Despite consecutive 5-7 seasons, there is a healthy degree of optimism, and patience, surrounding the Indiana football program right now.
For one thing, folks who have been around the Memorial Stadium block a time or two have seen worse. Much worse.
While bowl eligibility has remained just out of reach during head coach Tom Allen’s first two seasons at Indiana, the product on the field has almost always been competitive.
This is where I feel like I am supposed to say something about the Big Ten East schedule contributing to the shortcomings, but you know what, you just have to play the teams that show up on game day. Okay, those weren’t my words — that was Coach Allen Thursday at the Big Ten Media Day.
Allen’s outlook on the challenges of winning at IU is real, and if you spend any time at all around the man, you’ll soon come to realize that everything about him is real.
The New Castle, Ind. native is the genuine article, and it should therefore come as little surprise that his authenticity is exactly what is driving IU’s recent success on the recruiting trail.
“You hear the word genuine a lot from recruits and their families,” Allen said. “We just want to be real with people.”
If you have watched an Allen press conference, you have likely heard him end the session with “LEO.” The hashtag “LEO” is also used by Allen, IU players and recruits alike on Twitter.
It simply means “Love Each Other,” and it is the core principle of the family environment that Allen is preaching to recruiting targets.
“We’re selling the family atmosphere,” Allen said.
Allen is more than just selling the family atmosphere. The former accounting teacher is auditing himself after the “sale” has closed.
“The class that just got here, they were a highly regarded class, and I asked them — was this what you thought,” Allen said. “Did we do a good job of preparing you for what it was going to be like being here?”
Allen’s belief in the program’s culture has given him the confidence to reach for the stars.
“We’re going after guys, I don’t care who they’ve got offers from,” Allen said. “If we think we have a chance to get someone to come to Indiana, we’re not going to back off just because they got offers from a bunch of big time places.”
While he is looking for guys that fit the family culture, the 49 year old Allen still realizes that loving each other alone won’t get it done.
“We’re trying to go after really good football players that fit with us,” Allen continued. “And the bottom line is, we’re only as good as the guys that we’re coaching. The scheme is only as good as the players running the scheme. I love defense, and I feel like we have a great system, but our system is a whole lot better when we have talented guys running it.”
Obvious stuff, to a degree, but it’s the execution that is eye opening.
We wrote last week about the trio of four-star rated in-state players in the class of 2019 that make up the core of what is the best IU recruiting class ever in the rankings era. Each of them referred to the family culture as a critical part of their decision making process.
And then there is Rashawn Williams in the class of 2020. He will likely end up being the highest rated recruit IU has ever landed, quickly stripping that mantle from 2019 running back Sampson James.
After picking IU over Michigan and Michigan State, the Detroit based wide receiver told the Detroit News “it just felt like the best fit for me,” Williams said. “The people around there are genuine and they really care for you. I never took an official visit to Indiana, but I’ve made trips, went there earlier this month.”
The highest rated recruit in the history of the program didn’t even need an official visit to choose IU over a pair of traditional college football powerhouses.
He simply felt the love.
Allen leverages his son Thomas, a linebacker on the team, as well as young coaches and graduate assistants that all help to make sure that his message and approach resonates with teenagers.
Going into his third year as the head coach, Allen also now has a lot more time on his hands to focus on recruiting.
And after handing over the defensive coordinator duties to Kane Wommack, Allen has freed himself up to spread even more of his love around.
His plan is to lead by example.
“When the head coach is the top recruiter on the staff, that’s the way it needs to be,” Allen said. “I want to be the best recruiter on the staff, and I want these (assistant) coaches to understand how important it is for us to get the best players.”
Allen believes that IU’s recent investment in facilities, including a new locker room that will be ready before the season, has also played a role in the recent recruiting success.
“We’re now building facilities that are on par with others, and that hasn’t always been the case. That sends a strong message to parents and recruits that football is important at Indiana.”
A strong family needs a good home, and although there are legitimate concerns about the pace and the scale, IU is no doubt making significant upgrades.
There are seemingly always legitimate concerns when it comes to Indiana football.
But no one is questioning whether Allen is authentic. And no one questions whether he has the energy to succeed on the recruiting trail.
“It takes a lot of time, a lot of work, and a lot of hours,” Allen said.
And a lot of love.
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