Tom Allen turned IU football from afterthought into Big Ten contender by investing in people
BLOOMINGTON – One by one, and then sometimes in twos, his players stopped behind Tom Allen with something to say.
Allen was in the middle of a postgame interview with ABC’s Holly Rowe, explaining his team’s latest upset win, a commanding 14-6 victory at Wisconsin. Trouble was, he couldn’t get full sentences out before those players — first Dylan Powell, then Jonathan King, then Stevie Scott and Jamar Johnson, then a parade of others — interrupted him.
“Recruits,” Powell told the camera, “come play for this man. Best coach in America.”
Few coaches have managed to capture the college football consciousness so thoroughly or regularly in this strange season as Tom Allen.
From his crowd surfing after Penn State, to an impassioned locker room speech following the loss at Ohio State, to the impromptu love-in from his players during that interview in Madison, fans across the country have spent this fall getting acquainted with Allen’s enthusiastic, hyperpositive personality.
What they’ve come to learn is, everyone has a Tom Allen story.
Some are amusing. Some are endearing. Virtually all — according to the people who tell them — are reflective of the values upon which Allen has built his program in Bloomington, and turned the Hoosiers from an afterthought into a Big Ten contender.
Tom Allen does what it takes. Gulp.
Grant Heard knew what was coming as soon as he saw the pot of gumbo.
Heard and Allen, then still at Ole Miss, were on a recruiting visit in New Orleans. Allen’s colleagues are familiar with his ability to convey his passion and vision in recruiting visits, and build important trust with recruits’ families.
They’re also familiar with his relatively … bland taste in food.
“I love going recruiting with Tom Allen to hear him cast vision for our program and really connect to people and players and families,” defensive coordinator Kane Wommack said, smiling. “I don’t like going recruiting with him when it comes to food. He always wants to go to some bland meat-and-potatoes spot. When we go down to Florida or go down south, I want to go enjoy the food. This little bit of spice just throws him over the edge.”
That's why the New Orleans story has done a lap or two in recent months.
Heard and Allen were in town for a visit. It was close to decision time and Allen, as Heard put it, “is not ever gonna tell anybody no.”
The menu that night included seafood gumbo, Louisiana style — spicy and heaping.
“Down south, there’s no such thing as a small bowl of gumbo,” Heard said, speaking after a recent practice. “They put this huge bowl of gumbo in front of him. Bite after bite, his face became redder than this background behind me. After each bite, he had to take a sip of Sprite. By the time he got halfway through the bowl, he had seven Sprites around him.”
Heard finally convinced Allen to let him finish the gumbo. Then mom brought out pot roast.
“In his mind, Midwesterner, pot roast, it can’t be that bad, it’s normal pot roast,” Heard said, by this point stifling a laugh. “Once again, down in New Orleans, they putt a little kick in their pot roast. He started eating that pot roast, and it was probably spicier than the gumbo. Eventually, I took that from him too, after he’d now probably downed 12 Sprites.”
The meal finished with cheesecake, drizzled with cherry syrup.
“The one dessert Tom does not like is cheesecake with cherry sauce on it. That was the one dessert they had,” Heard said. “She put three ladlefuls of cherry sauce on it. He would take a bite, and somehow, some way — I was watching — he would plug his nose. It was like pain and agony for him to swallow that cheesecake.”
The visit went on for 2-3 more hours. Heard couldn’t stop laughing when it was over. Allen actually missed his flight to make another recruiting visit the next day (he was still recovering) and the kid wound up going to LSU instead.
But Heard’s anecdote fits into a wider picture: Allen will do anything he can to connect with recruits, their families, their coaches and anyone else he needs to believe in him.
Once, on a swing through west Tennessee to see committed cornerback Jaylin Williams, Allen sat down and talked football with Williams’ high school coaches.
It wasn’t far from signing day. Williams’ pledge was solid. Allen didn’t need to butter anyone up or make friends for favors to call in later.
