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Tom Allen

BOZICH | Indiana's football coach on the Hoosiers' rise, Michael Penix's health, Ted Lasso comparisons

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CLARKSVILLE, Ind. (WDRB) -- In the beginning, Tom Allen was the former high school coach tasked with the daunting assignment of raising Indiana University football from the bottom of the Big Ten.

Now, as Allen begins year five in Bloomington, he has cracked at least one list of the nation’s top-25 college coaches. The Hoosiers are chasing their first stretch of three consecutive winning seasons since 1947. IU's 2022 recruiting class features four players with four-star rankings and is ranked No. 18 nationally by 247Sports.

Last week, one national sportswriter described Allen as “the closest thing to a real-life Ted Lasso.”

Allen visited southern Indiana on Tuesday afternoon. We chatted for nearly 15 minutes about what’s ahead for IU football in 2021 — and the Ted Lasso comparison.

1. College football is a cut-throat and ruthlessly competitive game. But the foundational words of your approach at Indiana were “Love Each Other.”

How did you choose that, and why do you think it works?

Tom Allen: “I’ve coached for many years and I kind of came to a conclusion over time that I never was around a great team that didn’t love each other.

“I felt like that was the common denominator for a group that would come together, put their self interests aside for the betterment of the team. Groups that could figure that out did special things as a team.

“I just kind of came up with that mantra as a way to kind of capture (that). Got it from scripture, John 15:12. It’s about relationships. I want a mindset and an attitude that we don’t care who gets the credit, because it’s not about me.”

2. Last week in The Athletic, Andy Staples wrote that you have some characteristics of Ted Lasso, the fictional American football coach turned British soccer coach, portrayed by actor Jason Sudeikis on the Apple TV series that earned 20 Emmy nominations.

Have you had time to watch Lasso or learn more about him since the story came out?

ALLEN: “Well, to be honest with you, I have not. I’ve been pretty busy lately. I did read the article that Andy wrote and I know Andy well. We kind of go way back to Tampa, Florida, days.

“I’ve seen clips. I believe they did a thing at ESPN, relating him to some current NBA coaches. But I have not watched it yet.”

3. Do you think it’s good comparison?

ALLEN: “(Lasso) believes. That’s the kind of part that I kind of caught up on, just the fact that he has his core values of what he believes in and he going to stick to that. He doesn’t care what others think. That’s what I think Andy was getting at.

“You’ve got a chip on your shoulder. Something to prove. But you do it in a way that you treat people the right way.”

4. Ted Lasso took the word “BELIEVE,” and hung it in his soccer locker room. If you taped one word in the Indiana football locker room, what would it be?

ALLEN: “It would be, ‘Believe.’

“Yeah, I do. When I got here I talked about wanting to change expectations and creating that belief. Because if you don’t believe, as I’ve said from the beginning, (you) don’t have a chance.”

5. But there were Indiana players who did not believe in the beginning, right?

ALLEN: “I believe so. You would never say that. But your actions, the way you do things, the way you respond in certain situations when things don’t go your way, I think shows that you don’t believe.

“Yeah, I felt we had to get to the point where we had a complete staff and a complete team that believes.”

6. Organically, your interactions with players became a social media success story last season. Even coaches like Mike Krzyzewski of Duke responded to what happened in the IU locker room

Has that opened doors for you and Indiana football that had not been open?

ALLEN: “In recruiting, for sure. I think people saw it. They realized that from their perspective, because I’ve had them comment to me. They felt like it was real and genuine. You can’t fake something like that.

“It intrigued them to maybe want to know more about what caused that to happen, because those things don’t just happen overnight.

“It’s been many years in the making of relationships, and just like we’ve talked about, guys coming to Indiana with that belief and believing in the vision that we had for the program before we actually broke through.

“That made that moment even more special.”

7. Where did it resonate more — with parents or players?

ALLEN: “I think both. At the end of the day, the players are going to talk to the parents about coming to Indiana. If the parent doesn’t believe and doesn’t think that’s a great place for them, they’re probably not going to be there.

“But, yeah, it does start with the young person, the athlete realizing, ‘Yeah, I can come to Indiana and I can do great things. I can get a world class education. I can be around great people. I can be developed as a man. And play for championships.’ ”

8. Motivation is one of your strong suits. Where do you draw your motivation and do you script your locker room speeches or speak from the heart?

ALLEN: “Talk from the heart. I don’t script them. I might have an outline, key points to go over, which helps me. That would be maybe the pregame.

“The postgame, that’s totally organic and responsive to what happened (in the game).

“I’m a big reader. That’s where I get a lot of my ideas. John Gordon has been a guy that I read his books. John Maxwell. Mark Batterson.

“It’s about people. It’s about capturing the hearts and the minds of your players. I study the mind a lot. I do study as much military mindset as I can about how you just train the mind for the things that we want to do physically with our players.

“To me, it’s about reading. I think we’re a product of the books we read and the music we listen to and who we hang out with.

“Even as an adult, it’s what you fill your mind with, who you associate with.

“I want to be around coaches and others who want to be great motivators, great leaders and make an impact.”

9. There are so many distraction for players. How do you keep them focused on the positive stuff, focused on the goal, instead of the negativity or noise that’s out there on social media?

