BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – The question came, as eloquent as ever from the sagacious chronicler, and then Indiana defensive coordinator Kane Wommack had a bit of a "Jerry Maguire'' moment.
"You're going to get me teary-eyed, Tom, to be honest with you,'' Wommack said.
My question to Wommack on Monday was about what it meant personally to see Tom Allen be able to enjoy Indiana's stunning 36-35 overtime win over No. 8 Penn State on Saturday. It was the first time Indiana had beaten a top-10 teams since knocking off Ohio State on Oct. 10, 1987, a mere 33 years ago.
On that day, Kane Wommack, the son of a football coach, was four months old.
"It always means a lot as a team when you prepare and you work hard and you believe in what you're doing, but to do it for someone in my role for Tom Allen just means a little bit more,'' Wommack said. "Tom is a special man, and he is a genuine person that believes in this football team and he believes in this coaching staff. He holds us to a very high standard, on and off the field, and to be able to be rewarded as the head coach for his relentless nature was a special thing.
"Good things happen to good people, and bad things happen to good people. But, boy, when good things happen to good people, it's something to be celebrated. And that's certainly the case for Tom Allen.''
Tom Allen is the son of a football coach, too. He grew up in New Castle, Ind., and played high school football there for his dad. He was still in high school in 1987 when his New Castle neighbor Steve Alford led Indiana to a national basketball championship. That was a very good year to be in Bloomington, maybe the best year ever.
Allen's endless and boundless enthusiasm has had critics label him as "just a high school coach'' and someone who's "in over his head.'' He's also never held back from talking about the promise of Indiana football, of having winning seasons, winning bowl games and, dare we say, winning the Big Ten someday. During an emotional postgame speech to his team in addressing those critics, he screamed "I don't care.''
He knows. His coaches know. His players know, too. Indiana football, it's coming.
Those lofty goals start with beating the bluebloods that they share the Big Ten East with. That first opportunity came Saturday, and Indiana answered the bell, winning despite being a 6-point underdog and letting a late lead slip away.
Allen has always kept the faith. He believes in his vision. He believes in his players. And most importantly, for our purposes today, he firmly believes in his coaching staff.
Two years ago, Allen replaced himself with Wommack as Indiana's defensive coordinator, who's just 33 years old. He did it because he believed in him, and had no doubts about his ability.
It was no different last winter when he promoted Nick Sheridan to offensive coordinator. He believed in Sheridan's abilities, and Allen never blinked. And now Indiana is primed to do something special with the youngest pair of coordinators in major-college football.
Sheridan wasn't even born yet on that October 1987 day, but he did arrive seven months later. Sheridan, also the son of a football coach, was born on May 21, 1988 in Saline, Mich.
Allen trusts his vision for this program to these two young guys. And that respect? It absolutely runs both ways.
Evaluating their performances
When Kalen DeBoer left in January to become the head coach at Fresno State, Allen didn't hesitate in promoting Sheridan to offensive coordinator. Even though he's only 32, he has a lot of coaching experience already and he's a former Big Ten quarterback at Michigan who knows what it takes to win.
He also learned a lot from DeBoer and Allen wanted continuity in the offense. Sheridan delivers that, but it was still the best pregame storyline, to see what kind of game he would call in his first time out as the offensive coordinator and play-caller.
Indiana's offense struggled for most of the game, but rallied late on an impressive drive to tie the game, and then win it in overtime. When it's all over and the win is in the bank, you feel better about things, but there's certainly a lot to work on.
And a lot to evaluate, especially from Sheridan.
"The performance of the offense falls on my shoulders, and I first look at myself in ways that I could be better," Sheridan said Monday. "I think when you evaluate yourself as a play-caller, you are trying to see if the plays that you called schematically are sound, that if the players executed at the level that you are expecting them to, do we have a good play? If we block the right people, if we run the correct routes, if we make the right reads, if we executed at the level we expect, is it sound schematically? Are we having people accounted for in the run game? Do we have receivers open in the throw game? Are we protected the correct way?
