Tom Allen (USA Today images)

State of the Program Q&A: Coach Tom Allen

Peegs.com sat down with Tom Allen recently to talk about the state of the Indiana football program and how the first few months have gone for him as the head coach.

IU coach Tom Allen spoke to Peegs.com about a variety of topics, including what the transition has been like for him going from defensive coordinator to head coach, what he thinks of the new recruiting rules, what his strategy was when he put together his offensive staff, and why he believes special teams are so important when it comes to the Hoosiers finally breaking through as a program.

Q - Talk about how the transition has gone from being the defensive coordinator to the head coach now that things have slowed down a little bit.

TOM ALLEN: It’s gone well. I think you just kind of get into a routine and feel more comfortable with running the day-to-day. You are able to anticipate things more, where before it was more reactionary as stuff was happening. You get your staff in place, both on the field guys and off the field and supports staff, and that helps a lot.

In the beginning you’re trying to get a feel for everything, and now you can delegate more. I just think that time obviously creates a little more comfort level for sure.

Q - What have been the biggest challenges for you in the transition from defensive coordinator to head coach?

TOM ALLEN: I think the obvious ones of just time demand with having to meet with media and having to go and speak at a lot more places, that’s probably been the biggest difference. In terms of running the team, and managing the people and the players, the biggest difference from my previous experience as a head coach is just the size of it. The volume of everything is intensified a lot. I think also in the way you recruit. Now you are over both sides of the ball and specialists, where before I really focused in on my area and then defense. I think all those things are significant changes from just being the D.C.

Q - Talk about putting the offensive staff together and what you wanted to get accomplished with those hires?

TOM ALLEN: Initially the plan was to get an offensive coordinator that would really be the visionary for that side of the ball, and be the head coach of the offense. So getting Coach (Mike) DeBord in place was real important. Obviously I have a long history with Coach (Grant) Heard being three different places with him before here. I knew he was a guy that I really wanted to see on our staff. Getting those two guys were the key ones in the beginning.

And then you always have guys in mind for possible spots, and when some guys took other opportunities that created those openings. Darren Hiller was a guy I knew personally and had worked with personally. I was really, really excited about bringing him here.

And then through Coach DeBord, his connection to Nick Sheridan was strong. That was one that happened pretty quickly right after Shawn (Watson) decided to go to Pitt. Because they had worked together, I relied on Mike (DeBord) there. I met with him myself before we hired him, but had never worked with him before and didn’t really know him. I feel really great about him, especially after being with him now for a little while.

It was kind of the same with Mike Hart. I had some other connections to Mike (Hart) through some other coaches that I have worked with and know well and know him. But I also relied on Mike DeBord’s recommendation after having coached him and knowing his true character as a person first. They are two younger guys that have bright, bright futures. They are the guys you look at as being ones that will rise in the profession pretty quickly, so we’re real fortunate to have those two on our staff. But those were two that I did not know prior to hiring them.

Q - How big was it for you and the program to get a coach like Mike DeBord to join the staff with all the experience he has as both an assistant and a head coach?

TOM ALLEN: It was a huge hire. I can’t really put enough emphasis on that. Just to be able to allow me to feel very comfortable with turning everything over to him. We talk scheme and all that, but I don’t tell him what to do, we just talk about what we’re going to do and his beliefs. He is such a humble, team guy. He has been great to work with. Guys from different staffs all come together for the first time and he’s been great for me. He has so much experience at both the NFL level and in the Big Ten and the SEC. He is very, very familiar with the Big Ten because of his ties to this conference. He was a guy that I already knew well and trusted, but we had never worked together. I was excited to get him and thought he would be great, but he’s actually been better than I ever thought. He is just really awesome.

Q - Talk about your strategy for recruiting when it comes to what areas you want to hit hard and how you would like to see that play out going forward? Do you plan on tweaking it at all compared to what it was when you were an assistant and not the head coach?

TOM ALLEN: I liked the areas we were in and felt like they made sense for us in general. I think the six-hour radius was kind of the initial focal point for me, but when you looked at our previous history we hadn’t really taken advantage of Tennessee in my mind. I know when I was at Ole Miss we recruited there heavily. The Nashville area in particular is in that radius and we really weren’t taking advantage of that. There is a good pool of schools there. So that to me is why that made a little more sense with having Matt Wilson, who I hired to be in charge of recruiting. He was just recently at Tennessee. But it was even more than that. I had that desire myself because I had personally recruited there. And to even get into other parts of Tennessee because you can get to Indiana in a pretty efficient way from there, even over into the Chattanooga and Knoxville area.

Other than that, I think we are trying to hit areas where we have strong alumni ties and where kids already on our team are from. It just really increases the accuracy of your investment of time. You can work all this time on a kid, but at the end of the day if he is just so far away that it is really hard to get him to visit, and if they do come on their visit they realize it is just too far. But when you start to get guys from an area already here, that breaks down some of those barriers, so it made sense to keep some of those. And I love Florida and I have a lot of strong connections there. And Georgia has been good to us as well.

