She worked two or three jobs, and she always made it.
His father wasn’t there. His father had promised, again, he would be there. But he wasn’t.
“Look at me,” Allen said. “I get why you’re upset. I understand. This sucks. You’ve been dealt a bad hand.”
Allen focused Dorsey’s eyes back on the stands, one more time.
“Look at all these people here to cheer for you,” he said, pointing to the fans, to his mom, to his coaches and teammates. “Put it behind you right now. Let it fuel you … and then the Lord will deal with your dad.”
Those words, they were perfect in the moment. Dorsey says he rushed for 285 yards that day, scoring four touchdowns. He racked up 19 tackles at linebacker. Allen worked his magic as a motivator, as he would for years to come, up until the present moment at Indiana University.
But to frame those words as just a well-timed dialogue, a well-assembled mix of syllables aimed at driving an athlete to perform, would be improper. Allen was able to soothe the soul of his first star player, on his very first team as head coach, because he wasn’t purely an Xs-and-Os guy. To the Eagles’ players, he was like a father.
This former college linebacker and wrestler, this rocked-up, fired-up man of faith from Indiana, had their love and respect. Allen still has it, as they look back at those formative years, and where they are now, and where he is. He’s led the Hoosiers to new heights in recent days, daring them to believe wins over Penn State and Michigan were possible. It’s just a rerun of 1994, though, when Allen dared Temple Heights to believe a state playoff run was possible for the first time in 18 years. And it was.
He’s a program-changer. But more importantly, men like Dorsey consider him a life-changer. Without those years with Allen, without Temple Heights, Dorsey doesn’t know where his life would have gone. This married man of 19 years, a father of three children, a small business owner, thinks back to those pregame words.
Dorsey proclaims, “I’d follow that man to hell and back if I had to.”
The road to Temple Heights was short for some. Roger Duncan, pegged as Temple Heights’ basketball coach in 1992, grew up attending the school, which was just down the road from Busch Gardens. He student-taught there his last semester at Clearwater Christian College, just 20 minutes west.
But when Allen arrived from Maranatha Baptist University in Wisconsin, he’d come a long way. Duncan couldn’t be completely sure why.
“The only thing that I can think of that drew Tom was the fact that Florida is known for a high level of football, and it was a Christian school,” Duncan said. “Temple Heights, it was not a ‘Wow, this is the place to be.’”
The facilities weren’t half-bad for a school with a few hundred kids, including a nice-sized gym and weight room. Dorsey just remembers how clean the desks were and how often Temple Heights’ teachers smiled, which was quite a change from his previous public school.
But the football program lacked so much. For one, there was no football field on the grounds. Their practice area was a dried-out patch of grass by the baseball field, dotted with prickly sandspurs.
There weren’t many players, either. Only a couple dozen athletes came out for football each year, many of them basketball players Allen shared with Duncan. Since it was a talent-rich state, there were capable athletes among them, like Dorsey. But Temple Heights also lacked a winning tradition.
The year Allen arrived as an assistant coach in 1992, Temple Heights finished 1-9.
“We were that little David,” said Mike Pearson, once a Temple Heights lineman, who went on to play at Florida, as well as for the Jacksonville Jaguars. “People would always look down on us. Oh, you’re Temple Heights. You’re not that good. You don’t have any athletes. You don’t have any ability.”
Before they could achieve, Allen had to strip those words from their psyche. He peeled off layers of doubt with pure passion and energy.
He joined his athletes in the weight room, throwing up 315 pounds at the squat rack. He ran with them, every sprint. He’d ping-pong around the football field, physically teaching them every technique.
Allen was also a wrestling coach, and his athletes weren’t spared from chokeholds and takedowns.
“He was great at single and double legs. He’d snatch them and slam us down,” said Jason Hawsey, who was also a lineman for Temple Heights. “It was not a soft landing.”
Allen was just a big, physical man, but compassionate. He wanted them to be aggressive. He wanted them to know that men of faith don’t have to be soft. He picked up Dorsey at a pool party one offseason, holding him above his head like a pro wrestler, just to throw him in the water.
Sometimes, he would invite them over to his house, just to watch Kung Fu movies and talk about life.
“He knew how much we loved him, because he first loved us,” Hawsey said. “Then he knew he could lean on us and have high expectations, and we would follow through. Because, hey, coach believes in me.”
