Hoosiers ante up to reel in Wellman

At the start of this offseason, Indiana football was becoming the victim of its own success.

After an 8-5 season, the Hoosiers’ best in 26 years, other programs complimented Tom Allen by poaching from his staff. One of the fiercest blows came when IU’s strength and conditioning pair, David Ballou and Matt Rhea, were hired away by Alabama.

“I don’t know exactly, but I heard Nick Saban watched the Gator Bowl and said ‘How can Indiana look like that?’” IU athletic director Fred Glass said. “So, in a way, it’s perverse praise to be poached by someone who is one of the most highly regarded coaches in college football. But it still hurt.”

The loss of Ballou and Rhea stung just a little bit more than three departed assistant coaches, because Glass invested so much in the duo. Last offseason, he increased Ballou and Rhea’s combined pay from $366,000 to $775,000, fending off advances from NFL teams. Their eventual migration to an SEC superpower brought Glass to a decision point: he could slim the budget to fit a lesser-known replacement, or the Hoosiers could hunt for a big-time successor.

Tuesday, new strength and conditioning coach Aaron Wellman was introduced to IU’s media corps via teleconference, a symbol of the athletic department’s commitment to football. He wasn’t nabbed from a smaller program, just now advancing to the Big Ten level. The last four years, he’s been the strength coach for the New York Giants. Before that, he led the strength program at Michigan.

The number it took to get him, $700,000 a year, makes Wellman the third-highest paid strength coach in the country, according to a USA Today database. Only Iowa’s Chris Doyle, at $800,000, and Ohio State’s Mickey Marotti, $735,000, are known to earn more.

As far as why an NFL strength coach would be open to joining a growing Big Ten program like IU, Wellman has his reasons, and they aren’t about money. This is his home state. He also graduated from and started his career at IU.

“I typically go by what I feel in my gut and what I feel in my heart,” Wellman said. “Talking to Coach Allen, I got excited about him, I got excited about his staff, I got excited about the direction of this program, the success he’s built here, and like I said, this has been a program that’s been near and dear to us.

“I was excited to get back to the college level, to truly develop young men, and that’s really what drove the decision.”

Glass and his deputy, Scott Dolson, who will take over as athletic director next school year, spared no expense to land Wellman, who had retention bonuses coming his way from the Giants. Along with the new seven-year deal Allen inked in December, a very clear signal has been sent about how much the athletic department values the continued success of football.

“You invest in what you believe in, and they invested in me with a seven-year contract, and I wanted to be able to have a person in this role, in this position,” Allen said. “The head strength coach is the guy that spends the most time with your players of anybody else on our staff. … So getting that right was a very big priority for me, and I just can’t thank Fred Glass and Scott Dolson and our president and our board of trustees and all their support for allowing this to happen.”

Thanks also went to Ballou, who not only helped elevate the prestige of IU football’s strength program but played a key role in guiding Allen to a successor.

Wellman, a native of Ligonier, was just beginning his career as a strength coach with the Hoosiers in the late 1990s when Ballou was a fullback on the squad. They maintained a relationship, and Wellman actually visited IU last year and spoke to the team.

“The influence that he had on Dave was a very big part of all this, and Dave and I talked,” Allen said. “I think his relationship with Dave Ballou was a big reason for the initial desire for me to be able to reach out to the New York Giants’ organization to get permission to talk to him.”

Allen used the word “statement” to describe the athletic department’s investment in Wellman, also calling the contract “unprecedented” for his position at IU. It’s the second time in as many offseasons that the Hoosiers have made such a move.

Last year, Glass helped bring in Kalen DeBoer as offensive coordinator on an $800,000 deal, the richest ever for an IU assistant. DeBoer helped boost the Hoosier offense for a season before returning to Fresno State, this time as head coach.

“A lot of heads turned when we paid $800,000 for Kalen DeBoer and people were like ‘What’s going on at Indiana?'” Glass said. “He was the third-highest paid offensive coordinator in a conference where offensive coordinators are paid pretty (darn) well, and Aaron’s going to be similar, if not higher in that pecking order.

“You can’t sort of not compete for key people and then expect to get better.”

Time will tell how Wellman runs the program, following in the footsteps of a data-driven tandem, steeped in buzzwords like “miles per hour” and “watts” generated at “peak power.”

“I know (Ballou) and Dr. Rhea did a great job here,” Wellman said. “The people that are forward-thinking in this field have used data more so in the last five, 10 years than we ever did before, and I think it’s a mistake not to.

“Will that drive every decision? Not necessarily, but it certainly plays a part in the decision-making process.”