Former IU assistant William Inge was with Allen, staying at a local Holiday Inn. Then-Germantown (Tenn.) coach Chris Smith and his defensive coordinator stopped in to talk shop. Recruiting never came up.
“He was talking to us about life and coaching and his experiences,” said Smith, who coached Williams at Germantown. “This was a couple of weeks before signing day, and that never came up. … It’s a hard thing to find in college football these days. You get a real genuine coach who really cares about getting to know the kids, getting to know the players' coaches. His actions spoke volumes to me.”
Tom Allen's bloody good at celebrating the team
It has always been this way, according to people who knew Allen long before he landed in Bloomington.
Once, when they worked together on staff at Ben Davis, Allen’s exuberance after the Giants made a big play defensively ended with him jumping on Mike Kirschner, breaking Kirschner’s glasses.
Allen’s viral celebration with Devon Matthews following Matthews’ game-sealing interception against Michigan earlier this season wasn’t the first time he’s drawn blood on the sideline either.
“We were playing in 2001 in semistate and we had a really good young linebacker, a sophomore, who was getting some playing time late in the game because we were up significantly,” said Kirschner, who coached with Allen at Ben Davis and eventually took over for him as head coach. “He intercepts a pass, and by the time he got up from being tackled, coach Allen was already on the field and just tackles him. He was just so excited for him. Tom gets up and he’s got a welt above his eye, a little blood, and he’s smiling.”
The enthusiasm is as genuine as the personal investment.
Allen and Kirschner used to make evening visits during their Ben Davis days, just to check on players who might be struggling academically or have trouble at home. Once, they sat in lawn chairs, the only furniture the family had, as Allen pushed on undeterred.
“He never flinched, and he just sat there and talked to these parents about how he could help their son,” Kirschner said. “He had a way of talking, like a lot of coaches do. They have a way of talking to kids that lets them know the old adage, they don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.
“He lives by that.”
Allen left Ben Davis after the 2006 season to start a college coaching career, at Wabash. He spent his early years working his way up through small-college ball, before eventually following Hugh Freeze to Arkansas State and then Ole Miss.
During his time in Oxford, Allen coached linebackers, the same position he played and the same position his son, Thomas, plays.
That’s how Allen first met Patrick Queen, then a promising running back/linebacker at Livonia High School outside Baton Rouge. Queen was attending a summer prospect camp in Mississippi, the sort of camp coaches can’t normally attend per NCAA rules. But, because Thomas was a camper as well, Tom Allen could be there. Queen caught his eye.
“He said he loved what he saw with Patrick,” said Dwayne Queen, Patrick’s father.
Patrick and Thomas became close, and remain so today. And Allen stayed in touch with the family, first at Ole Miss and then when he became defensive coordinator at South Florida.
South Florida, Dwayne Queen said, was actually Patrick’s first offer.
“Through the year at USF and the time he was at Indiana, we got a call from him every other week,” Dwayne Queen said. “We talked about family and God. Patrick fell in love with him and his son Thomas. Him and Thomas communicated every other day.”
Queen eventually earned an LSU offer, understandably valuable for someone who grew up in state.
He committed to the Tigers in February 2016, the winter before his senior year. Even then, Allen stayed in touch. When he got the head job in Bloomington, he invited Queen to take a visit to Bloomington. The timing never lined up, and the Midwest winters were as tough to overcome as the hometown Tigers.
But the relationship between Allen and the Queens — like the one described by so many players and parents — was never just about a commitment.
Last season, IU’s bye fell on the same weekend LSU won one of the most exciting games of the season, at Alabama. Patrick finished with seven tackles and an interception. Afterward, Allen texted him to congratulate him, and tell him how proud he was of the player Patrick Queen had become.
