Tom Allen’s message — and momentum — show no signs of slowing for IU football

Zach Osterman
Indianapolis Star

BLOOMINGTON – Even by the improved standards against which IU football has recruited in the past five years, this week was remarkably successful for the Hoosiers.

Between Sunday and Wednesday — following a marathon of campus visits after the lifting of the COVID-forced dead period — Indiana landed four of the seven commitments that currently populate its 2022 recruiting class. 

Among those were a top-200 defensive back (Tiawan Mullen’s little brother, Trevell), a quarterback from a state with a pretty good track record for them (Texas) and an offensive tackle from Ohio who turned down a hatful of Power Five programs, including Tennessee and Auburn, for the Hoosiers. 

The work Tom Allen has done in Bloomington hasn't gone unnoticed.

Recruiting service 247Sports currently ranks that group No. 33 nationally, and No. 8 in the Big Ten. And while it’s possible the class never grows large enough to challenge for top-15 consideration (class rankings are weighted in part by quantity) the only program in the country with seven or fewer commitments ranked ahead of Indiana right now is Clemson. 

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Indiana is obviously not Clemson, nor does this seek to suggest as such. But college football fell in love with the Hoosiers, their coach and his message, and if recruiting — rightly or wrongly a reliable barometer of a program’s relevance most of the time — is any indication, that love affair has hardly waned. 

“A lot of people in the profession, high school coaches right now, think Tom Allen has something going on,” Rockwall-Heath (Texas) coach Mike Spradlin told the Bloomington Herald-Times’ Jon Blau earlier this week. “As a human, a lot of us have noticed his style and the way he talks about kids and his culture. 

“Culture is an overused word, but it’s not an overused thing. Your culture is such a big deal. He’s made a name for himself with coaches throughout the country, just in the way he treats kids and the culture of the program.”

Much like the television show “Ted Lasso” and the rise in smoking meat at home (or maybe that was just me), sports saw Tom Allen and his relentlessly positive message as a needed breath of fresh air last year.

In an autumn of anxiety and fear, when the world stopped and it looked for a moment as if college football would lose some of its most-cherished traditions to COVID-19, videos of Allen crowd surfing through his locker room and getting bear-hugged by his players during an interview on ESPN proved uplifting. 

This was not the only piece of the equation, of course. That moment on ESPN, for example, doesn’t happen if IU loses at Wisconsin. But what was then described as a Cinderella season will firm up into something more permanent if success keeps breeding like this.

Spradlin delivered that assessment earlier this week during a conversation about what prompted his starting quarterback, three-star signal caller Josh Hoover, to commit to Indiana. 

A well-traveled coaching veteran in Texas who worked with Art Briles during Briles’ Houston tenure, Spradlin told Blau he wasn’t intimately familiar with Indiana before last season. 

That leaves him in good company. When Deland McCullough knocked on Kansas City Chiefs coach Andy Reid’s door last winter, to tell his boss McCullough was considering an offer to return to IU, all Reid could talk about was Allen. 

“When I talked to coach Reid about the opportunity to come back to Indiana, he started talking about Tom like he knew him," McCullough told reporters in a Zoom news conference in February. "I asked if he knew him and he said, 'No. I can just see his energy and see what he’s doing.' Everybody, even from the NFL vantage point, talks about Tom Allen and the commitment to the university that he has made.”

None of this means much if wins and losses don’t stay trending in their current direction. But to treat those like two distinct, unrelated things — to observe IU football’s past 24 months and not see how all this ties together, how gathering success reflects more fundamental strengths — is myopic. 

In early May, retweeting a piece from the Herald-Times talking with Allen about maintaining program culture through roster churn, former IU offensive lineman Hunter Littlejohn wrote, “There’s a lot of things in the overall recruiting world that might not hold true once you get on campus.”

“With this staff,” Littlejohn continued, “you can be 100% certain that everything you read, hear and discuss with the coaches is EXACTLY what you will find when you step on campus.”

Indiana Hoosiers head coach Tom Allen celebrates in the fourth quarter of an NCAA college football game against Rutgers, Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020, in Piscataway, N.J. (AP Photo/Corey Sipkin)

Littlejohn came to Indiana from Olentangy Liberty High School, one of the most consistently successful programs in the competitive Columbus, Ohio, area. 

More recently, Indiana prioritized Carter Smith, a class-of-2022 offensive lineman from Liberty. Smith boasted offers from schools in the ACC, SEC, Big Ten and Big 12, and eventually cut his options down to Tennessee, Indiana, Ole Miss, Virginia and Northwestern. 

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Through the recruiting process, the Littlejohn family vouched for IU, answering any questions Smith or his parents might have. Littlejohn himself lives in Texas now, his playing days long over, but when Smith committed to Indiana on Wednesday, Littlejohn was quick to congratulate him on Twitter. 

“It’s all true,” Smith told IndyStar, when asked about his impressions of the people and atmosphere he found at IU. “Everything I’ve seen out of coach Allen — and when I was on my visit, I talked with the players — everything you see out of coach Allen and their coaching staff is what you’re going to get. That’s what makes me so excited.”

Two different players, nearly identical takeaways. Two different coaches, equal fascination with a project a thousand miles from where they are, at a different level of football. 

This all feels very theoretical, and possibly somewhat romanticized, except it’s consistently paired with results. 

On the field, Indiana has a winning record in Big Ten play over the past two seasons, with victories over some of the conference’s biggest programs. Off it, recruiting continues to trend better and better. Together, those two tend to compound upon one another.

Results are difficult to ignore.

Follow IndyStar reporter Zach Osterman on Twitter: @ZachOsterman.