Obviously, Tom Allen believes in the program he’s building at Indiana. The successes of the past two seasons should have the Hoosiers in a position to hire well-qualified assistants, as they have.
But when Allen received one text, in particular, about IU’s vacancy at running backs coach, even the Hoosiers’ fourth-year head coach couldn’t help but be surprised.
It was Deland McCullough. The same Deland McCullough who coached six seasons at IU, then one campaign at USC, and was coaching his way to a second consecutive Super Bowl appearance with the Kansas City Chiefs. He took a second from game-planning to message Allen.
McCullough wanted to return to IU.
“When I read it, I was like ‘Seriously?’” Allen said Tuesday during McCullough’s introductory press conference as running backs coach and associate head coach.
As he talked about the process that brought McCullough back to Bloomington, Allen couldn’t seem to wipe a smile off his face. He recalled that text message, which prompted him to find one of his other assistants and say “You’re not going to believe who is interested in this job.”
It’s not that there wasn’t interest in the position. When Mike Hart departed for his alma mater, Michigan, Allen says he was “bombarded” by people wanting to coach running backs at IU. But it’s not every day that an NFL coach expresses interest in stepping down the ladder.
Only McCullough doesn’t see this as a step down. In his mind, the NFL was just a means for improving himself, coaching alongside the brightest minds in the game, before going back to the college game. Every offseason included offers from three or so colleges, hoping to reel in the man who helped coach Tevin Coleman and Jordan Howard to greatness at IU.
But those offers weren’t quite enough. They wanted him purely as a running backs coach, nothing more. IU, on other hand, had an opening at associate head coach with Hart’s departure. IU was a place where McCullough was familiar, but it was also a program on the rise.
While Allen was trying to keep McCullough’s interest as quiet as possible, just telling people on his staff, McCullough was talking to Chiefs coach Andy Reid about the opportunity at IU.
“When I talked to Coach Reid about this, he started talking about Tom, like he knew him,” McCullough said. “I said ‘Do you know him?’ He said ‘No, but I can see his energy, I can see what he’s doing there.’ Everybody says the same thing. You talk about even from the NFL vantage point, they talk about Tom Allen and the commitment the university has made and that it’s clearly started to show and pay dividends.”
So once again, an IU football program with ambitions has snagged a highly regarded coach. Last month, it was new defensive coordinator Charlton Warren, who mentored defensive backs at Georgia. He will make $700,000 a year to bring his “SEC eyes,” as Allen has called it, to the Hoosiers’ defense. Now, IU has secured an NFL position coach, who will earn $515,000 in his first year, then $530,000 in the second.
It’s just another investment in a football program that has bigger goals than just competing in the Big Ten East, as it did in 2020. Combined with the hire of strength coach Aaron Wellman from the New York Giants last year, the additions of Warren and McCullough send a message.
“It says a lot about where we are,” Allen said. “Just talking to both Charlton and Deland about the way our program is viewed, from the staffs they came from, they are both different conferences, both different levels, geographically further away. But you kinda got a consistent theme, that people saw the change, they’ve seen the culture shift, they’ve seen the performance on the field as a football team. A team that plays together, with purpose and passion, and just a bond that’s special.
“People want to be a part of this program.”
As soon as Allen heard from McCullough, he wanted him. They worked together in 2016 when Allen was the defensive coordinator under Kevin Wilson. When Allen was promoted to head coach for the 2017 season, he hated to see McCullough leave for USC, but they kept in touch. Allen was one of many IU connections that sent McCullough a message to say “congrats” when he won the Super Bowl with the Chiefs last year.
There are high hopes for what McCullough can help the Hoosiers’ offense achieve. McCullough was on the sideline in 2014 when Coleman was setting the program’s record for rushing yards, 2,036, becoming just the 18th player in FBS history to break 2,000. In 2015, IU became just the fourth team in FBS history to have a 3,500-yard passer, two 1,000-yard rushers, and a 1,000-yard receiver in the same year.
McCullough returns with even more knowledge as a coach and game-planner. As a recruiter, though, he has a list of recommendations that’s hard to rival. Along with Coleman and Howard, he now has the likes of LeSean McCoy and Le’Veon Bell in his corner.
“I’m going to have those guys on speed dial,” McCullough said, “and they are going to be willing to sell it.”
But again, McCullough doesn’t come back if he wasn’t sold on Allen and the program he’s building. From the moment Allen arrived in 2016, McCullough had a feeling he was destined for good things.
He found himself listening through the walls, fascinated by the culture Allen was creating for IU’s defense.
“You know, sitting in meetings with him and seeing his face, the way he connected with his guys and the way he just drove them toward the bigger mission,” McCullough said. “Obviously once he got moved into that complete leadership role as the head coach, that month or so I spent with him, it was strong.
“Even as I left to go on to USC, I always said, ‘Man, Coach Allen is going to get them guys rolling there. He’s going to take us to the next level.’”
Allen did that.
Now, McCullough, who called IU “RBU” during his previous stint in Bloomington, returns with his own mission.
He wants to win championships.
“Everything just fit for me,” McCullough said. “Coach Allen, the program, the direction that it’s headed in. I just said, man, I felt it in my spirit — I wanted to be a part of the next step that IU football takes.”
Allen may be smiling about the offseason additions to his coaching staff, but he’s not going to let himself feel too good about where things stands.
“We gotta work now. We ain’t done anything,” Allen said. “We haven’t won the Big Ten East, we haven’t won the Big Ten … we haven’t won a bowl game.
“There’s a lot of things we haven’t done. To me, there’s a lot of fire and passion within me to keep building this thing.”