“If he’d have stayed at Ole Miss, I’m quite sure Patrick would’ve ended up at Ole Miss,” Dwayne Queen said. “That’s how much he cared for coach Allen. He’s a great man. He’s a God-fearing man, and what he tells you, you can take it to the bank. He’s honest. You don’t find too many coaches that are honest like he is. We fell in love with him.
“We knew he was gonna change (Indiana) once he got there. He’s done it everywhere he’s gone.”
'Cares about his players like they're his kids'
When Allen got to IU as coordinator, he made a point of sitting down with each player on his defense. He didn’t make a show of it — it didn’t become public knowledge until players mentioned it at Big Ten media day that summer — but they hardly talked about football.
Instead, Allen wanted to get to know about his players as people, and they him. That’s where Allen first introduced his players to his foundational motto, “Love Each Other,” which endures now as “LEO.”
That person-first approach is inseparable from Allen’s success at Indiana, be it in recruiting, staffing or development. Myriad current, former and future players say Allen’s authenticity and investment in them as people prompted the outpouring of affection ESPN cameras captured at Wisconsin, and the success it celebrates.
“He cares about his players in more than football, like they’re his kids or his brothers,” said Bloomington North tight end and 2021 signee Aaron Steinfeldt. “It means everything.”
Rashard Fant saw that firsthand in 2016, when Allen took over for Kevin Wilson as head coach.
Fant and Tegray Scales, two integral figures in Allen’s 2016 defensive turnaround, both had serious NFL decisions to make that winter. Scales was an All-American, IU’s first at linebacker since the 1980s. Fant had established himself as one of the best cover corners in the Big Ten, and when he got his draft grade back, he was told he projected somewhere between the fourth and the sixth rounds.
Fant had always tried to be forthright with Indiana. He told Allen if he didn’t declare, he wouldn’t consider a grad transfer, only another year in Bloomington. He just needed time to work through his options.
One day during offseason workouts, Allen pulled Fant and Scales aside to talk about their NFL futures.
“It wasn’t, ‘You all need to come back,’” Fant said. “It was just, ‘I want you both to know I love you. I appreciate everything you did. You’ve earned this right to weigh your options. You’ve earned your right to leave early if that’s what you want.’”
The moment spoke volumes to Fant, who did return for the 2017 season. Allen was a new head coach, with a defense that badly needed veteran leadership, but he thought first about his players’ needs and goals.
“He could’ve said anything negative, but obviously, he found the positives and found ways to compliment us,” Fant said. “I had coaches that didn’t do that.”
The trust that approach builds has proved immeasurable.
In his time at IU, Allen has attended the funerals of players’ family members. He sat for hours this offseason with Hoosiers who found themselves troubled by all the confusion, grief and pain flowing from George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis. When Indiana’s athletic department determined all its athletes should be registered to vote in November’s election, Allen didn’t stand on ceremony. He huddled with two assistants, running backs coach Mike Hart and cornerbacks coach Brandon Shelby, and made it clear they had whatever time or resources necessary to make it happen.
Even if it meant carving 10 minutes out of practice or lifting or film to get players into a computer lab and squared away, Shelby and Hart had whatever they needed.
“Most places don’t do that,” Shelby said. “Most places put an extra rep of Cover 3 over, ‘Our guys are going to be better citizens.’”
By early October, every player in Allen’s program was registered to vote.
There are more stories. It seems as if everyone has an anecdote that illustrates Allen’s passion or exuberance or investment in his players. That post-Wisconsin scrum was the country’s widest window yet into what those experiences mean to the people who carry them.
Allen said he appreciated the moment as a reward to players who bought into Indiana “when others did not,” and believed he and his staff would affect the turnaround they have. The players' seemingly spontaneous outpouring suggests that affection runs strong in both directions.
“What a great group of guys we have here,” Allen said later, reflecting on that moment. “I love them so much.”
Bloomington Herald-Times sports reporter Jon Blau contributed to this story.
Follow IndyStar reporter Zach Osterman on Twitter: @ZachOsterman.