Allen’s expectations were many. He hammered home fundamentals. He stressed the importance of good grades. He never let players cuss. And when they spoke, they had to look him in the eye.
But the respect he demanded, he offered back. Dorsey, who unfortunately knew the name of every gang member on his street, would come to Allen with these nearly impossible questions. Allen always listened.
“There were friends of mine that got killed and that stuff weighs on you. You just saw this guy four days ago and you come home and he’s dead,” Dorsey said. “I’m getting into God’s word and I‘m learning how great God is, but why would God let this happen?”
Allen answered, “The Lord lets man figure it out. You have to be responsible for your own actions.”
Dorsey just had to keep the faith, as his mother reaffirmed. He was surrounded by riots, death, prostitution. “That’s not your story,” she would say. He was going to make it out, as long as he stayed on a straight path.
Football was an avenue, and when Allen was elevated to head coach in the middle of the ’93 season, Dorsey, who had played offensive line, was moved to running back. He found VHS tapes of Earl Campbell to mimic his running style. One of his friends in the neighborhood suggested a mindset.
“Everybody you run over, picture them as your dad,” Dorsey was told. “I just got it in my head, ‘OK, dad, you don’t want me, I’m going to run you over every time.’”
Dorsey was the centerpiece, but there were a myriad of athletes who came into their own. While the varsity went 2-4 under Allen in that first half-season, the junior varsity went undefeated. Allen called up some eighth-graders in the spring of ’94, including Pearson, who was 6-3, 185.
“I probably looked more like a kid that should be on the basketball court,” Pearson said. “But he knew I really liked football and figured if I kept growing vertically, and he could put a little weight on my backside, I might have a chance to be an offensive tackle.”
Pearson will credit Allen for seeing something in him, long before he was a 6-7, 300-pound NFL talent. But Allen saw a road to glory for an entire team.
That spring, Allen started asking his players if they believed a win over Shorecrest Prep was possible. The preceding fall, Shorecrest had beaten Temple Heights, 63-0. Allen went with Duncan, his football assistant, to see Rudy in theaters the day after that loss, and the inspirational story of Notre Dame’s scrappy walk-on didn’t easily wipe the hurt off of Allen’s face.
But Allen still dared to ask the question: “Do you believe, when we play Shorecrest, we are going to win?’”
“I was thinking ‘Why does he keep asking us if we believe?’” Pearson said. “Now I’ve been around long enough, I know there are teams that on paper should win, but their spirit, their mentality, doesn’t allow it.”
Temple Heights may have lacked a home field, an army of players, a head coach with experience. But Allen, who loved them so much, made sure the Eagles didn’t lack for one thing.
Belief. If anything, they were going to believe.
“If Coach Allen says we can go out there and beat the New York Giants,” Pearson said, “I think we can.”
They can’t remember a score at this point. It was just a jamboree, more than a quarter of a century ago. But there is one indelible image from that spring victory over Shorecrest, which Pearson and Dorsey easily recall.
It’s their head coach, his face red, veins bulging from his neck, screaming, “We’ve got Goliath’s head!”
“Coach, man, you gotta calm down. You’re going to pass out,” Dorsey said. “He was like “No, that’s fire, that’s all.’”
He was just so fired up, because Allen’s father, also a high school coach named Tom, had given a devotional about David and Goliath pregame. The younger Allen had been asking for weeks whether his players believed they could beat this giant, Shorecrest, and they did.
They now knew what it was like to be a David.
“(David) told Goliath he was going to cut his head off, but he didn’t have his sword,” said John Kelly, a linebacker and tight end for the Eagles. “He cut (Goliath’s) head off with Goliath’s own sword. That’s pretty motivational for a 10th-grader.”
That dose of belief in hand, Allen sought to amplify it. He had shirts made, the words “Dare to Believe” printed on the front, and a list of goals on the back. Allen recalls his athletic director seeming a bit worried, seeing a playoff berth at the end of that checklist.
It seemed almost too ambitious.
“We were going to have to beat some teams that year that had beaten us for a long time,” Allen said this week, fresh off of IU’s streak-breaking wins over Penn State and Michigan, a story he’s seen play out before.
Once belief crept in for Temple Heights, it swallowed doubt whole. Dorsey rampaged through opposing defenses. The individual pieces of an aggressive Temple Heights defensive unit, each drilled by Allen on how to beat their blocker, jelled into one impenetrable wall.
