Insider: Handing over defense is IU coach Tom Allen's boldest, most important move yet
BLOOMINGTON – Last fall, for the first time in his IU tenure, Tom Allen slept a night in his office.
There was too much to do and too little time to do it, so around 1 or 2 a.m. on a weeknight midseason, Allen stretched out on one of the leather couches positioned near the floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook the Memorial Stadium field and closed his eyes.
After he awoke from a restless night’s sleep, Allen made a decision: It was time to give up his role as defensive coordinator.
“I was like, ‘I’m not doing this,’” Allen said at Big Ten media day last month.
It is, perhaps, the biggest personal step of a head-coaching tenure now stretching into its third season, and arguably the most impactful staff change he'llmake at IU.
Allen has been a defensive guy all his career, from his playing days as a linebacker/punter at Maranatha Baptist University, to calling defenses at Ben Davis, to coaching linebackers in the SEC before becoming a college coordinator.
Defense brought Allen to Bloomington, and it went a long way toward getting him the job he now holds.
But as he learned to embrace the many demands of a Big Ten head coach, he came to realize he couldn’t continue serving as a coordinator at Indiana, for either his or his program’s sake. He couldn’t give adequate time to defensive gameplanning, scheming and adjustment, and fulfill the myriad other responsibilities his job requires, without sacrificing quality somewhere.
“You’ve got to take care of yourself,” he said. “I want to do this for a long time. I want to be the head coach at Indiana for a long time. To me, I want to build a program I can sustain and do it this way over and over again. Burning the candle on both ends like this just isn’t productive.”
So, for the first time in his tenure, Allen passed the details on to someone else.
That someone — a 32-year-old ex-GA who’s already coordinated defenses at two smaller schools and is the scion of the same 4-2-5 system Allen runs — is the second half of Allen’s reasoning for the decision.
Kane Wommack was born after Indiana’s last men’s basketball national championship but already includes six different coaching stops on his resume. He’s coached at every level of defense positionally (and even spent one year coaching quarterbacks), and worked with Allen as a graduate assistant at Ole Miss in 2012-13.
That was while Allen coached linebackers under long-time defensive coordinator Dave Wommack, Kane’s father, the man who taught Allen the 4-2-5 defense he brought to Indiana in 2016. Kane Wommack also carried that system with him as a coordinator to Eastern Illinois, and then South Alabama.
Allen is quick to tell anyone who will listen that: 1) Kane Wommack executed similar cultural turnarounds at both schools (South Alabama in particular) to what Indiana has achieved in recent seasons; 2) during Allen’s one season purely as defensive coordinator at IU in 2016, it was the younger Wommack he would call to bounce ideas around; and 3) as early as Wommack’s official hiring at Indiana as linebackers coach in January 2018, Allen already had the coordinator switch on his mind.
“He could’ve called it a year ago,” Allen said, referring to IU’s defense, “but I didn’t feel like the timing was right. I feel like the timing is right now.”
Not much will change schematically. Sure tackling, turnovers and speed have been and remain staples. Kane Wommack will tweak some terminology, and he talks more openly about demanding a “swagger” from a defense that calls itself “SwarmD” now.
But that 4-2-5, the system both men learned from the same tutor, the one that brought them together, isn’t going anywhere. Allen’s aggressiveness isn’t going anywhere. As Wommack put it Thursday at team media day: “I work for Tom Allen, so I’ll play pretty aggressively defensively, or I won’t have my job.”
“We've made no bones about it, we are an aggressive, attacking defense,” Wommack continued. “I think you have to be so intentional about creating negative plays for the offense.”
That sounds so in lockstep with Allen’s philosophy it could have out of his own mouth. But it didn’t, and therein lies the important point.
Allen is finally willing to give up the thing he held closest. More than that, he sees his giving it up as crucial to the next phase in both his and his program’s growth, after consecutive, frustrating 5-7 seasons.
In one way, this move doesn’t feel like much of a risk, given Kane Wommack’s background and the similarities between his style and Allen’s.
In another, it’s the boldest step yet that Allen has taken at Indiana, separating himself so much from the thing that brought him so much success in his professional life that he didn’t even attend defensive staff meetings this spring.
He wanted those meetings, like the defense, to belong entirely to his new coordinator. The time had come for Allen to step aside.
Follow IndyStar reporter Zach Osterman on Twitter: @ZachOsterman.