By Dustin Dopirak
Tom Allen sat down in front of a computer camera in the bowels of Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla., on Jan. 2, his face wearing the sense that Indiana’s dream season shouldn’t have ended this way.
This was a season in which the Hoosiers broke barriers, ended losing streaks and reached poll positions they hadn’t seen in decades. They had nearly come back to defeat a team that the night before had won the Sugar Bowl to put itself in the national championship game. They felt, and had plenty of reason to believe, that they deserved a berth in a New Year’s Six bowl game. But instead they were handed the Big Ten’s third slot against an SEC team that had finished the regular season 4-5, and still managed to lose 26-20 to Ole Miss in the Outback Bowl, allowing their streak without a bowl win to extend to 30 years.
“I’m just disappointed for our players,” Allen said. “They have been through so much. What an amazing season it’s been for so many different reasons. They’ve given so much. Worked so hard. Sacrificed so much. I’m just heartbroken for them to end without winning a bowl game.”
Combined with the truncated season due to COVID-19 and the Big Ten’s initial decision to cancel the season before reversing course, the bowl loss means the relevance of Indiana’s 2020 season won’t be obvious in the record books in years to come. The Hoosiers finished with six wins, a modest figure in a normal season that they’ve managed to reach four times in the past six years.
But it matters that all six of those wins came against Big Ten teams, the most they’ve had in conference play in a season since 1987. It matters that four of those wins came against Penn State, Michigan, Michigan State and Wisconsin, Big Ten powers that have for so long seemed out of their league. It matters that they finished second to national finalist Ohio State in the Big Ten East, a spot that seemed beyond their capacity when the Big Ten realigned its divisions in 2014.
And most of all, it matters that before the bowl game, they altered the perception of Indiana football in a way that could positively impact the program for years in terms of fan support and especially recruiting.
“This year showed that Indiana has a chance to compete for Big Ten titles,” said Josh Helmholdt, midwest recruiting analyst at Rivals. “That’s ultimately what a lot of kids, a lot of top prospects want to do is they want to have a chance to play for a championship. In the past, that hasn’t really been something that Indiana could legitimately sell. That is something very tangible under Tom Allen.”
It’s more tangible because the 2020 season doesn’t have a chance to be a stand-alone, flash-in-the-pan. The Hoosiers earned legitimacy in 2019 with an 8-4 season that ended with a one-point loss to Tennessee in the Gator Bowl, their first eight-win season since 1993. The two seasons combined create a more stable narrative of a program on the rise.
“Last year was such a breakthrough for them to win eight games and really have an opportunity to win their bowl game,” said Adam Rittenberg, a senior college football writer at ESPN.com who has focused extensively on covering the Big Ten. “Then to follow it up with a team that was better. You saw what they could do at quarterback with (Michael) Penix. The way they’re recruiting and they have athletes on both sides of the ball. They have these playmakers on defense. They can stretch the field with their wide receivers. Now you see the momentum building.”
The Hoosiers helped build momentum by grabbing the media spotlight when they had the opportunity and making the most of it. Their wins over Penn State and Michigan might have lost some shine as those programs struggled in disappointing seasons, but Indiana had already collected the earned media spoils of those victories before the mediocrity of those teams became apparent. Indiana’s most genius move was showing Allen in his element, having cameras behind him when he gave what became famous post-game speeches in which he told his players, at the top of his lungs, how special they were and how much he loved them.
“He was in the media a ton this year,” said Steve Wiltfong, national recruiting director at 247Sports.com. “I don’t know if a lot of people knew who he was before this season. You’re going to see more recruits wanting to talk to Tom Allen. His name has a little more pizazz to it.”
And the way his players interacted with him made it clear that he wasn’t putting on a show. While he was giving an on-field interview after the Hoosiers beat Wisconsin 14-6, offensive lineman Dylan Powell stopped to hug him and said into the microphone, “This is the best coach in America right here. Recruits, come play for this man. Best coach in America.” Defensive end Johnathan King then, came up and bear-hugged him from behind, then running back Stevie Scott and cornerback Jamar Johnson threw his arms around him and also told the microphone this is the country’s best coach.
It was more confirmation, in case any was needed, that Allen’s “LEO” (Love Each Other) philosophy isn’t just a gimmick.
“He has created an atmosphere around that program that draws kids in,” Helmholdt said. “People want to be a part of that. I definitely think that culture that Tom Allen is building with his LEO method permeates the program and that family mentality. You hear that a lot from kids, they want that family mentality. A lot of programs try to project that family culture, but I think Indiana is as genuine at creating that as just about any program in the country right now.”
Indiana’s gains in recruiting haven’t been drastic so far, and there is no expectation that the Hoosiers will begin building recruiting classes drenched in five-star talent like Alabama, Clemson or Ohio State. They will focus more on development than attracting ready-made superstars. They have a small class signed so far for 2021 with 13 players that ranks No. 62 nationally and 12th in the Big Ten.
However, it also includes two four-star recruits — Atlanta-area wide receiver Jaquez Smith and Lawrence North quarterback Donaven McCulley — and three-stars from Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Florida, Georgia, Texas and Virginia. The Hoosiers are keeping players in-state at home, getting players from surrounding states, and bringing in talent from southern talent hotbeds where they have connections. They aren’t winning every battle yet, but they are starting to compete for players that used to be outside of their range.
“It’s a fun program to watch and a fun football team to see on the field and it’s getting national attention,” Helmholdt said. “I was just down in Florida at an event down there. There was one particular prospect I talked with, big wide receiver out of Florida named Amari Niblack. He was running through his top teams and they’re Alabama, Auburn, Florida, LSU, Oklahoma and Indiana. Indiana has never been mentioned with those schools in the 18 years I’ve been covering recruiting. Now, they’re being talked about in a higher class. This season has contributed to that and raised the IU brand on a national scale.”
The Hoosiers will only be able to gain so much tangible from 2020. They won’t get the financial windfall that would have come had COVID-19 not depleted gate receipts and the class was small in part because so many players are likely to stay with the 2020 season not counting against anyone’s eligibility. They have lost some key players to the NFL, but are hoping to get Penix back healthy after his ACL tear and expect to keep most of their key pieces on both sides of the ball. That could make them a preseason top 10 team come August, and if vaccines bring a return to something approaching normalcy by the fall, they’ll have a chance they can hang through a full 12-game season in front of a potentially packed Memorial Stadium.
“The challenge is going to be still sustaining it especially in this division,” Rittenberg said. “Michigan won’t be this bad every year. Penn State won’t be down. Maryland is on the rise. Ohio State is Ohio State. But I think you can definitely look and feel optimistic about the fact that Indiana is stringing together good years, they’re doing well in recruiting, and they clearly have the right head coach.”
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