During his seven years as Indiana football’s head coach, Tom Allen brought the program to some of its greatest heights. But he also led it to the current state of apathy and national irrelevancy, and, ultimately, made the bed that resulted in his firing, with the program announcing Sunday that Allen won’t return in 2024.
It’s a disappointing end to an era that once seemed so encouraging, so real, but proved to be a two-year fever dream that now has Indiana looking for another solution on the sidelines.
The Hoosiers were as promising as they were exciting in 2019 and 2020, going a combined 14-7 and making consecutive bowl games for just the second time in the 21st century. They finished ranked for the first time since 1988.
Indiana, with its men’s basketball team then four years removed from its last NCAA Tournament appearance, suddenly had a football team to rally around. The present was bright – and there was reason to believe the future was even brighter.
But in the three years that followed, the lights shut off, as Indiana went just 9-27 overall and 3-24 in Big Ten play. The Hoosiers were outscored in the second half in 21 of their final 23 conference games under Allen, a direct indictment on the coaching staff’s inability to make the proper in-game adjustments to stay ahead of opponents.
The staff Allen assembled largely started his downfall. Following a successful 2019 campaign in which Indiana averaged 31.8 points per game, offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer left to become the head coach of Fresno State University. Allen replaced DeBoer with Nick Sheridan, who was previously the Hoosiers’ tight ends coach.
In 2020, Sheridan’s first year, the Hoosiers remained potent offensively behind strong play from quarterback Michael Penix Jr., who earned second-team All-Big Ten honors while Indiana averaged 28.9 points per game.
But the following season, Penix suffered a shoulder injury and played only five games. Indiana turned to a trio of signal callers in Jack Tuttle, Donaven McCulley and Grant Gremel. Each struggled, and the Hoosiers averaged only 17.2 points per game, eighth worst in college football. Sheridan was fired at season’s end.
In Dec. 2021, Allen gave the reigns of the offense to Walt Bell, who’d been fired by the University of Massachusetts after going 2-23 as head coach. Bell’s offenses averaged 23.2 and 20.8 points per game, respectively, before being fired for performance Oct. 1, 2023, halfway through his second season in Bloomington.
Bell’s offense saw five different players – Tuttle, Connor Bazelak, Dexter Williams II, Brendan Sorsby and Tayven Jackson – play quarterback across 17 total games. Instability under center only makes life harder for other members of the offense to find a rhythm, and in this case, led to Sheridan, then Bell, and ultimately Allen being out of jobs.
But for as much as Indiana struggled offensively during Allen’s last three campaigns, the Hoosiers’ defense declined right along with it – and it starts with assistant coach hirings.
Kane Wommack left his role as Indiana’s defensive coordinator in Dec. 2020 to become the University of South Alabama’s head coach. Allen replaced him with former University of Georgia defensive backs Charlton Warren, who saw the Hoosiers’ defense allow 33.2 points per game just one season after giving up 20.2 points per contest.
Warren left after the 2021 season to become co-defensive coordinator at the University of North Carolina, and Allen hired Minnesota assistant coach Chad Wilt to be linebackers coach and co-defensive coordinator in Bloomington.
For the 2022 season, Allen took play calling duties into his own hands, and the Hoosiers’ struggles only greatened, as they allowed 33.9 points per game. The carousel continued the ensuing offseason, as Indiana hired Matt Guerrieri to call its defensive plays after he was tabbed for the same role at the University of Tulsa just weeks earlier.
Under Guerrieri’s leadership, Indiana’s defense marginally improved but remained a work in progress, ranking second worst in the Big Ten with 29.9 points allowed per game.
So much focus is placed on the talent of the players on the field, but the way Allen stacked his cupboard of coaches and then saw it go bare over the final three years ultimately may have been the biggest factor in Indiana’s demise, especially when his staff was out-adjusted and out-coached at the end of many games during that time.
It’s only fitting Allen’s final three games at Indiana were all decided in the closing seconds – and all ended in Hoosier heartbreak. Allen finished his tenure just 1-5 against Purdue and 2-5 against Michigan State, meaning he was 3-10 in the Hoosiers’ trophy games.
That said, Allen deserves his flowers.
To tell the story of Indiana’s football program is to tell the story of the 2020 season, which gave Bloomington pride and joy in a time of national despair with COVID-19 still dominating headlines. Allen’s ‘Love Each Other’ slogan became well-known across college football.
But times have changed, and so have Indiana’s on-field results. Allen mentioned numerous times the rapid evolution of college football, with NIL and the transfer portal changing the way teams are assembled. The Hoosiers fell behind early and couldn’t catch up.
In his final goodbye to Indiana, Allen said it’s time for the program to embrace these changes, which hints at a potential lack of investment in NIL funding.
By not putting more into NIL, Indiana finds itself in a disadvantage with recruiting and player retention, perhaps best shown by Dasan McCullough, the highest-ranked recruit in IU football history who transferred to the University of Oklahoma after his freshman season in 2022.
Really, Indiana athletic director Scott Dolson had no other option but to part ways with Allen.
The Big Ten is entering a new era, with four schools – the University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA), the University of Southern California (USC), the University of Oregon and the University of Washington – all set to join Aug. 2, 2024.
There’s also the TV deal that was agreed upon August 2022 and went into effect July 2023 that’s expected to see a major rise next season before revenue begins to roll in the season after, per ESPN.
Indiana can’t afford to be left behind, and with the program’s trajectory over the past three seasons, it appears to be in grave danger of being an afterthought in the evolving Big Ten.
Of course, it’s possible the Hoosiers don’t get the desired result from their next head coach. That’s part of the risk of firing a known commodity and changing what’s been in place for the past seven years. Due to Allen being elevated from defensive coordinator to head coach following Kevin Wilson’s resignation in 2016, Indiana hasn’t conducted a football head coaching search in 13 years.
But sending a message that 9-27 over three seasons is good enough to hang around would’ve been a bigger risk for Dolson. Questions surrounding his commitment to football would arise, as would the potential for even greater fan disinvolvement.
In essence, the reward far outweighs the risk.
Indiana just concluded its worst three-year stretch since 2003-2005, when it also won just three conference games and nine contests overall. Things can, theoretically, be worse – but what more damage can be done when the Hoosiers’ reputation is already that of an uncompetitive program?
Allen’s legacy in Bloomington is tricky, because he inherited a team that had won six games in back-to-back years. He brought the program to heights it hadn’t seen in decades, and then back down a valley it had hoped to escape.
What should be remembered is the unwaveringly positive way Allen represented Indiana through both good and bad times. His tenure simply ran its course, and it grew painfully clear this season it was time to move on.
Indiana’s locker room ‘Loved Each Other’ – but ultimately, the box score didn’t love the Hoosiers back, and Dolson had to move on from Allen before risking greater indifference.
Now, the Hoosiers get a chance to start fresh while the Big Ten does the same, at least opening the door for this new era to bring better results along with it.