Yesterday Tom Allen invited Hoosier Huddle's Sammy Jacobs as well as TheHoosier.com's Stu Jackson, and Taylor Lehman of the IDS into his office to discus the IU Football program. We talked for just over half an hour and covered a wide range of topics spanning from recruiting to prepping for the season opener against Ohio State on August 31st. Below is our conversation, featuring questions from all three writers.
1. Kevin Wilson brought IU football back to respectability in the Big Ten, how do you take the next step and prevent the program from taking a step back?
I think that obviously the challenge, you know you want to take the momentum that you’ve built and that we were a part of and recognize. To me you try and recognize why they were able to make those positive changes and continue to build off of those. And then also honestly evaluate why we’ve had struggles to be able to take that next step in the past couple seasons, even though we’ve been close and to try and address those. So, you want to keep the momentum and make those things that have been our strength, try and find ways to improve them and then obviously address those areas. If you kind of go through it from a football perspective it gets a little bit clearer in regards to breaking down those moments in a game when you have a chance to make a key conversion or not or make a key play or not and you start documenting all those and look for patterns. To be able to go through and say ‘why are we in these situations?’ Because obviously when you’re in those close situations like that, it’s fourth quarter plays. You think about, right on this field, the year before I got here, the fourth down to basically win the game against Michigan and if you get a stop the game is over. You know, you win. One play and then they end up scoring and go to overtime and you get beat. Then same thing with Ohio State at the other end zone. So you just kind of start breaking those things down.
You look at our season this past year, critical plays against Penn State, Nebraska, the bowl game, Ohio State, and Michigan. So, you can kind of get some concrete ideas of ‘hey, this is where they made a play and we didn’t or we had a chance and we didn’t or we just flat out blew a chance to make a play. There are all different types. Special teams is part of it, offense and defense. To me that’s where, but it all begins with mindset, and our whole approach has been, the same way when I came here defensively was ‘You had to get them to believe.’ When you’re close and you are physically in those games, it’s not just trying to talk them into it. They’ve been there. They know how close they are. It’s not like it’s just one game, it’s a bunch of games over a couple years. Just growing that belief, it’s got to get to the point where it’s just expectation. That’s what we are getting to now, is just improving those areas that we have to, to make those plays in the future and creating a belief that is unshakable.
2. IU Football’s one word for 2017 is Breakthrough, is there a tangible piece of evidence you need to see this season to live up to that one word?
I don’t think it is one thing. I think you go through, and I’ve mapped these out for my team. We’ve talked about we haven’t had a winning season in 10 years. To me that’s a breakthrough. We haven’t won a bowl game in 26 years, that’s a breakthrough. We haven’t beat certain teams in a long, long time. Those are breakthrough opportunities. They come in different pieces, you can look at it in a lot of different ways and no one knows what it’s going to look like, but that is why the word is such…there are so many different meanings to it and to me it is about belief. That is what I think breakthrough is to me. It is that unshakeable belief that I believe will eventually lead to a different outcome. You have to believe first and then you have to go create those changes and the outcomes.
3. Scheduling is a big part of college football, even though most of the schedules are set way in advance, how much input do you have on future non-conference schedules?
First of all, playing nine conference games it makes it a little bit different. You don’t have the flexibility and in the immediate future those are all set. We were talking and discussing some possible opponents for 20 whatever, it’s a long time from now. It is definitely structured far in advance.
Philosophically, it was good for us to go down to Florida last year and play in an area we recruit heavily. Our coaches are able to stay after the next day and watch games and players were able to come watch the game. Those are possible things I think are good and I’m excited about going to Virginia. I think that’s a good, just once again we tried to recruit that area a little bit the last few years and have some success there. So I think those kinds of things are positive for sure. You want to have good balance in you schedule, with playing Power Five teams and playing another team where you can gain what you’re trying to gain in that part of the season, which usually you play a lot of those games early in the year.
4. How has your approach differed this summer, this off-season compared to last summer and last season, when you were just entering as a defensive coordinator?
It’s a lot different. Now you’re thinking about the whole (summer) camp structure and not just about getting guys to come to camp. Thinking about how it’s going to be organized, where are we going to go to camp, and the camp structure has changed this summer compared to what it was last summer and so we had to make those decisions. That’s the big difference. Then the other part of it is, they gave you a 10-day window and you have to decide where is the best place for us to go and do an off campus camp, then what days do you want. Since you only have 10, do you save some for July or how does that all kind of play out. Those are the kind of decisions we are trying to make and then for us defensively, it’s year two and you’re trying to find the way to take that next step in your defensive progression and a big part of that is our summer work.