All the while, Allen used football to shape the Eagles into men. He was so joyful with them, giving them bearhugs after big plays. They’d be watching film, and Allen would throw his playbook to the floor, jumping up and down, after the most run-of-the-mill form tackle.
In the case of Dorsey, he recognized there was anger driving him, but Allen gave him that first nudge toward a new way of operating. He taught Dorsey to pick up ball-carriers after he leveled them at linebacker.
“My junior year, you couldn’t have paid me $100 to pick someone up off the ground,” Dorsey said. “When I got to my senior year, I was like ‘OK, I have to switch this up, because it’s not the way to live.’”
Every player was pushed. Once, Kelly said an inappropriate word to an opponent in a handshake line, and Allen swiftly pulled him aside.
“You say you’re a Christian,” Allen said. “If you’re a Christian, you don’t talk like that.”
That was a jarring moment, but one Kelly is thankful for.
“I love him,” Kelly said. “I loved him as a 15-, 16-year-old boy, and I love him as a 40-year old man, because he’s real. He’s a real person. There’s nothing fake about him.”
Allen loved his players, and they won. The Eagles went 8-3. They made the playoffs. Allen was the county’s coach of the year, in his first full season.
“It’s like someone said about the definition of a leader, if you’re taking a walk and nobody is beyond you, you’re not a leader. You’re just taking a walk,” said John Zeller, Temple Heights’ AD in ’94. “He leads and people walk behind him. A lot of people are walking behind him.”
That’s what made it so difficult when Allen walked away from Temple Heights after the ’94 season.
Kelly can vividly recall sitting in the back of his parents’ car when he received the news. It was dark, so he wonders if it was after a midweek church service. But he knows, for sure, he was crying.
Hawsey, not fully filled in on the reasons Allen left, initially felt betrayed. But then Allen showed up to the Eagles’ jamboree the following spring, just to cheer them on. On the verge of becoming the defensive coordinator at Armwood High, he met with his former players after the game, not to recruit, but just to check on them.
“I remember going home that night, telling my parents, Coach Allen is at Armwood,” Hawsey said. “I want to go.”
Hawsey’s parents agreed. So did Kelly’s. It took a year for Pearson to convince his mom to allow it. She led Temple Heights’ elementary school. But after her son suffered through a winless season in ’95, and once she had a conversation or two with Allen, permission was granted. About a half-dozen Temple Heights players ended up at Armwood.
Like Temple Heights, it was a reclamation project. Before Allen’s arrival, the school had a putrid nickname, “Arm Pit.” But like the story that unfolded at Temple Heights, which has played out at IU, and everywhere in between, it wasn’t long before Armwood’s defense was a force. Hawsey became a captain at linebacker, forced out of his introverted nature by Allen.
The school colors were different, but Allen’s mission of change was not. It wasn’t long before Allen met a talented Armwood safety named Ronnie Thomas, shifting his course with just a few simple words.
“Are you all right?”
To this day, Thomas has trouble watching IU games live. He’s a truck driver, and he needs to rest when he can. If he starts watching his former coach, he’ll inevitably see a clip of Allen jumping around on the sideline. He gets too excited. Then he can’t sleep.
“I get emotional,” Thomas said. “If I watch the game, now I have to go to bed, now I have to call (John) Kelly to be like ‘Hey, man, what’s up?’ and talk about it. Nine out of 10 times, I watch the highlights. Maybe catch an interview. It’s safer that way.”
The coach everyone saw leaping in the air, pouncing on IU safety Devon Matthews after a game-sealing interception versus Michigan, that’s the coach Thomas knew. He was pumping his arms, slapping butts, bear-hugging. Allen would never cuss, but he was so energetic on the sideline at Armwood, he once drew a flag for talking to the ref too enthusiastically.
He was a man of high morals but overflowing with passion. And he cared. He checked in on his players, just asking, “Hey, is everything all right?”
Allen couldn’t have known Thomas’ circumstances, because his talented safety wasn’t an open book. He kept the fact he didn’t have a family, that things weren’t great where he laid his head down at night, mostly to himself.
But Allen’s small act, just asking how he was doing, was powerful. Thomas had never had a coach care enough to ask.