I would say we might recruit Texas a little bit more. We’re going to be a little more aggressive there. And we’re going to go down and work a camp at Texas A&M. Adidas is putting on a camp through them and kind of getting different schools across the country and we’re going to send a large portion of our staff to that camp this summer in early June. So we’re going to have little more of a presence in Texas than we did before.

Q - I know when you came in as defensive coordinator you made a real effort to get to know the defensive players on a personal level. Is that something you are doing with the offensive players?

TOM ALLEN: Absolutely. In fact, I just did it. I finished up with the last guy today (Friday). I met with all the offensive players and every specialist, and then everybody new who came last fall that I didn’t meet with last spring, and then all of the mid-year guys. So now I have officially met with every single player on our team face-to-face and have gone through the same exact process of getting to know them and writing down everything about them, their family, what they’re passionate about and what’s important to them, and then talking to them about our football team.

Q - You have talked about the importance of special teams ever since taking over the program. What do you want the special teams at Indiana to look like with you as the head coach?

TOM ALLEN: Number one it’s going to be a priority. I am a former special teams coordinator in the SEC, and in my mind when we talk about Breakthrough and the little things, that is a key component of that. As I tell our specialists, you have to be at your best when it counts the most. Those units have to have that mentality. We talk about providing the winning edge, that’s what special teams have to do. In the short time I’ve been here it’s not been that way. They ranked the special teams in the Big Ten and we were ranked last after last season.

So obviously the quality of our specialists is a huge priority, as well as the execution of the scheme on special teams. To me the first step is making it a huge emphasis. In spring ball we worked on it. In fact, guys who came by and watched us would comment about how much time we spent on special teams. I told them that wasn’t going to change. We have to get better at that area with both our cover units and out return units.

But I do think it really begins with our kickers. Those guys are the ones that really have to be playing at a high level. Griffin Oakes had a great season as a sophomore, did not have near as effective a season this past year, but I expect him to have a great season to finish out. We went out and signed a punter and had competition for that position all spring long, and that will continue into the summer and in fall camp.

But we just have to get a better product on the field, a better special teams unit in all five phases – kickoff, kickoff return, punt, punt return and field goals. That to me is going to be a big key in us breaking through.

Q - Do you see the kicker and punter positions as spots where you need to use scholarships when recruiting those players?

TOM ALLEN: Yes, absolutely. I strongly feel that if you want to get a young man to be able to be an elite specialist then you need to go out and sign one. Now we’ve got guys on our team that are competing for those spots that were already here that have a chance to be those guys, but moving forward that’s going to be my approach. I don’t want it to be where we’re just kind of leaving it to chance. Where we just have a whole pool of guys and let the best guy win kind of thing. To me you go out and identify what you need and go get them.

Q - When you are able to hire a 10th assistant next January, do you foresee that coach being someone who will take on the role of special teams coordinator? Or is that coach already on your staff?

TOM ALLEN: Right now Jeff McInerney is going to be our special teams coordinator. He does it from an off the field position. He coordinates that from an organizational perspective with the film breakdown, and then he coaches the coaches and we’ll have a coach assigned to each unit. But he is coordinating that off the field and he does a really good job with that.

When we get a 10th assistant, I haven't exactly decided how that is all going to look yet, but my philosophy is going to be hire the best coach possible. That includes on the field, recruiting, everything. The best coach that helps us improve as a program, whether that is a special teams guy or a recruiting guy. I don’t know how exactly who that will be, but to me it’s got to be a guy that fits with us and makes us better as a whole staff.

Q - What are your thoughts on the new recruiting rules that provide the December signing period, and that also allow for official visits to be taken earlier than they can be taken now?

TOM ALLEN: I’m not going to sit here and tell you that I like all of it, but it’s a new rule so we have to adapt. I’m not a big fan of in-season game day visits that are official because we are so focused on the game that that we don’t get the personal time with those players, and I think that is one of our strengths, that personal time with those players and their families. I like the unofficial visits on game days, but not the official ones as much.

But these new rules will now allow us to emphasize visits during April, May and June. Now the challenge is our coaching staff is out recruiting from April 15th to May 31st, so six of those weeks they won’t be here during the week, they’ll just be back on the weekends, so that can create some time demands for them that will be new and different, which I think will be harder for those guys. As the head coach, I think you have to have a plan for your staff. We have talked about being able to designate one of our off the field staff members to be our on-campus guy that focuses on all of those visits because when the coaches are out recruiting and evaluating, they are usually the ones that set-up the visits with their particular recruit that is visiting that weekend in a normal situation. That has to be done by somebody so it will just have to be a redistribution of the work a little bit, and trying to get our staffing organized in a way that handles all those visits. To me, I think it’s going to be challenging for sure.

