You can see it coming, can’t you? If he isn’t a dead man walking, Tom Allen is at least a sickly man limping.
His football team is 2-3, which is hardly unusual for an Indiana University team at this point of the season, but it isn’t where it needs to be in Allen’s seventh full season as head coach.
Just three years ago his team played in a bowl game for the second consecutive year, and he was voted Big Ten Coach of the Year after IU went 6-1 in conference play.
That must seem to him like a century ago as his team regresses to the program’s historical mean, not to mention the meanness that dominates social media conversations.
The calls for Allen’s coaching scalp are growing louder as he heads toward a third consecutive losing season. It’s nearly impossible to find more than two more possible victories on the remaining schedule, and it is impossible to make a logical argument for a turnaround. That will put pressure on athletic director Scott Dolson to prematurely terminate the seven-year deal Allen signed after the 2019 season, an agreement that was amended the following year. Doing so would be costly in the loss of dollars—more than $20 million. Not doing so would be costly in the loss of fan support, which leads to loss of dollars.
Dolson inherited Allen from former athletic director Fred Glass, but it isn’t fair to blame Glass for this messy conundrum, either. How could you not lock down an IU football coach after consecutive bowl appearances? You can argue against the contract’s length but not its existence.
The bigger question is, how does this sort of thing happen? How does a coach go from the vicinity of top of the world, where the fans are adoring, to the valley of despair, where the daggers come out?
Allen simply is following in the faltering footsteps of coaching predecessors who strayed too far into the realm of weirdness. That, like beauty, exists in the eye of the beholder but sometimes becomes impossible to ignore. College teams reflect the personality of the head coach, and eccentricity isn’t a winning asset.
For historical reference, check the likes of Lee Corso, Gerry Faust and Tom Crean. Like Allen, they experienced fleeting moments of glory as head coaches, even at the schools where they ultimately failed, but like Allen they couldn’t sustain success. They are coaches cut from the same colorful but flimsy cloth.
Start with this: They all qualify as good people, well-meaning and hard-working, and it’s sad to see anyone twisting in the wind of inevitable change. But the last thing any leader should want to hear on his way out the door is that he was “a really nice guy—maybe too nice.”
It’s no coincidence that Allen, Corso, Crean and Faust all are/were sideline pacers. They wore out shoes scurrying back and forth during games, giving off a vibe of concern rather than command. The caffeinated coach might inject a shot of energy into a program, but it wears off eventually. The more static coach living off the basics of meat and potatoes brings stability.
Allen’s high volume, overly dramatic locker room addresses might be fit for a B movie but don’t wear well for long in major college football. His Love Each Other (LEO) mantra sounds like a nice Sunday sermon but doesn’t translate to a violent sport. Bill Mallory, who won more games than any coach in IU’s football history, wanted his players to “lock your jaw.” That plays better on Saturdays.
The same holds true for gimmicks. The leader searching for clever ways to motivate his charges and attract the public’s attention likely won’t last as long as the nose-to-the-grindstone mentor focused on fundamentals. The silly stuff turns off the elite players and recruits who are aiming for a professional career. They on the whole would rather put up with a demanding browbeaten who makes them better.
Allen unfortunately might wind up being remembered best for the snazzy version of IU’s fight song he led after the four-overtime win over Akron on Sept. 23. That it was so difficult to win that game was embarrassing enough, but he compounded the frustration of IU fans by directing his players in a strange low-key rendition, complete with finger snapping. The players didn’t appear enthralled by it. Neither did the fans who commented on social media.
It was appropriate that a longtime fan walked up to the microphone at Allen’s weekly radio broadcast site the following Monday and reminded him, “This is a business.”
As opposed to, say, choir practice.
A natural entertainer
Allen isn’t the first IU coach to stray from leadership fundamentals, though. Corso introduced himself to the fanbase in 1973 by having his players take the field in a double decker bus for the season opener against Illinois. They warmed up on the soccer fields, boarded the bus, rode down to the stadium, unloaded, and lined up for the opening kick. They got a defensive stop and then scored on their first offensive possession to take a 7-0 lead. That right there might have been the peak moment of Corso’s career at Indiana. But they lost the game, 28-14, and finished the season 2-9 overall, 0-8 in Big Ten play.
Corso’s antics turned off star defensive back Quinn Buckner, who had started as a freshman under the previous coach, John Pont. Buckner nearly didn’t go out for football as a sophomore after meeting Corso but was talked into it by his father, a former IU football player. He gave up the sport—his best, he admits—to focus on basketball after his sophomore season. He told his father that Corso was “about jokes” rather than “getting out there and beating somebody in the head.”
