BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – Tom Allen is a great public speaker, and he can get long-winded at times when answering a question, which is a wonderful when you're in my line of work. He's always willing to share an opinion, regardless of the topic.
So this week, during an exclusive 35-minute one-on-one interview with the popular and successful Indiana football coach, it started with a question from me – and a stunning Allen answer, if only for its brevity.
Right out of the box, I asked him this:
"It's probably been more than 50 years since a reporter who covers Indiana football has asked this question of the Indiana football coach, but has the time come to starting seriously talking about winning a Big Ten championship?"
Allen's answer, all of it?
And that was it.
Thankfully, I was well prepared with a follow-up question, something along the lines of how he communicates that goal with his team in the present time, and he was great with that response, too.
"To answer that question three years ago, to say how soon we could actually start talking about a goal like that, I don't think you really know for sure. I might have thought it would have taken longer to get there, to be honest. I understand we have a very difficult schedule, and a lot of challenges ahead of us, but it is a goal. No question, it is a goal.''
Allen said that he didn't want his team talking winning a conference title when he first got to Indiana in 2017, because it wasn't realistic. He actually made a point of NOT talking about it, not until they were ready.
Well, they're ready now.
"I have never really spoken to the team about it until this offseason,'' Allen said. "We made a point of that. In fact, when I first took over, I intentionally made our team stop breaking down on whatever we were doing on 'Big Ten Champs.'
"I didn't want to hear it, because I felt it was empty words and the guys saying didn't really know what that meant. It was not a realistic goal for us. So I told the guys, 'stop doing it.'
That changed in January when the Hoosiers came back from their bowl game, a difficult 26-20 loss to Ole Miss in the Outback Bowl in Tampa. All the magical moments of 2020 – the wins over ranked teams Penn State, Michigan and Wisconsin that rarely occur for Indiana football teams – set the stage for 2021.
And set the stage for lofty goals.
"It's taken this many years to get to this point,'' Allen said. "We had our first meeting when we came back the bowl game, and the charge there, when we talked about our new word, which was 'CHASE', that's when I said that they now had my permission to say 'Big Ten Champs' when we break things down, and we'll start talking about it now.
"It's something we've put in front of our guys, and that's what we're chasing.''
There may not be a more positive person on this planet than Allen, but he is also very smart and very realistic. His optimism knows no bounds, but it does know boundaries. He was exactly right it waiting to talk about Big Ten championships until it was truly a reachable goal.
He's convinced that time has come, and now it's on him and his staff to convince every player – and not such some of them – to be 100 percent all-in. That's what it takes.
And do they believe?
"I believe so, but that's going to be the key. It has to go from believing that to expecting that,'' Allen said. "I feel like last year most of the guys believed, when we took the field against Ohio State, that we could beat them. But I don't think the majority of our team expected us to win, and that's what we have to change.''
Indiana lost 42-35 at Ohio State last year despite being 22-point underdogs to the eventual Big Ten champs and national runner-up. The Hoosiers rallied in the second half, and had their chances to win. It was their only loss of the regular season, and it decided the Big Ten East race.
What 2020 brought was further proof of has quickly this program is improving under Allen. They beat then No. 7-ranked Penn State for just the second time in 24 tries in the season opener, and two weeks later pushed around No. 23 Michigan in Bloomington, beating the Wolverines for the first time in 25 tries, and only the second time in the last 40 meetings.
That's a turning tide.
There were other magical moments, like winning at Michigan State for the first time since 2001 and getting just their second win against the Spartans in the past 12 meetings. The 24-0 was impressive in its dominance – the Spartans gained only 191 yards all day and never threatened to score.
In December, they grabbed a rare win at Wisconsin when they beat the No. 16-ranked Badgers 14-6 in Jack Tuttle's first-ever start at quarterback. The defense was again dominant, allowing just two field goals while snapping a 10-game losing streak to the Badgers and winning in Madison for the first time since 2001.
That, too, was a long time ago.
What those four wins proved was that the Hoosiers have turned the corner. They are now legitimately one of the better teams in the Big Ten. We've talked a lot in the past two years about how Indiana could cross that line of demarcation in the Big Ten East, which has always been owned by Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan and Michigan State through the years, with Indiana, Maryland and Rutgers stuck in the bottom.
The Hoosiers have crushed that line in 2020, and now the big question is, can they sustain it?
For the Big Ten title talk to be real, Indiana is going to have to win at Iowa in the opener, win at Penn State and at Michigan, and somehow find a way to beat Ohio State on Oct. 23 in Bloomington.
Ask Tom Allen if that's all possible, and he will say yes. Ask his players, and they will say the same thing.
Hear this, and hear it loud. It is very possible that Indiana can contend for a Big Ten title this year. That's saying a lot, considering they've only won two league titles EVER, once in 1945 and once in 1967. The '45 title is the only one they've won outright.
Can 2021 be next?
Sure it can. And considering that Indiana still has the WORST record all-time of any Power 5 school, to look at them as contenders is something new.
And if you ask me if I think Indiana can contend for a Big Ten title, I'm taking the Tom Allen approach and giving you a succinct answer.
Simply, here it is:
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first of a seven-part series from publisher Tom Brew's exclusive one-on-one interview with Indiana football coach Tom Allen. Next up: Michael Penix Jr. in 2021.
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