One benefit is getting southern recruits to Bloomington when it’s April, May and June rather than in December and January. I think that could be a huge plus, but then the negative is they come from that far away and signing day isn’t until the next December or February. So there is such a long time in between that visit and actually signing, so I don’t know. I am not a fan of continuing to push everything back and trying to make it earlier. I think it is already hard enough to accurately assess a young man, and now he is not going to have as many academic grades in place as he would if you did it in his senior year. I think it is going to increase the inaccuracy of your eval in some situations just because everything once again continues to be pushed further and further back and earlier and earlier in their career, and I think that makes it harder to evaluate accurately.

Q - One concern I have heard that coaches have about the December signing date is what do you do with a commit that is borderline academically because of the risk of taking him and then him not making it and you have lost that spot in the class.

TOM ALLEN: I think it is going to make it to where if a guy may not make it you can’t take him if you’re not willing to take that risk. Once that is put out there you can’t take it back, so I think it is going to put more pressure on the player, but maybe that’s a good thing for them to get their grades in order. But I think that’s the reality of the new rule, that you’re going to have to decide how you want to handle those situations, whether it’s worth the risk of seeing if he is going to make it or not.

Q - Are there any programs that you look at as models for what you think Indiana could be in the near future?

TOM ALLEN: There are two that kind of stick out to me that have a lot of commonalities to who we are. I look at Duke and Coach Cut (David Cutcliffe) and what he’s done there. It is a similar type of school to what we have, the basketball history that we both have, that just to me makes a lot of sense. He is actually one of the people I reached out to before I decided to come here and take the job as D.C. I reached out to Coach Cut to get his thoughts about the program.

And then Coach (Pat) Fitzgerald and what they do at Northwestern. I’ve always been impressed with them. I always tell people they are a whole different Northwestern than they were when I was in school. They have been to two Rose Bowls in 20 years. What they have been able to do there with a school that has a high academic history, and the way they develop their players, and the way they recruit, and they stick to that philosophy. I have a lot of respect for both of those places and the head coaches at those places, and just kind of want to build that kind of a structure.

Q - The theme for the program this season is break through. For that to happen does this program need to get a signature win over someone that people don’t expect you guys to beat?

TOM ALLEN: That is one form of break through for us for sure, but to me it is more of a belief than anything. It obviously has different forms and it can look different ways and it can be defined different ways, but there is no question we’re looking for that. I listed those five games last year where we were either winning in the third or fourth quarter, or within striking distance in the third or fourth quarter against two top five teams, two top 10 teams, and number 19 in the bowl game, and we fell short in all five of those games. So to be able to knock one of those five teams would’ve been huge for our program.

I think that whole concept is how do you create that break through in those games. When you have five games that’s a lot of games to where you are right there. You see a similar pattern happening over and over again, so the key is and the focus is what do we do in the off-season to change it. Now that we are in the summer phase of things I met with all the guys and the last question I asked them is what are they doing and what do you plan to do between now and the start of fall camp to help us break through. What is your personal plan to do that? And I wanted them to articulate that to me. That is really what break through is all about. How it looks and how it’s going to be when it comes is to be determined.  

Q - After the bowl game you talked about how tired you are of being close. You were obviously disappointed but not discouraged about things. Do you feel like the players have the same level of belief that you and the staff do when it comes to the program being close to breaking through?

TOM ALLEN: Oh, they definitely do. After meeting with every young man I would say the buy-in is very high right now by their own admission. It is not totally where it need to be, but very, very close. There is a strong belief and a lot of excitement and anticipation for the season, but there is also an edge about us and a hunger about us that we know that we’ve got a lot of hard work ahead of us. But I think they absolutely know we’re close, and they can sense and they can feel it. The key is are they willing to do the little things that it’s going to take to create that break through.

Q - How much different is this program now from where it was when you were a high school coach in this state 10 or 15 years ago?

TOM ALLEN: I think it is significant because of the investment in the facilities. When I left to go to college the north end zone wasn’t built yet, and obviously neither was the south end zone. Now we have the north end zone complex and the south end zone is under construction, so that is a noticeable difference in the commitment towards the investment in football.

And even just in regards to going to back-to-back bowl games. When I was a high school coach here in Indiana they weren’t going. They were trying to get there, but to get to bowls in back-to-back years would’ve been something that they would have been excited about back then. We are in that right now, and now that we’ve done that we’re trying to get to that next level.

So to me it is a raised level of expectation. Coach (Kevin) Wilson did a great job of taking from where it was where it is now which is the 6 and 6 range, and now we’re trying to break through that to get to the next tier within the Big Ten and within our schedule. There is no question a lot of strides have been in the last 10 or 15 years.


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