IU’s Allen named 2020 AFCA Coach of the Year

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 places unfamiliar for the Hoosiers. 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 step 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. In Allen’s story, there is a lesson for other coaches.

“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.

Both the ’67 and ’45 teams finished at No. 4 in their respective national polls. Those are the only two finishes that are better than the 2020 squad, which finished at No. 12 in the final Associated Press poll, in program history. It’s 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.”

All of this was accomplished by a former high school coach and well-traveled college assistant, who just needed someone to believe in him. Allen can still remember going to his first AFCA convention in 1998, as an assistant for Ben Davis coaching legend Dick Dullaghan.

He’s been to every one of them since.

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. Dullaghan, who coached at Purdue and Army, specifically told Allen in a postseason meeting that he should aim to be a high school coach.

“He just challenged me. He said ‘I think you need to be a college football coach, I just see how you’re wired, and how you do things,'” Allen said. “He encouraged me. That was probably a push, as well. The desire was already there.”

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.

Allen, a man of deep faith, also won a national coach of the year award from the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

“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 first Big Ten coach to win the AFCA’s national honor since Penn State’s Joe Paterno in 2005.

Allen’s name has certainly been elevated. But like any good coach, Allen turned the attention away 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.”

11 comments

  1. Great news about coach Allen and the award is well deserved in this tough year. More media attention that can grab HS players attention helping recruit them. The past two years have been very good years for IUFB and I would add the first two years as those years gave coach Allen to get in his program and bring in players that buy in to it.

    I hope the recruiting in the 2022 class and after reflect all the good going on in IUFB reflecting that this program is different than in the past. Coach Allen feels blessed to be HC at IU but we are blessed that he is the HC at IU.

  2. “……but we are blessed that he is the HC at IU.” Yes, absolutely! Great comment and I could not agree more. The Hoosier Nation is blessed to have Tom Allen as their Head FB Coach.

    I am so glad that he got this recognition and honor. He absolutely deserves it. It’s validation that his struggle to advance his career from HS Assistant to Head Coach at a Power-five Conference School was worth it and that it has paid off. It’s an inspiration to his assistant coaches, to his players and to anyone that has been paying attention. I hope the first thing he does is hug and kiss his wife and thank her for her support throughout his long professional journey. I mean, can you imagine what she had to deal with while TA pursued his professional goals? All the relocations and the low income while he was climbing the coaching ladder. And I’ll bet she took on the lion’s share of the child-raising duties given the extremely long hours he had to put into his job. If he get’s a bonus for this recognition, he should just sign that bonus check over to her and tell her to treat herself to anything she wants.

    This news made my day.

  3. Congratulations to CTA, IU and Fred Glass to make the call. Replacing ‘good’ is a rather rudimentary, common challenge. Replacing the ‘best’ is an entirely different subject. I say this in regard to how much more fit, fast and athletic Alabama appeared than OSU. That strength/conditioning/nutrition tandem was ours, and IU allowed it to leave. Bad mistake, regardless of counter offer. IU may never recruit at the level of the top schools in the conference…but having those 2 guys would have made up much of the difference each year. They were and are irreplaceable.

  4. IU “allowed” Ballou to leave? Ballou wouldn’t have left to play for a program that has absolutely dominated college football for the past decade+ regardless of what Indiana did to keep him? Dude is going to have rings (plural) on his fingers because of this move.

    Sorry Brad, this might be the single most…um…

    (Be nice. Be nice.)

    …not so smart thing said ’round these parts in a while. The mental gymnastics it takes to continually take a swipe at the football program after this year is quite special. I’ll give you that.

    1. DD: You seem to indicate that my thoughts on the move were obtuse. I’m not taking ‘swipes’ at the program. Do you personally know that they would have left if IU counter-offered for more money? My point is that if IU, or any aspiring program climbing from decades of muck allows itself to be cherry-picked it will never shake the mire in order to continue going forward. It’s like recruiting. Up until now the program realistically had zero chance of winning over 4* kids or even contacting a 5*’s coach. That is slowly beginning to change. IU, (provided they didn’t, I don’t know either) should have countered with more $. Remember DD, IU hired them away in the first place to get them to Bloomington.

      1. IU did technically “counter offer” them, but it was an opportunity they were never going to let pass. They nearly left for the NFL prior to that, so their departure was inevitable. Suggesting this was purely a money thing isn’t accurate. Also find it interesting that some seem to know how the new strength staff works.

  5. Brad IU paid them good money and if they left for the money then they were after money but I agree with DD. IU now has an NFL strength coach that does the same type of training and it helps with recruiting too. I am glad Coach Allen was able to get the strength coach to IU. Players knowing he was in the NFL and their combine will help bring in better players. He did a great job contacting and keeping in touch with the players giving them off-season work to do adjusting to their situation to use what they had available. Don’t worry about our current strength and conditioning program because we have one of the best coach and staff once again.

  6. V13: That sounds reassuring. I am aware the guy came from the Giants and apparently is very qualified. If Ballou was ‘unhappy’ here and ready to bolt to the NFL,..I wasn’t aware of that. That said, Saban didn’t go after him, but the IU tandem. That says volumes. I guess I have a case of angst when it comes to the “rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer”. Like most everyone else that comments, just worn out over OSU being the ‘standard’ for the B1G. The conference needs more real competition at the top when it comes to football.

    1. Brad I agree about the B1G and OSU and I hope IU is the one to accomplish it with the success we have had the past two years and the exposure they and coach Allen have received this past season. Having Penix healthy all season will help although if they let Jack open things up I believe he would be very good just not quite as good as Penix as he can get the ball into tight windows. I think Jack has good touch and could develop into a very good QB so IU is in good shape next season either way.

      1. Jack be nimble, Jack be quick
        But it is Penix who is built
        Like a pogo stick.
        With Tuttle in the huddle
        Or Michael in a cast
        It is Buckeyes we’ll surpass
        And defeat alas.

  7. Brad, while your feelings a understandable, and I mean no disrespect, my questions to you are 1) when was the last time you wrote a check to IU’s Athletic Department? and 2) Are you a season ticket holder who actually goes to the games? If you answer yes to both, you have every right to complain or express your “angst.” But if not, then I ask you, “what are you doing to help make things better?”

    I have a friend in Indy who has complained about IU FB and BB continuously for years, probably since Bob Knight got fired. He’s never satisfied. He was a little more reticent during this year’s FB season, but still found things to complain about. When he starts that stuff around me, I ask him the same two questions, but I already know his answers to both will be “no.” That shuts him up pretty quick. Obviously my point is, if Hoosier fans are not contributing to make things better, how can they expect it improve?

    Big time college sports, especially FB and BB, is all about money. The money comes from a school’s fans attending FB games and the alumni and fans making donations. Alabama FB generates enormous amounts of money every year. It’s FB budget is HUGE! If Alabama wants to hire IU’s S&C coaches for double what IU was paying them, there’s nothing IU can do to prevent it, at least not until IU starts filling Memorial Stadium for every home FB game and the Hoosier Nation starts writing more and bigger checks. Even then, it would be unreasonable to expect FB coaches, who have no job security, to pass up and opportunity like that. Let’s continue the discussion after IU expands Memorial Stadium to 100,000 seats and the Hoosier Nation fills it for every home game for ten consecutive years.

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