686 Days

On December 5, 2020, at about 6pm local time in Madison, Wisconsin, Indiana head coach Tom Allen was on top of the college football world (or at least as close as an IU coach can ever get to that lofty perch). His team had just defeated #16 Wisconsin in their empty-due-to-COVID stadium. During the post-game on-field interview, multiple players ran by proclaiming Allen as “the best coach in America.” His emotional leadership – as well as the defense he had installed and turned over to up-and-coming defensive coordinator Kane Wommack – were lauded as the impetus behind the Hoosiers’ magical 7-game run.

The game itself was the sort of defensive struggle that IU had almost never found itself in, let alone won, on the road in the B1G in the previous quarter-century. Star cornerback Tiawan Mullen forced a fumble on a blitz. Ballhawking safety Jamar Johnson picked off a pass. Quarterback Jack Tuttle, filling in for the talented Michael Penix who was lost for the season the week before, made just enough plays and showed toughness in staying in the game after taking several big hits.

The win moved IU to 6-1, the only blemish a competitive loss on the road against perennial B1G East power Ohio State. The next morning IU moved into the top 10 in the AP poll, all the way to #8, a level of national acclaim IU football hadn’t seen since the legendary 1967 season. The Bucket Game was on deck, and a win over a Purdue team that had lost four straight seemed likely. After that, there was an outside chance IU could play in the B1G Championship Game. For everyone associated with the program and all its fans, things had never looked better.

Early the next week, rumors started to fly of a COVID outbreak among the team. Then more rumors indicated that Purdue may be dealing with its own COVID issues. Sure enough, like many other games and life activities in 2020, the Bucket Game was canceled due to a high number of COVID cases on both teams. Gone was the chance for an emphatic victory over IU’s biggest rival, which would have drawn Coach Allen to .500 (2-2) against Purdue’s Jeff Brohm. A few days later, B1G Championship Game hopes were dashed as well when the powers-that-be opted for 5-0 Ohio State over 6-1 IU.

There’s no reason to re-litigate the B1G’s decision, except to note the apparent impact it had on Coach Allen and his team. They felt cheated. A few weeks later, they played the Outback Bowl without the B1G logo on their jerseys. The perceived slight didn’t help against Ole Miss, however, as an average SEC team knocked off IU, moving IU’s bowl win drought close to its 3rd decade. IU didn’t play well in that one, but still had a chance to win late, and the loss didn’t substantially diminish the program and its fanbase’s optimism for the future heading into the offseason. IU was still a team coming off two straight strong years, including that historic 2020 regular season, with many of its new pieces returning. The unanimous opinion at the time was the most important returning piece was Tom Allen himself, who signed a contract extension in March 2021.

On October 22, 2022, at about 4pm local time in Piscataway, New Jersey, Tom Allen faced questions following a 24-17 loss to Rutgers. The questions at this press conference, like many others this season, focused on a flailing offense and a series of mistakes that turned a 14-0 IU lead into a 7-point defeat to a Rutgers team that had fired its offensive coordinator two weeks before. No players broke into the presser to proclaim Tom Allen’s greatness. The loss dropped IU to 3-5, and dropped IU to a combined 2021-2022 record of 5-15. Of those 5 wins, only 1 came against a B1G opponent. Only 3 came against FBS opponents. 9 of those 20 losses were by 14 points or more.

686 days. A little more than 22 months. Less than 2 years. In what seems like a long blink of an eye, IU and its coach plummeted from the top of the college football world to the B1G basement. We’ll dig into the causes another day. Instead, I want to examine what this precipitous drop shows us about the nature of IU football. Some takeaways:

(1) College football has an equilibrium, a resting state. Over time, it tends to get back to something close to that equilibrium. In college football’s resting state, IU football is a B1G also-ran. If the traditional B1G powers are playing at anything close to their historic potential, IU will struggle to compete. A couple successful seasons does not alter that gravitational pull. It takes a decade. Maybe more. NIL has only strengthened that pull towards the success of traditional, well-financed powers. This reality means that IU simply continuing to do what it did to be successful in 2019 and 2020 isn’t necessarily enough to keep winning. Particularly in 2020, IU caught Michigan, Penn State, Michigan State, and Wisconsin in a vulnerable state, missing stars, and, at least for Michigan State and Wisconsin, without a home crowd. Maintaining success at a place like IU is incredibly difficult — much harder than finding success in the short-term — and for whatever reasons, this regime wasn’t up to the task.

(2) Once a coach has had success at IU and then lost it, that coach probably isn’t going to find it again. In the post-war era, the only coach IU coach to follow a winning season with a losing season and then recover to have a subsequent winning season is Bill Mallory. Even that example isn’t particularly helpful here because Mallory had two 5-6 seasons in the midst of a 9-year run of success. The bottom never really fell out during that run — with modern scheduling and a 12th game against a cupcake, those 5-6 seasons would almost certainly have been 6-6. And unfortunately, even the great Coach Mallory eventually had the bottom fall out. After 9 seasons of losing no more than 6 games/year, his 1995 and 1996 teams went 2-9 and 3-8 respectively. The odds are very much against Coach Allen having another winning season, or even a 6-6 season, at IU.

(3) As fans, we should enjoy the hell out of success when IU football and/or the College Football Gods give it to us. In 2020, we didn’t really get this opportunity — even though I had a great time jumping around my basement after the Penix Stretch. We couldn’t attend games, a bowl trip wasn’t really in the cards, and even going to a bar or watching the games with a group of friends wasn’t generally an option. Whenever things turn around again, I plan to ride the wave of success aggressively. Apologies in advance to my wife. One caveat to this: the Athletic Director is certainly allowed to enjoy IU’s success as well, but he or she gets paid to understand Point #1 above. When the AD gets carried away with short-term, potentially unsustainable success, we end up with an exceptionally coach-friendly extension (a subject for another day).

(4) With all of that said, if the last 686 days show us anything, it’s that none of us actually know what’s going to happen in the next 686 days. On December 6, 2020, none of us would have seen the current situation coming, even if we figured the 2020 level of success wasn’t sustainable. Because of the aforementioned coach-friendly extension, we’re extremely likely to be watching Allen-coached teams for at least two more seasons. Maybe he’ll buck history and get his groove back! Maybe the reason no coach has regained momentum is because leadership never had the patience to give them the chance. Protected by his $20MM+ buyout, unless Mark Cuban suddenly takes an interest in IU football, Allen will have a couple seasons to flip the script. It will be significantly harder to get there this time around, but it’s possible.

Just like it’s apparently possible to win 5 of your next 21 games after being ranked in the Top 10…