By Dustin Dopirak —
Among the people who was most surprised that Tom Allen was able to lure Deland McCullough from a Super Bowl coaching staff back to Indiana was Tom Allen himself.
Mostly because he didn’t actually have to do any luring.
Not long after it became public in mid-January that former Indiana running backs coach Mike Hart had taken the same job at his alma mater, Michigan, McCullough sent Allen a text message wanting to know if it was still open and letting him know he was interested if it was.
“That was a text that I wasn’t expecting, to be honest with you,” Allen said. “I was surprised. When I read it, I was like, ‘Seriously?’”
McCullough was in fact very serious. Even as he’d been running backs coach for a Kansas City Chiefs team that reached the AFC Championship game in 2018, won the Super Bowl in 2019 and reached the Super Bowl again before losing to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday, he’d been watching with pride as Indiana posted two of its best seasons in the past 50 years in 2019 and 2020. He had enjoyed working with Allen in 2016 on Kevin Wilson’s staff when Allen was defensive coordinator, and he wanted to be a part of what he was continuing to build.
“When I saw that opportunity, I hit Tom up as soon as I saw it,” McCullough said. “I was sitting there game planning for a game and shot Tom a text. Everything just fit for me. Coach Allen. The program, the direction it is headed in. I just felt it in my spirit that I wanted to be part of the next step that IU football takes.”
McCullough said he had always wanted to return to college coaching, and that he had gone to the NFL not to stay there, but to gain knowledge that he could eventually bring back to help college players. This wasn’t the first college job he’d been considered for, he said, but it was the first he’d actively sought out himself.
He did, however, also want to come back to a position that would be elevated above what he had previously done. That’s why Allen hired him not only as a running backs coach, but also as an associate head coach. He’s not a coordinator on either side of the ball, but he will have more behind-the-scenes duties and team authoritative duties than anyone else on the staff.
“He’s going to represent me to this team when I’m not able to,” Allen said. “Whether it’s in meetings or taking phone calls, being in interactions with academic staff and administrative staff and compliance staff and all those things you have to do with scholarship numbers, all those things you have to do to run a program. I’m going to put him to work, but he’s first class all the way.”
McCullough said getting such a position was a requirement for him. According to govsalaries.com, an open government records website, McCullough made $295,000 from Indiana in 2016 when he was last with the Hoosiers. According to Zach Osterman of the Indianapolis Star, McCullough will now make $515,000 in his first year, and $530,000 in the second.
“That was a main attraction outside of the bigger picture of IU,” McCullough said. “Since I’ve been with the Chiefs I’ve had at least three opportunities to go back to college every year. It made no sense for me to go back and be a pure running backs coach, because I can stay where I was and do that at the highest level with the Chiefs. So the opportunity to be an associate head coach at IU specifically was very strong to me because I know Tom and the administration would support me and I could continue to grow and have an impact beyond the running back room.”
That being said, he has proven every where he’s been that he can have a huge impact on a running back room.
McCullough was himself an excellent tailback at Miami (Ohio), rushing for 4,368 yards and 36 touchdowns from 1992-95. He wasn’t drafted in 1996, but he caught on as an undrafted free agent with the Cincinnati Bengals and made it through a rookie season with them before playing two seasons with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in Canada.
He began his college coaching career as an intern at Miami (Ohio) in 2010 and was part of former IU coach Kevin Wilson’s staff when he took over the program for the 2011 season. He stayed through 2016 and turned IU’s running backs into a force that lifted the Hoosiers to some of the best offensive seasons in their history.
When he took over, the Hoosiers hadn’t had a running back post a 1,000-yard season since Levron Williams did it in 2001. Tevin Coleman ended that streak with Indiana’s only 2,000-yard season in 2014, rushing for 2,036 yards before leaving for the NFL where he has played eight seasons and reached two Super Bowls.
The following season, transfer Jordan Howard and Devine Redding both rushed for over 1,000 yards as part of a record-setting Indiana offense that finished first in the Big Ten in scoring, total offense and passing offense and second in rushing offense. Howard went to the NFL after that and Redding rushed for over 1,000 yards the next season.
McCullough left for Southern California in 2017 and helped Ronald Jones reach All-American status before he left for the pros and won a Super Bowl with the Bucs on Sunday.
He then joined a Chiefs offense that has been driven by quarterback Patrick Mahomes and the passing game, but he’s helped veterans such as Kareem Hunt, LeSean McCoy and Le’Veon Bell add to their games and overseen the development of young players such as Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Darrel Williams.
“The biggest thing is that I didn’t have to change,” McCullough said. “The way I’ve operated in the room has never changed. I’ve just continued to sharpen my tools with different guys in different areas of the country and different ages. With this running back room, I operated the same way as I did at Indiana in 2016 and 2015, same thing. That let me know that the methods I know as far as teaching, they’re tried and true and they’re legitimate.”
The Hoosiers need some help in the running game after finishing 12th in the Big Ten in rushing with 108.6 yards per game in 2020. They lose leading rusher Stevie Scott, who bolted for the NFL after rushing for 561 yards and 10 touchdowns. The Hoosiers do return a pair of talented young backs in Sampson James and Tim Baldwin Jr.
McCullough’s return brings even more credibility back to Allen’s staff and to the momentum behind Indiana. After winning eight games in 2019, the Hoosiers went 6-2 in 2020 with a loss in the Outback Bowl, finishing the year ranked No. 12, the highest final ranking for an Indiana team since it reached the Rose Bowl in 1967. Indiana is expected to be a top 15 team when the season begins. Allen’s personal star has been rising as he was named Big Ten Coach of the Year and AFCA Coach of the Year.
“The beauty of it all is I’m just being who I am,” Allen said. “I believe in it. I believe in what we’re doing. It’s neat to see others join in that belief and see other coaches want to be a part of it.”
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