Indiana’s football season came to another unceremonious end in the Old Oaken Bucket game, and it’s now decision time.
IU blew a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter against Purdue to lose the rivalry game for the third straight time, and the fifth time in the last six meetings. That dates back to the start of Tom Allen’s tenure as IU head coach.
And now, vice president and director of intercollegiate athletics Scott Dolson has to determine what course the IU football program will chart going forward. Allen has four years remaining on the seven-year extension he signed after the 2020 season, and the buyout on that contract remains over $20 million until December 2024.
Allen was asked directly about his job security after Saturday’s game in West Lafayette, and he acknowledged the team’s struggles over the last several years.
“I get it, you’ve got to win. I understand the nature of college football. I understand that full well. It’s a long, long time. I want to win more than anybody. We’re going to keep battling and scratching and clawing,” Allen said. “That’s (job security) out of my hands. It’s not up to me.”
There aren’t very strong on-field arguments for keeping the staff in place. Allen wants to win, but he hasn’t done much of it since he signed the extension. The Hoosiers’ combined record over the last three seasons is 9-27. Against Power Five opponents, that record falls to 3-25. Across his seven years as IU head coach, Allen’s overall record is 33-48, with an 18-43 Big Ten record. He took IU to the 2019 Gator Bowl and the 2020 Outback Bowl, but hasn’t ended the longest active streak without a bowl win in the Power Five.
Allen has nailed two coordinator hires in his seven-year tenure as head coach, both ahead of the 2019 season: naming Kalen DeBoer offensive coordinator and Kane Wommack defensive coordinator. That led to the memorably successful 2019 and 2020 seasons, even with DeBoer leaving after one year.
Subsequent hires have been far less successful.
Indiana, this season, finished last in the Big Ten in total defense for the second straight year. Allen’s Hoosier defenses — including his year as defensive coordinator — finished in the top half of the Big Ten in total defense just twice in eight years. Allen has led IU to a top-half finish in scoring defense just once.
Charlton Warren led IU to a 10th-place finish in the Big Ten in total defense and last in scoring defense in 2021 before leaving for the same job at North Carolina. Chad Wilt and Matt Guerrieri are energetic, personable coaches and leaders, but their defenses have similarly underperformed the last two years. IU’s flurry of missed tackles and sacks Saturday against Purdue left Allen speechless.
“I have no words,” Allen said. “I’ve never seen that many missed opportunities on sacks in one game. Just so frustrating, without question. Just hard to even put into words, to be honest with you.”
The other side of the ball looks slightly better, but the offense has tailed off in recent years. The Hoosiers finished eighth in the Big Ten this year with 332.8 yards per game. That was after finishing at or near the bottom of the league in 2021-22. Earlier in Allen’s tenure, when Mike DeBord was offensive coordinator, IU finished around the middle of the conference in both scoring and total offense. It was enough to keep IU on the brink of bowl eligibility most years, but not good enough to capture the breakthrough Allen craved for the program.
Nick Sheridan succeeded DeBoer in 2020, when the Hoosiers went 6-2. But that offense still finished 10th in the Big Ten in total offense, and it bottomed out in 2021. Walt Bell couldn’t get things on track. And while you can make observations about IU’s offense under Rod Carey — which could be positive, given the development Brendan Sorsby has shown — it’s hard to make any long-term judgements off half a season when he was running Bell’s system.
All that’s to say, when you miss on that many hires in a row at a program like Indiana, you end up in the doldrums the program currently sits in.
Choosing a path
The highs of 2019 and 2020 shouldn’t be ignored — those years brought some of the brightest memories IU football has created in generations. Allen gets to enjoy the credit for those seasons the same as he has to wear the collapse from that point. Many years ahead — when IU surely has a new coach, regardless of what happens this offseason — when people reflect on Allen’s tenure with the Hoosiers, the highs of those two years should carry significant weight in his legacy.
And, of course, Allen is a good man, who has represented IU well, even despite some of the struggles and difficult losses the team has taken in recent years.
But if this was solely a football decision, there wouldn’t be any questions. That’s been apparent for a while now.
Money talks, and the hefty buyout is the complicating factor. So it leaves Dolson with a big question as he ponders the future of IU football.
He has to determine which path brings a bigger loss to Indiana. There’s one side, with the financial loss from paying Allen $20.8 million to leave, along with conducting a search for his replacement and compensating that replacement competitively. Or the other side, where Allen stays for another year with the program going nowhere as the conference expands and more football powers enter IU’s schedule, which risks losing faith from fans in the program and creating further disinterest until these conversations restarted next fall.
The Hoosiers did show some more life in the last six games of this season, and perhaps that’s enough to convince Dolson to seek stability with Allen for one more year and let Carey implement his own offensive system. But the numbers are what they are, and Indiana is a program trending down.
There isn’t much time to make this decision, with the schedule that modern college football operates in. Allen said after the Purdue game that he and his staff will begin re-recruiting their own players Sunday to keep as much of the team together as possible, with the transfer portal likely looking enticing to some. The portal officially opens on Monday, December 4, and programs with lingering uncertainty on staffing decisions will be at a disadvantage.
So IU needs to make a decision, one way or another, quickly. The clock is ticking.
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