Wellman enters under novel circumstances, just as the COVID-19 pandemic has shut down spring practices across the country. In fact, the contract for Wellman was negotiated before the disease’s arrival in the U.S. and with it questions about how athletic department budgets will be constrained in the future.

But considering what Ballou and Rhea were paid total, there will be no net increase in the strength and conditioning salary pool with Wellman’s $700,000 a year. Wellman, personally, is still in the process of making hires for his own staff.

He only had time to meet with IU’s players once, as a group, before they left for spring break. As the Hoosiers continue to stay home, it’s on Wellman to individualize workouts for each athlete from afar.

“We’re playing by the same rules as everyone else, unfortunately, as our country goes through this,” Wellman said. “Our charge from Coach Allen is just, hey, let’s do this better than every other program in the country.”

His first task has been assessing what each athlete has available to them at home.

“A lot of players have two sets of dumbbells, and so we’re writing up a workout specific to what they have,” Wellman said. “The equipment availability throughout our roster is vast and varied, and so the work begins now, right, where we have to meet these guys where they are, do our absolute best for these players and be on call 24 hours a day to meet their needs.”

Technology has helped smooth the transition, to an extent. Each football player is equipped with an application on their phone for downloading workouts and reporting progress. From there, athletes are being encouraged to text, call, or FaceTime with Wellman for more specific guidance.

While the full effect of Wellman’s plan may not take shape until athletes are allowed to return to facilities, there is a hope that a strength and conditioning coach with NFL experience will have more than a few good answers for today’s challenges.

That’s a good place to be, especially considering where the Hoosiers were following the losses of Ballou and Rhea.

“In our program, developing players is a really key part of it. And they took both of them, which was frustrating, and we felt like we really had to get the absolute best person available,” Glass said. “We feel like with Aaron, we don’t even take a step back. In fact, I think we may even take a step forward.”

20 comments

  1. Wellman was a big hire for IUFB and he brings credibility to the job. It also is a bonus that he runs a similar program to what Ballou did at IU. It is a shame we have this delay to start his efforts keep improving IU football players. I am interested to see how he can change IU players over the next few years. It is good to see IU pony up the money to bring him to IU and I hope it indicates the desire to spend money needed to keep good coaches at IU.

    Peoples is getting good reviews from recruits about how focused he is on technique and the way he interacts with the players. I hope Jones and Wright prove to be upgrades at those two spots along with improving recruiting. If Sheridan proves the support he has as OC with an innovative mind then IU’s staff could be better this coming season to go along with an improved team this coming season. Now if we can just have a season this year we can see how the team comes together with all the changes since 2019.

    1. V13,
      I think there are far more positives than negatives in the off season changes to the team and staff. The real question is can the team continue to elevate the level of play? If so, it has the potential to be a break out year for IUFB. I know we have seen all the slogans over the years but the schedule sets up very favorably for IUFB to pull into Columbus in November unbeaten. May be wishful thinking but if everything falls into place correctly and MP has the projected big year, could be a lot of fun for IUFB fans at long last.

      1. The opener in Madison will be an extremely difficult task. Big, physical teams have not been good match ups for IU under Allen.

    1. Always that chance t,

      . . . but if IUFB comes away from Madison 1-0, look at the the schedule between that date and OSU. Toughest games in Bloomington, away games winnable. Biggest question is can MP stay healthy and have the kind of year many think he has the potential of delivering. Second biggest question is can the rest of the team continue to elevate their level of play. It is IUFB although, so defeat can always be snatched from the jaws of victory.

  2. Baseline for the season is Sheridan’s playcalling more like DeBord or DeBoer. Sheridan has better chops than I to discern which model brings success to IUFB. He can’t reintroduce stale playcalling requiring miracle playmaking by average talent against tough B1G D. We’ll know in the 1st game his direction. His future is in his own hands. Just as it should be.

  3. Please accept my apologies…I have forgotten who was the lousier OC/play-caller…? Heck, I don’t even think I could tell you who was taller.
    Was it DeBord or DeBoer who really did suck?
    And which one did thinkaboutit claim never fairly treated because it was the injury to Penix causing the bad luck?
    DeBord or DeBoer? Who was first to be shown the door?
    Was finding two OC’s with names so similar a designed misdirection, an Allen distraction?
    Who brought more offensive inaction? Who had cleats which gained minimal traction?
    DeBord or DeBoer? Who left as a gobbledygook dud?
    Who stayed as playbook stud?
    When they both fall down in the shower, who makes the larger thud?
    Which was Penix a ray of sun when our promising quarterback did appear?
    And how am I supposed to remember if it eas DeBeard or DeBored once I’ve had more than one beer?