“He didn’t have to tell me he loved me. You don’t have to come out and say that when you do it with your actions, when you ask ‘Are you all right? Are you having a good day?’” Thomas said. “He found out later. He just knew my situation was bad. He knew I was in a tough spot. He helped out a kid with no family. That’s about it.”
Allen would take Thomas to church with him. Hawsey was there, seeing Thomas arrive with a hot dog in hand, which Allen probably bought him.
Thomas doesn’t wish to go into detail about his personal struggles, but he’s blunt about what may have happened if he never met Allen, if he never heard those caring words.
“I wouldn’t be running a trucking company, I wouldn’t be talking to you, I’d probably be in prison right now, or dead,” Thomas said. “That was the environment I was in.”
Allen, to this day, grows emotional when he’s reminded of his journey, and the people he’s crossed paths with. He started at Temple Heights but landed at 11 different schools in six different states. He has license plates on a wall in his office, marking each stop, each sacrifice his family made. There is also a quote from Jim Elliot, “Wherever you are, be all there. Live to the hilt every situation you believe to be the will of God.”
He invested where he was, whether it was Temple Heights, Armwood, Ben Davis, Wabash College, Lambuth, Drake, Arkansas State, Ole Miss, or South Florida.
“Where we were, we were going to be all in to those kids and that situation, and pour my heart into those kids,” Allen said, as his voice started to crack. “We” includes his wife, Tracy, who was a volleyball coach and math teacher. She tutored Dorsey after school, spending as many hours as needed to make sure he knew algebra before he went off to Bethany College.
“And that’s what we did,” Allen continued. “It’s been a long journey, but it’s been awesome.”
The question has never been whether Allen could inspire. It’s just whether his store of energy is truly bottomless. Duncan recalls talking to his lifelong friend while he was at Ben Davis in Indianapolis. Allen was pouring so much time into the job, it wasn’t out of the question that he might burn out.
“At that place, he was up at 4:30 and going until midnight,” Duncan said. “He was saying ‘I think I can keep this up for 15 years.’ Then maybe he’d stop coaching and just become a principal.”
It was a passing thought. While at Ben Davis, Allen interfaced with college coaches. Chris Creighton, then the head coach at Wabash, now Eastern Michigan, was another excitable man of God. They had long talks. Allen became convinced he could be a college coach.
He spent so many years in the prep ranks, the label “high school coach” was cynically attached to him, especially by critics who didn’t understand why a defensive coordinator with no college head-coaching experience was assuming a head job in the Big Ten. But IU athletic director Fred Glass saw what John Zeller saw, what Dorsey, Kelly, Hawsey, and Pearson saw, what everyone who knew Allen’s history recognized.
Allen could bring change, even to a Hoosier program that seemed to have peaked in the ‘60s and ‘80s. IU cornerback Tiawan Mullen, one of those recruits who believed in Allen’s vision, says it’s his actions, not his words, that create such a strong belief.
“Coach Allen holds everyone accountable, from the coaches, to the GAs, to the scouts,” Mullen said. “He’s excited at practice every day. There’s not one down moment. He pushes himself. I feel like he might be pushing himself too hard, but, hey, that’s Coach Allen. We love him to death.
“The type of person he is, he’ll make you want to run through a wall for him, just out of genuine love.”
The fabric in those 1994 “Dare to Believe” shirts have long since disintegrated. Temple Heights doesn’t even exist anymore. But many of Allen’s current and former players can weave threads from then to now.
They see the sideline celebrations that have appeared on SportsCenter highlights, his crowd-surfing charade after the PSU win, and they know this is just the man. Mike Doig, who was an assistant for both Allen and Duncan at Temple Heights, has seen Day 1 brought forward to the present day. He’s now IU football’s director of operations.
“It’s not done for attention, it’s not fake,” Doig said. “It’s who he is.”
He’s all energy and enthusiasm, passion and persistence. He cares about his players, whether they are Temple Heights Eagles, Armwood Hawks, or Indiana Hoosiers.
“When you have a teacher, a coach, that says ‘Hey, you all right?’ ‘You talking to me coach?’ ‘Yeah, you all right?’ That’s everything,” Thomas said, still taken aback by where a simple gesture can lead.
“Yeah, everything’s good. Thanks for asking, coach.”
(above picture from newspaper archive, Tampa Tribune)