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Tom Allen, 1-on-1: Memorable 2020 Season Nearly Never Happened

For the longest time in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic had the Big Ten so scared that there was almost no football season at all. Imagine all the wonderful memories that would have been lost.

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – When the COVID-19 pandemic had a serious grip on the nation in 2020 and thousands of people were dying every day, there was some serious doubt whether there would be a college football season at all.

Can you imagine all the memories lost if that had never happened? Because when it all played out, 2020 was one of the most memorable Indiana football seasons ever.

  • Can you imagine not having Michael Penix Jr. soar through the air like Superman and score the two-point conversion to beat No. 7 Penn State for only the second time in school history?
  • Can you imagine not whipping up on Jim Harbaugh's khakis and pushing the mighty Michigan Wolverines around like they did to Indiana for 40 years, and winning for the first time on 25 tries.
  • Can you imagine not shutting out Michigan State like they were a directional school, never once threatening to score.
  • Can you imagine, even in defeat, not witnessing Penix throw for 491 yards against national championship contender Ohio State? It was the greatest performance in Indiana football history that was witnessed by ZERO fans in person.

Can you imagine? None of it? Tom Allen hates to even think about how all the things his Indiana football program accomplished in 20202 despite COVID almost never happened. We talked about it at length in an exclusive 35-minute interview with Sports Illustrated Indiana. 

"Absolutely, it would have been terrible if none of that would have ever happened,'' Allen said. "It just shows you never know how things are going to play themselves out, which is why you just stay the course and do things the right way and control whatever you can control. 

"At the end of the day, we didn't make the decision to cancel the season, and we didn't make the decision to move back. We were part of the discussions, yes, but we we just did what we were told to do. But yes, it could have just as easily not happened at all. It was looking that way for a while.''

The Big Ten was the first major conference to postpose the fall football season last summer. Commissioner Kevin Warren thought he was being the leader in the fight to keep everyone safe, and the Pac-12 soon followed.

But the SEC, ACC and Big 12 scoffed at the Big Ten's overreaction and decided to play a fall season after all. And once that happened, it looked for the longest time that there would be no Big Ten season at all, because playing in the spring became moot once the SEC and ACC especially didn't come along.

It all could have been lost. Finally, once the Big Ten realized they weren't going to be part of an actual college football season, they changed their mind and played an eight-game conference-only schedule that started in late October and ran into early December.

The season was saved, and memories were made. That very first week, Indiana had that dramatic overtime win over Penn State, and that was just a start. 

"At the time, we just tried to focus on what we could control and live in that world,'' Allen said. "When you look back, you think, 'wow, what a year it would have been to miss if we didn't play.'

"It's just an interesting dynamic of life. It's another great reminder that you don't dwell on things you can't control. It's just a wasted energy. Don't dwell on the past, because once it's done, it's done You learn from it and move on. And whatever happens, you just have to be ready to go. We learned a valuable lesson about life.''

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The hardest part of all the COVID protocols for Allen was not being able to have his whole team together. Everyone was sectioned off to limit massive outbreaks. They couldn't all practice together, or work out together, or even eat together. Bagged lunches are one thing, we've all done that at times in our life, but these guys ate three meals a day from a bag back in their apartments, and not in the cafeteria with their teammates.

"Without question, it's going to be great to see people again and have everyone together,'' Allen said.  "We don't know what that's going to look like yet, but just the idea being out there will be nice. We know the vaccine will play a big part in that, and in what we'll be able to do, but to just not to have all those restrictions, and not wearing masks all the time and staying apart, that will be nice Just having our players back together as one group will mean a lot.''

There was nothing normal about the 2020 season, and it was especially difficult on the freshman, who never had a taste of any real college life.

"Our freshmen have never really had a chance to experience college. They didn't go to class on a consistent basis with other students, they didn't have any interaction with the rest of the student body,'' Allen said. "The guys who just got here have never felt what it's like to be a student at Indiana. We were so separated all the time, that a lot of the older talked about how they didn't even know some of the freshmen on the team, because we were never allowed to be together.

"The last time we traveled in conference play at Wisconsin, we had no meals together. We grabbed to-go boxes and ate in our rooms. We didn't have any meetings together at the hotel. Not one. It was always just in small groups. It didn't feel like being part of a team at all. Just to be able to get back in our team room will be nice. You don't have that feel of being a tight-knit group. We're not there yet, but I sure look forward to that day.''

Allen did say that all the isolation made friendships grow quickly with the guys in the small groups together. It had to, because those were the only people you could see.

"There's no question the players got closer, because they not only weren't allowed to be with other students, they weren't even allowed to be with a lot of their other teammates,'' Allen said. "They lifted with certain groups, and we had everybody sectioned off because of the contract tracing and such.

"We had different shifts in the weight room, and we were never all together in there. We couldn't use our team room at all. We had to go to Henke Hall and sit at different tables and there was a bad echo, so it just wasn't the same. The bigger the team, the more issues it created, I suppose because you're dealing with so many more people. There was no doubt, when you were in that group, you had no choice but to get closer.''

For a coach who's constantly preaching "LEO,'' loving each other and sacrificing for your teammates, he can't wait to just have everyone on the same page and in the same room again. 

The 2020 season provided a ton of great memories, and the thought of none of that happening is terrifying.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the third of a seven-part series from publisher Tom Brew's exclusive one-on-one interview with Indiana football coach Tom Allen. Next up: How COVID stole the Old Oaken Bucket

  • TOM ALLEN, Part 1: It's finally time for Indiana to be able to talk about contending for a Big Ten title, and coach Tom Allen has told his players exactly that. CLICK HERE
  • TOM ALLEN, Part 2: Michael Penix Jr. has been great when he's been on the field, but has been injured three seasons in a row. Keeping him healthy is a must. CLICK HERE 
  • INDIANA 2021 SCHEDULE: Here is Indiana's complete 2021 football season, with 12 regular season games, nine in the league and three nonconference games. CLICK HERE
  • HER BOYS ARE HOME: Darnell McCullough has all of her boys staying home at Indiana, with three of them committing to the Hoosiers in the past two weeks. "Who's got it better than me?'' she says. Here's the behind-the-scenes story on how it all came together. CLICK HERE