Corso got off another good one three seasons later when his team scored a touchdown and kicked an extra point to take a 7-6 lead over Ohio State. He called timeout and rushed the players onto the field to take a team photo in front of the scoreboard to commemorate the occasion. OSU coach Woody Hayes was not amused. OSU went on to win the game, 47-7.
Corso improbably lasted 10 seasons at IU. His job status was on the ropes a couple of times, but season-ending victories over Purdue in 1976 and ’77 brought resuscitation. He appeared to have turned a corner after the 1979 season when IU defeated Brigham Young in the Holiday Bowl, but he couldn’t build on that success. He finished his decade in Bloomington with a 41-68-2 record.
He coached a season at Northern Illinois, going 4-6-1, left to coach Orlando in the USFL, went 5-13, and then found his niche in television after the league folded. A natural entertainer, his colleagues call him.
Faust won his debut at Notre Dame in 1981 over LSU to ascend to the No. 1 ranking in the nation. He personally led the “We’re No. 1” cheers at the pep rally on campus the next week, but then led a 25-7 loss at Michigan. His team went on to finish the season 5-6, by which time the “Faust Fever” hats had been discarded.
Faust’s teams won some big games, inspiring hope here and there, but lost just as many to inferior opponents. He never met the expectations of an elite program for long. Perhaps his defining moment came against USC in his final season, 1985. His team played its best half of the season to take a 27-0 lead into the break, whereupon he had his players switch from blue jerseys to green. Wearing green jerseys had become something of a tradition for Notre Dame teams against USC. But at halftime?
“We wanted to stir up the crowd,” Faust explained afterward.
Notre Dame held on for a 37-3 victory despite the distraction. Faust’s players were more sheepish than stirred afterward. Some of USC’s players, meanwhile, were angry. Tackle Jeff Bregel called it “childish.”
Notre Dame won its next two games to improve to 5-3 but lost its last three. Faust resigned before the final defeat, a 58-7 loss at Miami of Florida. All-America tailback Allen Pinkett summarized the Faust era neatly after that one: “Maybe nice guys do finish last.”
Faust then tried his coaching hand at Akron, where his teams finished 43-53-3 over nine seasons.
Crean had genuine but short-lived success at IU, leading the Hoosiers to Big Ten championships in 2013 and ’16. His team was ranked No. 1 in the country for 10 weeks in ’13 but many will remember that season for something else.
IU lost to Ohio State on Senior Night in Assembly Hall, but still clinched at least a share of the Big Ten title that day. Crean had his players perform the ritual of cutting down the nets in a nearly empty arena, long after most fans had left. A nice gesture, perhaps, but one that drew more quizzical looks than hurrahs. His team clinched the outright title the following week on the road.
Crean’s general mannerisms brought him the most grief. His sideline skittishness, his habit of constantly hitching up his pants, his anxiety-ridden facial expressions during television interviews became fodder for online jabs. He inspired website headlines such as “The Fascinating Weirdness of Tom Crean” and “Tom Crean is a Really Weird Dude,” as well as the subhead “Tom Crean might be a good basketball coach. He’s also super weird.”
One article described him as “a jock with twerp DNA.”
He became legendary within the conference for his blow-by handshakes. After losses, he barely touched the hand of the opposing coach as he raced by him in the handshake line. It happened so often that the Big Ten office once sent out a memo to all coaches to execute proper handshakes after games.
The eccentricities eventually took their toll. Crean’s teams, even those ranked No. 1 for stretches of a season, failed to advance past the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA tournament. His final one finished just 7-11 in conference play. He sat out a year and then was hired at Georgia. Lacking the recruiting advantages he enjoyed at IU, his four teams there compiled a 47-75 record.
Same old song
Allen has seven games to save his job. IU is coming off a dispiriting victory over Akron two weeks ago and an even more dispiriting 44-17 loss at Maryland last weekend. He benched his starting quarterback in the fourth quarter of that one and then fired his offensive coordinator the next day. He explained the change in quarterbacks by saying his team needed a “spark,” which also would have applied to his staff shakeup.
IU has a bye this weekend before jumping back into the fray at Michigan next Saturday. By this point it will take a miracle to re-light a spark under a fanbase that is collectively tired of hearing the same old song, with or without the finger snaps.•
Montieth, an Indianapolis native, is a longtime newspaper reporter and freelance writer. He is the author of three books: “Passion Play: Coach Gene Keady and the Purdue Boilermakers,” “Reborn: The Pacers and the Return of Pro Basketball to Indianapolis,” and “Extra Innings: My Life in Baseball,” with former Indianapolis Indians President Max Schumacher.