5. On staying true to yourself as a coach.
Often times guys will get a head (coaching) job and then they try and become a different personality. You know the, ‘I have to be the whatever head coach and everyone is looking at me.’ I think you just have to be who you are and that goes back to even staying with the defense. A big part of my history and getting these opportunities has been the way your defense plays. So, I want to stay involved in the defense. I think you can sometimes make a mistake of pulling away from the one thing you may be are best at. That’s why I am going to stay involved and I think number two is your personality. I coach a certain way and believe in that and I think our kids respond to that and I don’t plan on changing that. I have been a head coach in the past even though it wasn’t in college. So I have had a chance to kind of learn from some of those situations that I did or didn’t do and have the ability to look back and say ‘hey, if this happens again, I am going to do it this way.’ I think that just being true to yourself, as far as your strengths and be true to yourself as far as your personality and also just be you.
6. A head coach is usually as good as the staff he puts together around him, what was your philosophy and process of putting the 2017 coaching staff together?
First of all hiring guys, especially in a leadership role like offensive coordinator, is somebody you knew and trusted and that to me was somebody that I could, with confidence say, he and I shared the same philosophy offensively, ‘I believe in you, I am going to hire you, now go do your job’. Empower them to be the head coach of the offense. So that was a big park of what I wanted and then with a guy like coach (Grant) Heard who I’ve known for a long time. I just wanted to bring his expertise to that part of our game, which has been one of our strengths. Once again we’ve thrown the ball well, but nothing ever stays the same. You’re either getting better or you’re moving backwards. To be able to bring in a guy like that to take that group (WRs) to another level. Same goes with the offensive line. Darren Hiller, a guy I already knew and a guy I worked with. Another strength of ours and to allow that to continue to grow. To me, I think you have to recruit your staff the same way you recruit your team. Trying to find coaches that fit, but to fit this part of the country, the way we recruit, the areas we want to recruit to, and all that meshed together.
7. When you’re looking at a prospect besides on-field talent what are you and your staff looking at to try and ensure the player will be a great fit for IU, and IU a great fit for them?
I say this all the time, a tough, hard-nosed kid that cares about school. To me that is what Indiana is. I think about coach Mallory’s teams that played really good defense and were just so fundamentally sound, tough, hard-nosed competitors and who came here to get their education and I think that’s one of our strengths. If you go look at where our university is ranked in the country and we are ranked high and the kids have to go to school here. That’s good, I want that kind of kid here. I think he’ll do well here and it serves us well to get those kind of guys. It hasn’t always been Indiana kids. It’s been guys from across the country in the past. The guys that fit here have the same family values and those things are important to them, because that’s what we are going to teach. Those are the key things.
8. With the new early signing period going into effect with a December date, how does this effect the way you recruit? What are the advantages and disadvantages?
Right now it looks like December 15th will be the early signing date that they’re going to use, so that’s not that much different. Although it does help in terms of maybe getting some guys on board early enough to where you can focus on the last few pieces there after that initial signing day. The thing that is different for us is that, the part of the country we are located in that time of the year. In January and February that’s a cold time of the year up here. So recruiting against southern kids, that may be their only chance to come up here. To get them up here earlier, in theory would help, the challenge though is they’re going to a new April, May, June official recruiting visit dates. The challenge is: how do you have them come that early and then they still can’t sign until December to be able to keep them with us in their focus and it’s kind of been so long since they’ve been here. I think that’s the challenge to get that, but it allows us to get them on campus officially when it’s different weather. I think that’s a positive thing for us.
9. On the recent “We IN Here” recruiting campaign
We gave every single coach an in-state area, which was not the case in the past. I just wanted to make sure that we did a great job to cover. It was the first place we went out to. I wanted it to be a priority in both calendar and in body to where we were able to get guys out there. We can’t get to every single school, but to really try to get a lot of guys out there and get them visible in front of coaches. My theory is that you can talk about something being important, but if you don’t do anything to show it’s important, it’s not really important. So we followed through by physically doing that and also with our population in the way that there are some schools pretty spread out, you want to make sure that if a school has a guy every so often we want to make sure we’re aware of that and then we don’t just show up because he has the one guy.
It’s also getting them to camps and inviting them to see games. Coaches come, players come. To me it’s just about creating them feeling a part of us and them coming here and studying with us and watching tape together. That to me is what I want us to create is a very open, perceptive, environment that they fell a part of this thing.
9. Special teams took a nosedive under Kevin Wilson what are you doing to fix the six units in that phase of the game?
Number one, we have increased our amount of time invested in it in practice with our spring ball. I know that was huge and even our player noticed it. People who would come watch practice would comment on how much time we spent on special teams. Also, just trying to improve the execution of our special teams in different ways, but I was a special teams coordinator for several years in the SEC and that was my area of responsibility. Just making that a point of emphasis and we make sure we get those guys to perform at their very best. The key to great special teams play is having great specialists. When the kickers and the punters are performing at a high level it changes everything. I just feel like we have to do a great job of getting those guys’ minds right to where their executing again and just schematically working on techniques.