ALLEN: “We call it white noise, and that’s how it is referred to a lot. We talked about it this morning in our team meeting.

“Training your mind. You’ve got to be disciplined. That’s where the ear-muffs and blinders concept came from me.

“Ear-muffs don’t make you deaf. You still can hear. It muzzles the noise. You’ve got to filter it. With the blinders, you block out some of the distractions, the things that pull you away from the focus.

“To me, it’s about keeping the main thing the main thing. We’ve got to decide what those things are for our program.

“To me, it is discipline. It’s what you fill your mind with. What you choose to read. We are a product of those things. I just feel like we have to help our guys through all that. Because there is a whole lot more out there for them to get distracted by.

“But also to use it for positive motivation as well.”

10. Every year, you pick a key word for the season. This year you picked, “Chase.” Why?

ALLEN: “I came to the conclusion after the bowl game (an IU loss to Ole Miss in the Outback Bowl) in some self reflection, 'OK, we’re doing all these great things, but we didn’t finish the way we wanted to. We did some awesome things. But what’s next?’

“So I just kept coming back to, ‘We’ve got to keep chasing greatness. We’ve got to keep chasing greatness.’

“I wanted these guys to understand that. So I started just by defining what that word is. And it’s an earnest or frenzied seeking of something desired.

“That’s the definition for chase. I just want this team, every single day, chasing after greatness like a starving lion chasing after its prey. That kind of intensity, that kind of passion. That kind of conviction toward what you want.

“We sat down with all of our guys and they had to map it out. Give me nine things — three personal, three academically and three in football — of how you’re going to chase greatness every day.

“We’ve been chasing that every day since January, getting ready for fall camp, which is right around the corner (starts Aug. 6).”

11. Every player had to identify nine things?

ALLEN: “Yes. Every player. Had to write them down when I met with them. I put them in my computer and I have to hold them accountable for those things.

“I’m a big believer in that: accountability, toughness and love. But it all starts with accountability.”

12. Indiana was one of the success stories in college football last season, going 6-1 in the Big Ten. So you are going from dealing with doubters to dealing with expectations. How do you address that?

ALLEN: “Yeah. But that’s an awesome thing, though, right?

“We talked about changing those expectations, and now, they’re starting to change. You’re not going to run from them.

“It’s a different challenge. There’s no doubt. But I will say this, even going to (Big Ten) media days, and there’s no doubt there are people believing in what we’re doing, but a lot of people don’t.

“They talk about what happened last year and it being a pandemic and these teams didn’t have this or that. We were all in the same boat. We were all in the same circumstances.

“Was it hard? Yes, it was hard. Our team had to have the ability to rally around it and draw strength from it.

“But at the same time, you’re still going to have those doubters. We pick and choose where we are going to use that motivation.

“We believe in what we’re doing and we believe in what we’re building. We’re just going to stay the course.”

12. I checked a half-dozen preseason publications. Indiana made the Top 25 in five of the six with an average ranking of 21.

You’ve coached against plenty of Top 25 teams. Does your team belong in that group?

ALLEN: “I believe we are but we have to prove it every week.”

13. Why do you believe you are?

ALLEN: “I believe that we’ve got a lot of good football players. You can go each position. It’s not a couple guys or several guys. It’s both sides of the ball, it’s special teams. We’ve got some elite players.

“I think sometimes we might get misunderstood how much talent we do have. We talk about being such a great culture and such a great team, and I believe we have those things, but we have a lot of good players.

“And it’s all about the players. Those guys got to make plays. I believe those guys can do that. I love our coaching staff. I believe they have a lot of talent to put our guys in position to make those plays. We’ve just got bring it all together for another year and keep improving every week.”

14. Michael Penix Jr. projects as one of the best quarterbacks in the Big Ten but needs to stay healthy as he returns from knee surgery.

Where is Penix in his recovery and will he be encouraged not to run to protect himself?

ALLEN: “First of all, to answer about his recovery, he’s right on schedule, where we need him to be. Everything has been plotted out for that. So we feel good about him going into fall camp where he needs to be.

“But as is the case with all of our quarterbacks, he won’t get hit until September 4 (at Iowa).

“So, yeah, I think there’s got to be a level of wisdom involved with us utilizing him, for sure.

“But he’s a great athlete, so he’s going to run around a little bit for sure. He’s got to be smart in how he handles those situations and be able to limit those hits that he will take.

“But it is tackle football and they’re going to come after him, right? That’s part of it. He’s not going to worry about that. He’s just got to train like he has and trust his teammates and play his best football.”

15. The last time I checked, ticket sales were up 27 percent over 2019 and several games were approaching sellout status.

You and your team played in mostly empty stadiums last year because of the pandemic. What will a full Memorial Stadium mean to you and your players this season?

ALLEN: “It’s going to mean the world to us.

“Coming from last year where it was so empty, by design, that to have a chance to fill that place up is going to be awesome. Can’t wait. I love our fans.

“I love that environment. I love being able to walk out of that entrance and touch The Rock and the place erupts. It’s going to be awesome. I appreciate the fans responding.

“I just encourage them to keep coming and keep encouraging them to get their friends to come and pack The Rock and stay the whole game.”

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