The coaching world is a small one, but the ties between Indiana and Ole Miss make it seem like a small neighborhood with one stoplight.
Grant Heard, the Hoosiers’ receivers coach, played and coached at Ole Miss. He met his wife in Oxford. His brother still lives there.
Kane Wommack, IU’s defensive coordinator, spent one of the earliest chapters of his relatively short career at Ole Miss as a grad assistant. His father, Dave, who was the Rebels’ d-coordinator, still lives in Oxford, too.
The Hoosiers have fans in literal Rebel territory as they face Ole Miss in the Outback Bowl. This game takes IU’s historic season and ties it back to memories of when Heard, Wommack, Jason Jones, and Tom Allen were all on Hugh Freeze’s staff at Ole Miss. That staff and team was part of the origin story of IU’s “love each other” mantra, which has so captured the college football world in 2020.
“You have to understand, right, that those things we did at Ole Miss are a piece of what we do at Indiana,” Wommack said. “It’s nice to be able to reflect back on those things and to be able to connect with people and the experiences we both shared.”
At the same time, the No. 7 Hoosiers (6-1) want to finish off a spectacular season, and they have a chance to win IU’s first bowl game since 1991.
These Ole Miss roots are very much a side story.
“This is about our players, this is about connecting to them, and finishing well with them, and they have earned every accolade, every applause they have gotten,” Wommack said. “And probably deserve more than what they’ll ever get.”
But no one arrives at the present moment without their past, and Wommack was willing to acknowledge that. He thought back to coaching in the Egg Bowl versus Mississippi State, and how Freeze’s program found a way to make love for one another more of a catalyst than the Rebels’ hatred for the Bulldogs. That’s how the Hoosiers now try to operate, and Wommack, who has become the next head coach at South Alabama, wants LEO to be a major part of his next program’s culture, too.
It all ties back to Freeze, and his first connection on the current IU coaching staff was Heard. The former prep coach from Memphis took his first job as a college head coach locally at Lambuth. Heard, who was a GA at Ole Miss when Freeze was a tight ends coach, was brought to the NAIA school as offensive coordinator in 2008.
Allen, also a longtime high school coach, linked with Freeze that year, too. He had just served a year as an assistant at Wabash when Freeze hired him as Lambuth’s defensive coordinator. Both Heard and Allen then became a part of Freeze’s tree. Heard followed Freeze to Arkansas State and back to Ole Miss. Allen spent a year at Drake — under former Wabash head coach Chris Creighton, who is now at Eastern Michigan — before joining Freeze and Heard at Arkansas State and then Ole Miss.
“I was fortunate to get to play ball at Ole Miss and even more fortunate to go back and coach,” Heard said. “Just a lot of great memories, a bunch of great friends there. Wouldn’t change it for the world. But exciting to get a chance and play another football game, and it just happens to be against Ole Miss.”
The game itself is an interesting pairing, matching one of the more explosive offenses in the SEC against one of the best defenses in the Big Ten. The 33-year-old running that defense, Wommack, was trained in his father’s 4-2-5 system at Ole Miss.
Plus, one of his defensive assistants, safeties coach Jason Jones, has a dual-connection to the other side. Jones was on staff with Allen and Wommack at Ole Miss, but he also coached under current Ole Miss head coach Lane Kiffin when they were together at Florida Atlantic in 2019.
Jones has unique insight into Kiffin’s offensive philosophies.
“It is, I guess, funny, weird, when you think about it,” Jones said of all the IU-Ole Miss connections. “Just the football side, all those years (Kiffin) spent at Alabama with Coach (Nick) Saban, a lot of the things that he learned there … he’s a sharp football coach. He’s detailed. He’s going to give you a formation and he’s going to run an offensive play and he’s going to have a plan, A, B, C, and D. If the defense does this, then we are going to do this.
“He’s not going to leave any stone unturned, and he’s going to be detailed about the game plan and things like that. It forces you as a defensive coach, you have to be even more detailed.”
Suppressing a Rebel offense will be Wommack’s last act as a defensive coordinator at IU, bringing everything full circle. Then, he takes over full-time as head coach at South Alabama.
But the relationship-driven culture that Wommack first experienced at Ole Miss, which has been embraced on another level at IU, that’s something he’s going to hold on to forever. Wommack even asked Allen if he can bring the literal “LEO” slogan to South Alabama, and Allen consented.
“I thought what we did a great job of as a team was defining our love for one another and not hatred towards someone else as the catalyst of being a great team,” Wommack said. “That, to me, is something I want to carry on as a head coach at South Alabama. The culture and the environment you create, it provides an opportunity for people to become the best versions of themselves when they have a support system like that.
“I saw that done well during my time at Ole Miss.”
Holding onto that mantra, though, also means somewhat downplaying the significance of Ole Miss ties going into this game. Because to Wommack and his colleagues, the Outback Bowl isn’t about them.
It’s about finishing a dream season for IU’s players.
“We want to finish well for these guys and we want to take this program moving forward into the ’21 season, where I will become one of the biggest fans of this program,” Wommack said. “But winning this bowl game and taking care of business is a big piece of our success moving forward, and I think everyone in the building is connected to that vision right now.”