Then this spring we worked a ton on the fundamentals of special teams play. They can be transferred to a lot of different special teams. We focused on the punt team as a unit and the PAT/Field Goal as a unit and the rest of it we just worked drills and focus on the scheme of that in the fall. The amount of time we invested in it. Then selling our players on it. We brought in some NFL scouts to talk about the importance of when they evaluate you, as a potential prospect, is the value of special teams play because sometimes certain positions think that they are exempt from that. To me you have to get your best players on the field as much as possible. So selling them on that and have them understand, as a matter of fact we had one guy went through and broke down exactly how many positions there really are that are kind of up for grabs every year and there are not very many when you take out the O-linemen, take out the quarterback, you take out all these different guys that aren’t going to be playing special teams on a 53-man roster, it’s a very small group. Their value on special teams, as a collegiate player, is huge and their value projection as a prospect. I think it creates buy in. I was encouraged by the energy and effort we saw during special teams work. To me that’s a huge part of breakthrough.
10. On the recruiting of specialist and how it will change
I believe in going after and identifying those guys and when the cycle is right for us to be able to put a guy on scholarship for that we are going to have the approach of ‘let’s go out and recruit that guy’ rather than just say we are going to just leave it to chance of a once you all get here we are going to figure it out. We have guys on campus right now who are definitely in the mix for those spots and that won’t change, but we are going to be more aggressive about recruiting those positions.
11. Many of the fans don’t know what to expect with you as an in-game head coach, what can they expect Tom Allen to be on game days for IU?
I would say the way the bowl game played out would be kind of what I would expect. I am going to be a high-energy guy as the head coach. There will be times when the offense is on the field I’ll spend the first part back making some adjustments with our defense and then as third downs come up I’ll be involved with that, being ready to make decisions on fourth down. Then when our offense makes big plays I’ll celebrate with them. Then there will be times to deal with the officials and handle all that the way it needs to be handled, but I would use the bowl game as a pretty good microcosm of what I want to be throughout the whole year and relying on more guys in the press box to help me with things regards to decisions that have to be made. A lot of the same communication that was going on in the past, just more going on in the headsets between coach Wilson and I about things going on with the offense and now I’ll be the one controlling that conversation. I think you’re going to see a very similar person that you saw at the bowl game.
12. Richard Lagow took a lot of heat after the bowl game on social media. Is there something that you’ve told him because he has taken it in stride where maybe some other people would’ve snapped?
Earmuffs and blinders. That’s it. That’s what I have told him. I said, ‘you got to block out all the noise and you’ve got to have tremendous focus’ and I have to do the same thing. It’s going to happen in you’re leadership position. The quarterback always going to get probably more credit than he deserves and more blame than he deserves. Just like head coaches, but that’s part of being in that position. I think the relationship between a head coach and a quarterback is a pretty special one for a lot of those same reasons because those are the two guys who are going to catch the most heat. I noticed too, he’ll tweet something out and he’ll get some sub-tweets that are derogatory or whatever and that’s no different for head coaches. It’s just another opportunity for me to teach him. A lot of stuff I’ve been giving him to read is things about that, about the focus you have to have. You have to block out the complements and the negativity because the complements give you a false sense of where you are at and negativity can make you question yourself. It takes discipline to do that. That’s why I talk about the earmuffs and blinders because you got to be able to stay focused on the goal and all the other stuff to me is just distracting.
13. On the opportunity of opening the season on Thursday night
It’s a tremendous opportunity. It’s the opening night of college football, as a matter of fact three out of the last four years I have coached on a team that has played on this night. We started back at Ole Miss, we played Boise State on a Thursday night in the Chic-Fil-A Kickoff Classic in Atlanta, a year ago we played down at Florida International and now obviously we’ll be home. I think it’s a great venue, opportunity for our program because of what you just said, there are only a few games that whole first day and you get to be the center piece game and to be able to play this quality of opponent, they’re ranked number one in ESPN’s first poll out, they’ll be top two or three on everyone else’s. The chance to host a team of that caliber, it’ll be the biggest home opener in the history of Indiana University Football. How can you not be excited about that?
14. How does playing on a Thursday change preparation?
That’s one nice thing about it is, it doesn’t at all because your calendar’s basically, we start a little earlier because we play a couple days early, so you’re already in that mode. We will set our prep based off of our start date. In our guys’ mind they’re just going to get an extra couple days between the first game and the second game. As far as the first game itself, everything is going to be flowing as if they’re playing in a normal Saturday game.