"Without a doubt, there are plays at every game you look back and you say 'I wish I had called something else.' I think there is always that. That is going to happen every game. There are however many plays, 60, 70, maybe 80 snaps. There are always going to be games, every game, you are going to look back and say 'Man, I wish I would have called something different there.' There were plenty of plays where I felt comfortable with the call and we needed to execute a little better, and there are plenty of plays I felt like I can do a better job.''
My initial reactions where they he was a bit conservative early. He ran the ball on first down on each of the first three series, gaining just 1 yard all three times and putting Michael Penix Jr. and the Indiana offense in tough down-and-distance situations.
It was the first game, so you don't really know how good you are, especially against a stout defense like Penn State's. Some calls don't work, but maybe they're setting up something else, too. It's live-and-learn as the game went on, and adjusting accordingly. Sheridan pushed all the right buttons late, so that's mission accomplished, more or less.
'I could put our players in a better position to be successful and you're constantly evaluating that. You're trying to be your toughest critic,'' Sheridan said. "You're always open to suggestions from the other guys on the staff because they can see it from a different lens.''
And his own self-evaluation?
"We had communication Sunday on things that we would have done differently, could have done differently, to try to make it easier on the players,'' Sheridan said. "Then, there are sometimes the players just have got to execute better, too, and they know that. We communicate that very clearly and very honestly with the players.
"Ultimately, the performance of the offense falls on my shoulders and starts with the play-call. Obviously, it ends with the execution. Did we execute the play properly? In some cases, we did. In some cases, we did not.''
Like everyone, getting through the first game was a big thing for Sheridan. Areas that need work, like better play from the offensive line, should open up more things going forward.
"Getting better every day is important, and that's our goal now as we head into this week,'' he said. "I have a lot of confidence in these guys and what we're doing, and we'll get better from here.''
Wommack's penchant for aggressiveness
In Wommack's second year as defensive coordinator, he's got the best and most experienced group Indiana has had for a while. There's plenty of depth too, so he can dial up things however he wants.
He likes dialing up.
"To be honest with you, I thought I called the game aggressive. I called it to win,'' Wommack said. "You have to take some chances to win big games, and I thought we did that up until the last three minutes of the game.''
Wommack took full responsibility for Indiana getting beat on a 60-yard deep ball from Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford to Jahan Dotson that gave Penn State the lead late.
'We gave up a big play at the very end, that was inexcusable and it was my fault. I put us in a bad situation schematically,'' he said. "I have to do a better job for our players to give them a chance to go win us the football game, and I did not think I did that on that call particularly.''
Indiana hasn't won games like this is the past, and their inability to close out games has haunted the program for years. Finishing has been a point of emphasis throughout the entire offseason, and that didn't happen Saturday, despite the defense doing a great job of stopping the run and playing tight coverage on Penn State's dangerous receivers for most of the day.
"To me, when you look at a great defense, great defenses find a way to make the kill at the end,'' Wommack said. "We use the analogy of a wolfpack and how they hunt, but they only get rewarded if they can make the kill.
"You go back and look at Tennessee in the bowl game, you go look at the Penn State game with three minutes and 30 seconds left to go in the game and we were up 20-14. We have to learn how to make a kill, myself included, in terms of how we finish.''
The joy of football being a team game, Indiana's offense rescued them in the end. It was just the opposite early in the game, when Wommack's group forced three turnovers, which left short fields and turned into 17 points.
Team effort, team win. That's 1-0 and moving forward. Indiana not only won a game, but they also learned a lot about themselves. There's room for growth, but that's even more fun when you're still winning anyway.
"You can talk about it all you want, but when you experience that type of situation, and find a way to finish the game and win the game, it is a powerful thing,'' Allen said. 'It's great for our kids. They deserved it because they work so hard and I am so proud of them.
"It is a crazy game we play and the ball can bounce a lot of different ways. You can do a lot of great things and still come up short. We did a lot of things wrong as well, but I was just really encouraged by the ability to focus when it counted the most and make those plays.''