Tom Allen: 'I had to react. There wasn't a lot of time to think about it'
Posted by: Chris Vannini on Friday March 03, 2017
Photo credit: USA Today
Tom Allen was on the road recruiting when he got the call.
Less than a year after agreeing to a new 6-year contract, Indiana and head coach Kevin Wilson went separate ways. Amid a school investigation into player treatment, Wilson resigned on Dec. 1, and the school wanted the first-year defensive coordinator Allen to take over as head coach.
No interim coach. No search. A clean transition all in one day and a bowl game to prepare for.
“I was very shocked,” Allen told CoachingSearch this week. “I was out recruiting. It definitely was a very unusual situation. I was surprised. I had to quickly react, roll my sleeves up and go to work. There wasn’t a lot of time to think about it. “
Indiana opens spring practice on Saturday, Allen’s first as a college head coach. The program is coming off two straight bowl games for the first time since the early 1990s. Allen is an Indiana native and was very emotional at the press conference announcing the change. It's a dream job, but not the way he expected.
It was a long path from the bottom up. His career began as a high school coach in the 1990s, first in Florida and then Indiana. In 2007, he moved up to Wabash College, followed by Lambuth and Drake. Then a big break in 2011, joining Hugh Freeze at Arkansas State and following him to Ole Miss. After three years as linebackers coach, Willie Taggart hired him as South Florida’s defensive coordinator. He turned that defense around in one season, and Wilson came calling.
In his first year at Indiana, the Hoosier defense allowed 10.4 fewer points per game and was also among the biggest national improvements in rushing D and 3rd down. Allen credited a mental change more than a physical change.
“The first step, we had to change the mindset, had to change the way our players think about themselves, about their coaches, about their teammates,” Allen said. “That was all very fractured. We had a lot of the same players, yet the defensive results were different. We made a change in scheme, but it was more the attitude, mindset, the way we prepared and did the little things, film study weight room, during spring practice, after spring practice. We had a new standard.”
The school first investigated complaints of player treatment in 2015. School officials thought issues were resolved, and Wilson received a new contract and big pay raise after the season. But The Indianapolis Star reported that new incidents led to a second investigation in the fall of 2016. Allen said every coach was brought in to speak with an outside agency. It was the first time Allen had concerns about anything. But he said that was the only time he talked to them. He'd only been there for the 2016 season and didn't think about any potential big issues. The phone call about Wilson’s departure was a shock to him. At the press conference, athletic director Fred Glass said there was no "smoking gun," but it was a situation where the school thought it had to move on.
Wilson had brought Allen in to be the head coach of the defense. Wilson called offensive plays and let Allen handle his side. So when Allen stepped in front of the whole team as head coach for the first time, half the team already knew what they were getting.
“There were some key seniors that stood up in that meeting and spoke that were huge,” Allen said. “The turnaround was so dramatic that it created a strong belief in defensive guys and the way we did it. They knew it was bigger than football and X’s and O’s and there was a difference culturally. The offense saw that because they went against us every day, saw it was a different team. The defense was immediately on board. The offensive guys stood up, one in particular, and said, ‘This is hard, we love Coach Wilson,’ and echoed what I said.”
Now controlling the program, Allen will run the same coaching setup as Wilson. He will keep running the defense, and he hired Mike DeBord from Tennessee to run the offense. Allen kept the entire defensive staff intact, but has a completely new offensive staff.
DeBord put familiar faces around himself. When quarterbacks coach Shawn Watson became Pitt offensive coordinator, he hired Nick Sheridan, who played QB under DeBord at Michigan. When running backs coach Deland McCullough left for USC, he hired Mike Hart, who played running back at Michigan. For Allen, he wanted someone he could trust to run it without him at times.
“He and I had a strong relationship prior to working together,” Allen said. “I needed to have somebody I knew and trusted. I wanted to focus on the defense and continue to be the defensive coordinator. I wanted to run the defense and manage the team. On game day, I want to call the defense and manage the game, so I needed somebody I could totally trust and turn the offense over to.”
Allen inherits an Indiana program on a high, coming off two straight bowl games — a rare feat for the Hoosiers. That first bowl season was one reason Allen made the move from USF to IU. It means he takes over a program already in place, but it’s also pressure. Wilson, meanwhile, was hired as Ohio State's offensive coordinator, and Urban Meyer says he was vetted thoroughly.
For Allen, the next step is winning the close games against the top teams in the league. He’s in a dream job, though it was thrust upon him in unexpected circumstances. As his first spring as a head coach gets underway, it’s not about a rebuild. It’s about making sure past mistakes don't happen again, and that the program takes the next step.
“I knew Indiana was on the upswing. I saw it. I talked to coaches and did my homework. I saw that when I came as the DC,” he said. “Then we had another good season. Now, how do we break through? We played all these good teams to the fourth quarter, like our bowl game. That’s our challenge now. Find a way to break through.”