BLOOMINGTON -- Indiana football coach Tom Allen was forced to make one concession to his daily routine after turning 50 last March.
Through the early part of last spring, Allen still jogged three miles per day each morning. Then, knee pain flared up.
“My knees started killing me,” Allen said. “And so I actually went to elliptical every single day for three miles, and then I supplemented that with a bike. I went out and bought a bike from Dick’s, and I’ve been riding that as well. But I have not truly ran in a while.”
The milestone year for Allen has been fraught with challenges -- a global pandemic, a nationwide racial reckoning and the roller coaster of a Big Ten football season that appeared lost this fall only to be reborn again. But Allen is happy to be back on the field with a goal in sight. IU’s nine-game conference-only season is scheduled to begin in late October at Memorial Stadium against Penn State.
“It was so hard because we didn’t know when we were going to be back, and then once we got back, we started and stopped several different times,” Allen said.
For Allen, 2020 began by leading the Hoosiers into a historic bowl appearance. IU came up a point short in its 23-22 loss to Tennessee in the Gator Bowl on Jan. 2, the school’s first bowl game in Florida. A pair of special teams mistakes, a missed extra point and an inability to field an onside kick, proved costly. But IU showed it could go toe-to-toe on the line of scrimmage with a traditional SEC power.
“It was a great opportunity,” Allen said. “No doubt the kids really enjoyed the experience down there, but at the same time it left a bitter taste in their mouths about not finishing that game. So I thought it really helped propel us into a great offseason.”
Then came spring practice, which was cut short after four practices in March due to the coronavirus pandemic. There was still hope practices would restart when Allen left for spring break to Florida to celebrate his 50th birthday with his family on March 14. But after the NCAA Tournament was cancelled and cases mounted throughout the country, it became clear the pandemic was more dangerous than originally anticipated.
“We were worried about getting stuck and not having a flight, so we went out to eat down there, and I had my whole family, it all got cut short because of the pandemic,” Allen said.
Allen returned to IU’s campus through the national shutdown the next six weeks, keeping in touch with players and staff via Zoom. As COVID-19 cases began to decrease in May, a new challenge arose. The deaths of Black Americans Breonna Taylor and George Floyd at the hands of law enforcement under murky circumstances brought civil unrest in Indiana and throughout the country. Allen was one of the first coaches in the Big Ten to come out on social media in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“Most of my coaching career has been investing in the lives of many African-American young men,” Allen said. “Being able to help shape them and be a part of their lives, and just seeing the incidents that were happening and the one incident with George Floyd was the spark for the response that I gave. Just being able to take a stand for what was right.”
It’s led to more dialogue through the summer, discussing positive paths to change. Allen was able to get his entire team of more than 100 players registered to vote over the summer. Per school mandate, all IU athletes will have Election Day, Nov. 3, off to vote.
“It’s been a big undertaking,” Allen said. “A lot of our guys were not registered and then obviously just giving them that opportunity on Nov. 3 to go do that. Obviously, don’t tell them who to vote for, that’s their decision, but just to exercise their rights in our democracy in being able to do that I think is a very powerful thing.”
On the field, Allen feels good about the makeup of IU’s squad. The Hoosiers return 17 starters, including starting quarterback Michael Penix Jr., sophomore star cornerback Tiawan Mullen and All-SEC senior wide receiver Whop Philyor. Depth on both lines of scrimmage was a concern last year, but Allen said some depth on the defensive line is starting to materialize.
“Our depth on the O-line is very young," Allen said. “I know that for a fact -- we’ve got seven or eight new faces on the O-line -- most of those guys are high school guys that are joining our program this summer. That process was even kind of delayed a little bit and not as quickly as you would have liked it to have been, just because of guys not being able to get to campus as soon as they would have in the past. But, still, we’ve got them here now, and they are building that process and getting themselves in the shape that it takes, the strength and the power it takes to play on the offensive line, the defensive line in the Big Ten.”
After an 8-5 season, IU’s best since 1993, Allen was rewarded with a seven-year, $27.3 million contract extension last December. He’s donating 10% of his salary back to IU’s athletic department this fiscal year in an effort to help the school navigate financially through the pandemic.
Faith and family remain Allen’s cornerstones. His son, Thomas, a junior linebacker on IU’s team, got engaged over the summer. On the elliptical machine, Allen often listens to his favorite band, Christian contemporary group Mercy Me, on his headphones.
“Chris Tomlin, a whole bunch of different artists,” Allen said. “It’s all praise and worship. It’s all positive. It’s pretty upbeat.”
Allen said he’s still chided by his wife, Tracy, who turned 50 in May, about being the older one in the relationship. But as the kid who grew up the son of a New Castle football coach, Allen is living the dream of coaching the Hoosiers, a team he grew up watching on the concrete bleachers of Memorial Stadium with his dad so many years ago.
“Age is a crazy thing, you know,” Allen said. “I don’t feel 50, but apparently I am, so I just deal with it. It’s been good. It’s been tough. It’s been a challenging last several months, and 2020 has been a tough year for a lot of people. But, hopefully, we’ll get some good news here soon, and things will start going in a better direction.”