BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — In college football, the change in culture and credentials is real. Over the course of time, programs do indeed come and go.
This week’s Indiana at Nebraska game is a perfect scene-setter for that. The Cornhuskers proudly claim five national championships and are one of only seven schools to have won 900 games or more.
Indiana has no national championships — in football — and is in a different, much uglier group. The Hoosiers are the one — and only — major college program in a group that’s lost 680 games or more. The only one.
For the former Indiana players from the 1970s who played Nebraska four years in a row, it has to be an absolute shock to see that Indiana was an opening-line FAVORITE this week at Nebraska. It’s Nebraska — and not Indiana — that’s struggling to find quality linemen to play with strength and physicality at a high level.
That’s culture — two cultures, really — changing right before our eyes.
Back in the 1970s, Nebraska’s linemen on both sides of the ball usually outweighed their Indiana counterparts by 50 pounds and probably outlifted them by 100 in the weight room. They threw the Hoosiers around like rag dolls in those four games from 1975 through 1978, winning by a combined score of 190-43. Indiana’s coach at the time, Lee Corso, literally threw in the towel one game.
But times change.
Since Tom Allen came to Bloomington in 2016, he has preached and preached and preached about changing the culture of the Indiana football program. We’re finally starting to see results, with Indiana currently at 5-2 — its best start since 2007 — and threatening to make some noise in the Big Ten this season.
And if Allen is in charge of fixing the minds, it’s David Ballou and his staff who are in charge of fixing the bodies.
At Indiana, “Body by Ballou’’ is a real thing. And the changes are obvious.
Ballou: Possibly Allen’s most important hire — and retention
David Ballou, IU's Director of Athletic Performance, grew up in Indiana, went to Avon High School and played fullback for the Hoosiers in the late 1990s. He graduated from IU with a degree in kinesiology and has been all about strength and conditioning ever since.
Now he has that reputation as one of the best athletic performance guys in the business. It was a huge deal when Allen was able to hire him away from Notre Dame in January of 2018, and it was even a bigger deal last winter when Indiana was able to keep him and his colleague, Dr. Matt Rhea, with a big bump in salary when NFL teams and other major colleges came a calling.
“When I was up in South Bend, I knew we were good and would be good for a long time. But when Tom called, there was something that pulled me back down here,’’ Ballou said Tueday outside Indiana’s sparkling new weight room. “I believed in him, and I love Bloomington and I love this unversity. The challenge of coming back down here, I could not say no. I had to come.’’
And then, a year later, he had to stay.
“To get here and have some things come up and then see our administration and our head coach put forth the effort to make sure we got the resources we need, that really says a lot about where this program is going, and where it wants to go,’’ Ballou said.
“We have such big goals here. When we talk about what we want to do here, it’s much bigger than what people have ever talked about here before. Being around these kids every day, and how hard they work, you just want them to be successful.’’
That all means a lot, especially because he’s a Hoosier himself. This is his program, too. Pride in what he does? Absolutely.
“It’s exciting and it drives you. It gets me out of bed at 4:30 every day because I want to be down here,’’ Ballou said. “There’s responsibility and pressure, for sure. But I love that. There’s an added sense of urgency as well, because this is my school, too, and these are my people. I want that success for everyone.’’
Success comes with hard work, high technology
It’s one thing to get players bigger and stronger during the offseason, but for Ballou and his staff, it’s also a high priority to get them even stronger during the course of a long season.
And it’s not just just about throwing some 45-pound discs on the bar anymore. It’s high tech all the way, and Indiana maximizes all that data to perfect every workout for every player.
“Data is such a big part of our operation here and has always been criticial for how we do things here. It has been ever since Dr. Rhea and I got together,’’ Ballou said. “There isn’t a day that goes by, in-season or offseason, where I don’t spend at least two or three hours every day looking at data. It’s that important.
“But anyone can collect data. It’s what you do with it that’s so important.’’
Indiana does it with the latest in modern technology.
“We use this Elite Form system that has 3D cameras on every rack, and it tracks everything, how fast the bar moves, how much weight is on the rack, everything,’’ Ballou said. “And that’s how we get the power numbers, all that data. It’s all right there for us on the back end, so we’re not walking around with clipboards counting things. It adds it all up for us.
“Me and Doc do most of the data and analytics stuff ourselves. I like doing it myself because I can really see what’s going on. It’s more hands-on, and it sits better with me.’’
Ballou has five full-time assistants, each of whom oversee various position groups. They share that data as needed, and make sure everyone is on the same page for what the goals are. Getting bigger, getting better and staying healthy are all top priorities.
“You are never ever ever going to prevent injuries in this sport, but there are things you can do to see certain red flags upfront and do something to fix it before anything happens,’’ said Ballou, who said dozens of guys are posting their best power numbers this late in the season.
“Look, we’re a developmental program here and we felt like we could still make up a lot of ground during the season and be able to be strong when the middle and end of the season gets here. It allows us to finish a season the way we want to.’’
The regulars lift every Monday morning and then again on Wednesday afternoon after practice. “We’re pretty aggressive about that too, probably more than most,’’ he said. The younger guys who aren’t playing as much, or at all, will get a third workout in on Thursday or Friday.
Ballou focuses on “single-leg ratios,’’ so players can be just as strong coming and going in either direction. Data shows exactly what’s going with their bodies on every single workout. So if there’s an issue with a player, if his ratios are bad, there might be a sign that something is wrong physically.
“If there’s something going on with that, we can address it and work on it before something bad happens. The soft-tissue things especially, from our perspective there are things you can do to minimize and even eliminate things like hamstring injuries and such.
"For us, that’s critical. We really dive into ratios and look and right-to-left stuff, and there are things in that data that will tell you things are coming. We see things, and then we know we can get in front of it and eliminate those soft-tissue injuries.’’
Enjoying the players’ success on game days
David Ballou has been a player and a coach, so he certainly knows the game, too. So when his players do something great, he cherishes the moment, too.
“There’s certainly a great deal of satisfaction on game day when you see it show up on the field, because of the relationships you build with these guys, and how far they’ve come,’’ Ballou said. “For example, it’s just an incredible feeling when you see a big guy like (6-foot-8, 358-pound right tackle) Caleb Jones just pull and go out and absolutely flatten a linebacker on a touchdown run down by the goal line, because you know how hard he has worked to be able to move like that, to get his body weight down, to get his hips right.
“You see that smile on his face, and you just love that.’’
Ballou watches film too, but now it’s more for player movement than schematics.
“I’m always looking every position group, every kid, and thinking about what we need to add, or what we need to pull back on,’’ Ballou said. “Your brain never stops. It’s ongoing.
That’s what I was talking about earlier, that single-leg movement, and you watch the positions they’re in, you look for that, and how they accelerate off of one leg or another.
It comes down to small things, but a lot of times, fixing something like that leads to something big the next week.’’
Everyone who knows Ballou, even back to his high school days, knows how driven he is. He wants to be the best, and he wants everyone around him to be the best they can be, too.
“It never stops, the idea of getting better. And that’s especially true in the middle of the season, when there’s so much on the line,’’ he said. “You want to have that edge. I see that in us. I feel that is us. Our strength numbers keep going up, even in Week 8, and that’s huge. It makes a difference between winning and losing sometimes, it really does.’’