For the Indiana Hoosiers, there’s no question about the No. 1 offseason story line.
Can Tom Allen, suddenly elevated from defensive coordinator to head coach in December, take the Hoosiers to the next level?
That’s his stated goal.
Understand that “next level’’ means one thing at Indiana and quite another at Michigan or Ohio State. After all, the Hoosiers have had just one winning season since 1994.
But keeping things relative, Indiana has posted back-to-back 6-6 regular-season finishes and two straight bowl appearances.
Indiana is scrappy. Indiana is plucky. Indiana is close to a breakthrough.
Those sound like complimentary phrases.
Allen is tired of it.
He wants the real thing.
Former Indiana head coach Kevin Wilson, who resigned after his sixth Hoosier season and has since resurfaced as offensive coordinator at Ohio State, has denied the charges of player mistreatment that were largely painted as the reason for his departure.
That will never be charged against Allen.
“He is demanding, but not demeaning,’’ Indiana athletic director Fred Glass told the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel.
The numbers alone speak to the job Allen has done. In one season, he took the Hoosiers from 121st nationally in total defense to 45th. In 2015, his only season as University of South Florida defensive coordinator, his work helped to end the Bulls’ four-season bowl drought. And in 2014, as Ole Miss linebackers coach, he helped the Rebels to a 9-4 mark and a Peach Bowl bid. Ole Miss was challenging for a College Football Playoff bid before losing four of its final six games.
Allen’s true impact? It’s not the 4-2-5 defensive scheme, at attack-mode alignment, although that’s impressive enough.
It’s in the relationships.
“The big thing for me is coaching from the heart to the heart,’’ Allen said.
He’s manic energy. On many big plays, Allen leaps into the arms of his players in celebration. While at USF, after a key interception, he jumped into a group of defenders. But no one caught him. He crumpled onto the turf. Officials gave him an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.
At first you might think, “Well, I’ve seen plenty of coaches like that before.’’
Allen is a devout Christian who believes in positive reinforcement. He doesn’t curse — ever. He keeps his standards high, but doesn’t push his beliefs on anyone.
That sincerity is translated to his players, many of whom say that Allen’s presence and motivation allows them to find their peak performance, even when they are dead tired.
He talks about giving relentless effort regardless of the game’s flow — just for the love of your teammates.
Perhaps it’s fitting that the coach of the Hoosiers is a Hoosier himself. Allen, from New Castle, Ind., was the constant companion of his father, a high-school coach. Allen remembers watching film in his father’s home office.
Seemingly, Indiana is a job made for Allen.
The defense could be coming of age. Meanwhile, with former Tennessee offensive coordinator Mike DeBord running the show, the Hoosiers must maintain their scoring pace (36 points per game last season) and get better play from quarterback Richard Lagow (17 interceptions, 57.8 completion percentage).
Allen will guide the Hoosiers’ fortunes with a familiar approach.
“I never felt like (yelling or cursing) motivated anybody,’’ Allen said. “I felt like love motivates. You may get an emotional response short term, but not a lasting one. If you truly want to motivate somebody, it’s about the heart.
“My whole life philosophy boils down to this quote: ‘I’m going to work like it depends on me; I’m gong to pray like it depends on God. That’s how I live my life. That’s who I am.’’