    It’s too confusing to care…I think I’ll just stick to watching Da BEARS!

    IU Football

  4. HC, you are right about where the success of the team comes from this coming season. If Coach Sheridan can bring the teaching of coach DeBoer to the offense adding his own innovations then IU will be in good shape. I am confident coach Allen has instructed coach Sheridan to use last year’s offensive schemes and teaching method as the improvement was evident from 2018.

    t, the reality is IU going to Madison is a tough task but with the way the defense played against TN for three quarters shows IU can challenge the Badgers even in their stadium. If coach Sheridan has the offense clicking then IU has a decent shot to come out with a win.

    If IU pulls out a win against Wisconsin, Illinois did last year, then thinkaboutit is right that IU has a good shot of being unbeaten heading into the OSU game. If this happens IU has a great shot at having a special season in 2020.

  5. Two things must happen if IU is going to have a chance to beat WI in Madison. First, IU must tackle extremely well. If our tackling is sloppy, we will get stampeded.

    Secondly, our QB and receivers must have an excellent game. Penix must be a “game-changer.” Look at how teams beat Wisconsin and you’ll see that they don’t try to out rush them. They don’t try to match Wisconsin’s power running game. They force Wisconsin to play catch up, to play from behind, which is not what Wisconsin is comfortable doing. If Wisconsin has to rely heavily on their passing game, IU has a chance for the upset.

  6. Yeah, PO, get ahead fast if you can, but defenses are usually ahead of the offenses development-wise in the first game or two of the season. How that plays out in Madison week 1 is anybody’s guess. What’s not guesswork is the last ten meetings between IU and UW:
    11/4/2017 vs. *Wisconsin (13-1) L 17 45
    11/16/2013 @ *Wisconsin (9-4) L 3 51
    11/10/2012 vs. *Wisconsin (8-6) L 14 62
    10/15/2011 @ *Wisconsin (11-3) L 7 59
    11/13/2010 @ *Wisconsin (11-2) L 20 83
    11/7/2009 vs. *Wisconsin (10-3) L 28 31
    11/8/2008 vs. *Wisconsin (7-6) L 20 55
    10/27/2007 @ *Wisconsin (9-4) L 3 33
    9/30/2006 vs. *Wisconsin (12-1) L 17 52
    10/1/2005 @ *Wisconsin (10-3) L 24 41
    My prediction for 2020? IU 34 UW 30. AND SCHEDULE NOTRE DAME NOW!!!!

  7. If this and that = hope. Business as usual in imaginary minds. Then, comes reality in this case (IU football) the actual living of IU football life.

  8. Yep, that’s a pretty ugly record against Wisconsin. Those IU defenses were just too small and too slow to handle Wisconsin’s power-running attack. Hopefully, next season’s defense will be better.

    davis, why would IU ever want to schedule ND? And why would ND ever want to schedule IU? It makes no sense for either school to schedule the other. For IU, the last thing it needs is to schedule another powerhouse top-20 FB team. The Big Ten East is hard enough. Playing ND would only contribute to IU posting another losing season. Right now, IU needs to string together consecutive winning seasons and finally get a victory in a bowl game. It would just be stupid and counter-productive to schedule ND any time in the next five seasons.

    As for ND, they get nothing out of scheduling IU. If they beat IU, they were supposed to beat IU. If they lose to IU, it is a disaster for ND. And as far as a home and home series goes, it would be a money loser for ND, since filling Memorial Stadium’s small capacity is not a big enough revenue generator.

    1. Why should IUFB schedule Notre Dame? Because it would make me happy, that’s why. I thought we went through this already . . . .

  9. IU does have an ugly history against Wisconsin at least since 2005 but as financial ads say – past performance doesn’t indicate future performance. IU has a more talented roster right now and these players,except a few, haven’t gone against Wisconsin which gives them a different perspective. We won’t know the impact of all this until the game is played but I am hopeful this group can play the best teams in the B1G, winning several of them.

  10. Actually, V13, the financial ads say that past performance is not a guarantee of future performance. Past performance does, however, indicate where the smart money goes. My money is pretty dumb, so its (emotionally speaking) on IU.

  11. davis, would it make you happy to see IU lose the game? Would it make you happy if, as a result of losing to ND, IU was prevented from having a winning season or going to another bowl game?

    Some day, when IU FB is consistently at a higher level, or the Big Ten East conference is not so tough, it might be good to have a home-and-home series with ND. But for the time being (at least five years), it would be, strategically speaking, a huge mistake for IU to play ND in one of it’s non-conference games.

    1. ND has no interest in scheduling IU, especially a home and home. If they expressed any, IU would jump, even as a one off in South Bend.

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