When Tom Allen took over as the head coach of IU football on Dec. 1, 2016, he did so in a world he knew very well.
Like any business or competitive endeavor, change is constant in college sports, but until recently that change had mostly come in a gradual and relatively predictable fashion.
But the Allen era at Indiana has been met with dramatic, smack you in the face kind of change, right at the moment when he seemed to have Indiana headed in the right direction.
If you know anything about the history if IU football, the pattern should seem familiar.
Just as Charlie Brown believes he’s going to strike a gorgeous end-over-end kick, Lucy pulls the football away, yet again.
After a pair of 5-7 seasons that saw Indiana compete for bowl eligibility on the final weekend of the season, Allen’s Hoosiers went a combined 14-7 in 2019 and 2020, reaching consecutive January bowl games for the first time ever.
After engineering an impressive turnaround of the IU defense in 2016, Allen now had the whole thing rolling. Four seasons, an overall 24-21 record, and a clear sense that all of the trend charts were pointing up.
And that’s when everything changed.
The first element of what has been a sea change in college sports came on Oct. 15, 2018, when the NCAA launched the transfer portal. While significant in hindsight, that adaptation didn’t amount to much at the time since undergraduates still had to sit out a year if they transferred.
In fact, the transfer portal appeared to be an early ally for Indiana, as graduate students like D.J. Matthews from Florida State and Stephen Carr from USC joined the up-and-coming program.
But following one of the most historic seasons in IU football history, change rolled through college sports like a tsunami.
On Jan. 12, 2021, Allen was named the American Football Coaches Association National Coach of the Year. That came a month after he was named the Big Ten Coach of the Year by both his fellow coaches and the media.
In April of 2021, the NCAA adopted the one-time transfer rule, meaning all Division I student-athletes had a one-time opportunity to transfer and compete immediately beginning in the 2021-22 academic year.
And then beginning on July 1, 2021, the NCAA enacted a policy that allowed athletes to monetize their name, image and likeness.
College sports had transitioned to something more akin to professional free agency in the blink of an eye.
Indiana has seen these moments before at times when the program appeared to be ascending the college football mountain in a significant way, only to tumble all the way back down to the valley after transformational events unfolded.
Following the 1947 season, after what was inarguably the best era of IU football, head coach Bo McMillin left Bloomington for the NFL.
McMillin departed IU after a six season run that saw the Hoosiers go 38-16-4 from 1942 to 1947. They won the program’s lone Big Ten title in 1945 with an undefeated season.
But Indiana suffered 10 straight losing seasons in the immediate aftermath of McMillin’s departure.
In 1969, ten African American IU players boycotted the program with three games remaining in the season. Up to that point, Indiana had gone 19-9 from 1967 to 1969 under the direction of head coach John Pont, with the program’s lone appearance in the Rose Bowl following the 1967 campaign.
IU lost the last three games of the 1969 season, and Pont would never experience another winning season in Bloomington.
Some would argue that Kevin Wilson’s sudden resignation on Dec. 1, 2016 — the day Allen was hired — was another one of those moments. The news came just days after he had led IU to consecutive bowl games for the first time in 25 years.
But as you know, Allen soon took the program to even greater heights.
At least momentarily.
While we can’t say for sure the confluence of those three events — the transfer portal, one-time transfer rule and NIL — conspired to form the latest Armageddon moment for IU football, the program is tenuously positioned on the cliff.
After a 14-7 run through the 2019 and 2020 seasons, Allen’s Hoosiers are 9-25 since.
Allen has opened up on occasion regarding the challenges he’s faced trying to compete in the NIL and transfer portal era. The overarching theme when he’s discussed the current landscape is that it all has him pulled in a million different directions that until recently had little to do with coaching football.
Who is going to transfer out? Who is going to transfer in? How do we raise more money? Who should get the money? Who is unhappy they aren’t getting money?
Allen was asked on Monday about his frustration level with three straight losing seasons, but his response seemed to instinctively transition to everything else he’s been dealing with away from the field.
“Yeah, it’s hard to sleep,” Allen said. “You lay your head down and you’ve got a million things going on in your head. You want it so bad for your kids, your players, our families, our coaches, their families, our fans, our university, everybody I represent, you feel all that.
“I’m just going to keep battling, keep fighting, but at the same time, it’s been hard, to be real honest with you. We’ve got to adapt and adjust to the new world that we’re in, and it’s different. There’s no question about it, with the changing of rosters and the different things that go with that.”
The losing eats Allen up. His voice, already damaged from a week spent vocalizing those million thoughts, is barely audible at postgame press conferences following a loss.
But somehow the next day, the energy is back. The smile is back. Tom Allen is back.
As we wrote last week, he hasn’t given up by any observable measure, even when it seems certain Lucy is going to yank the ball away yet again.
At times it seems Allen is now more Sisyphus than Charlie Brown, with a transfer portal and NIL boulder to push up the college football mountain.
But he’s still 100 percent all-in on finding answers.
“Being positive is a choice. I’m not positive because life is easy, you’re positive because life is hard, and things are hard,” he said.
And even in a stream of consciousness focused on positivity, the omnipresence of his new reality surfaced.
“We have a lot of challenges that we have to battle and things you have to go through to get your guys ready to play, then the landscape of college football is now completely different than it’s ever been and those challenges have been accelerated here.”
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