Indiana coach Tom Allen makes his living by creating a vision for others, pushing a football program and its athletes toward a more glorious future.
In the 2020 season, Allen manifested such a vision better than most in college football. IU tied a program record with six conference wins, skyrocketing up national polls to unfamiliar places. Those successes put Allen in a position to be named the American Football Coaches Association’s national coach of the year on Tuesday.
But as he reflected on that award and the journey that brought him to it, Allen had to be honest. He didn’t always have a clear vision for what his own future would bring.
“There were times when I had no idea what tomorrow was going to be,” Allen said. “I had no idea where I was going to end up.”
The charm of Allen’s story is that it almost didn’t happen.
Coaching in college was a long-desired dream, but Allen was in the high school ranks from 1992-2006. When he finally decided to go for it, taking a job at Wabash in 2007, it was the first stop in a path that jerked his family from one place to the next. From Drake to Lambuth to Arkansas State and Ole Miss, there was a time where Allen, admittedly, thought about not jumping around anymore.
The former coach of Ben Davis High School wondered if it would be better to just return to the prep ranks.
“I didn’t want to put my family through more hard moves and more, just, uncertainty and no money and all those different things,” Allen said.
In the end, though, something pulled him back. There was just a desire to go on. Just a question in his mind, “Am I good enough?” And it’s a question he wanted answered.
The journey to Tuesday helped answer the question. Allen rose to the rank of IU defensive coordinator in 2016. After just one year in his post, IU athletic director Fred Glass placed confidence in a former high school head coach to lead a Big Ten program. Allen had consecutive five-win seasons in 2017 and ’18, but then IU broke through with an eight-win campaign in 2019.
Momentum just carried the Hoosiers from there. Now it’s incredible to think how far Allen has come. He can still recall going to his first AFCA convention in 1998.
“It’s a great opportunity for others to be able to look at and maybe draw some encouragement from and some strength and say ‘Hey, man, you got a dream in your heart, just stay the course and don’t ever give up,’” Allen said.
It’s truly historic ground Allen has reached. He’s the Hoosiers’ first national coach of the year winner since John Pont in 1967, which is the year IU reached the Rose Bowl. The only other IU winner was Bo McMillin in 1945, which was the Hoosiers’ undefeated season.
Those are the only IU teams to finish with a better ranking in the national polls, both at No. 4. IU finished this year at No. 12 in the final Associated Press ranking, which is just the sixth year IU has been ranked at all to end a season and the first time since 1988.
The season was equally memorable because of how it unfolded. In August, it wasn’t certain when or how there would be a season. A team coming off of an eight-win campaign, capped by a gut-wrenching bowl loss, was suddenly in limbo. Big Ten football quickly started back up in October, with two of IU’s first three games against East Division foes the Hoosiers ordinarily fall prey to.
But the Hoosiers stunned PSU thanks to Michael Penix Jr.’s dive for the pylon in overtime. Allen’s decision to go for two points earned him the Bobby Dodd Trophy’s coach of the week honor, because Dodd would have “admired Coach Allen’s bold decision,” the release said. IU’s players admired the call, too, as they held up their coach for some crowd-surfing in the locker room postgame.
Before the crowd-surfing, Allen told his players they were a special group, and an anonymous Hoosier shouted “We love you, coach!”
The 2020 season offered numerous moments where Allen’s “love each other” mantra was in the national spotlight. Allen tackled safety Devon Matthews after a game-sealing interception versus Michigan. He shed tears for his injured son, Thomas Allen, during and after a shutout win at Michigan State, handing his son the Old Brass Spittoon in celebration.
Allen started to make numerous national television and radio appearances as the Hoosiers shot up the polls. He was even interviewed on Duke men’s basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski’s Sirius XM show. Coach K, a coaching icon, said “I want to damn play for you.”
To be recognized by his fellow football coaches was a true honor. And now Allen can be an inspiration for others.
“High school coaches talk to me about they have that similar interest and ‘Well, you better be willing to do this, this, and this, and if that is your dream in your heart, go after it, chase it,’” Allen said. “Don’t ever live with regrets. I just didn’t want to have regret. I wasn’t guaranteed anything, that it would even work out.”
Allen just remembers a poster on his bedroom wall in New Castle, featuring all of the Big Ten teams and their mascots. His love for college football was seeded by his dad, a high school coach, who took him to games, and coaches’ conventions, and watched game film with him.
It was in the prep ranks where Allen received another push, from Ben Davis coaching legend Dick Dullaghan. He told Allen in a postseason meeting, he needed to be a college coach. He just seemed to be wired for that level.
For it all to work out as it has, there have been some emotional phone calls between Allen and his father, both after winning the AFCA award Tuesday and the Big Ten’s coach of the year honor back in December.
“He cried when I told him I’d won those awards,” Allen said. “The Big Ten one is a big deal to my dad … just being raised in Big Ten country and just going to all the coaches’ clinics and all the names on there and winning these awards that are named after coaches my dad looked up to. It’s overwhelming for him to think that’s the position that I’ve been able to be put in.”
Allen is the Big Ten’s first winner of the AFCA’s national honor since Penn State’s Joe Paterno in 2005.
But like any good coach, Allen turned the attention from himself. This, in his mind, is a team award. Given everything the Hoosiers were able to accomplish in 2020, it was a truly special piece of hardware.
“This is a program award, this is an Indiana University award. For everybody,” Allen said. “You think about Fred Glass and his believing in me … just thankful for all that and what’s represented in what this award means.”