BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – Indiana football coach Tom Allen has talked at length about how great the 2020 season was, despite being played in the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic in front of no fans all year long.
It was great ... until it wasn't.
Indiana won six of its first seven games, many in dramatic fashion, but they couldn't make it to the finish line. Their final game of the regular season on Dec. 12 against arch-rival Purdue had to be postponed because of massive COVID-19 issues inside both programs. They tried to play it again the following week, on Friday, Dec. 18, but that couldn't happen, either.
The specifics of what went on during those two weeks really hasn't been discussed, because both programs were quiet about what was exactly going on, in hopes of play the game the following week.
But as it turned out, there were massive COVID outbreaks at both schools, and it was happening simultaneously. It was the first time that Indiana and Purdue hadn't played football in a season since 1919,
"Yes, we were having the same problems they were having and, at first, we honestly didn't know that,'' Allen said during an exclusive 35-minute interview with HoosiersNow. "You only know what you're dealing with yourself, but we have a good enough relationship, AD to AD, and coaches to coaches, to be able to have conversations and figure out that, hey, they've got the same situation going on that we do.''
The Hoosiers had won at Wisconsin the previous Saturday, and when they got back to Bloomington, several players tested positive during their daily testing on Sunday and Monday. In all, more than 30 Hoosiers tested positive, and they had to be quarantined for 21 days. Several others had to be pulled out of practices and/or workouts as well because of the contact tracing protocols.
Suddenly, and practically overnight, Allen didn't have a healthy team any more.
"I knew as every day passed, you knew there was going to be a problem, because it happened in a hurry. In a day, it was like wham, and the very next day we had 30-plus guys who were out,'' Allen said. "And with all the guys who were close to those guys, we're like, man, we can't even play.
"We started making phone calls to them, and they were having the same exact situation. Nobody wants to be the reason to cancel; you don't want to be that team. But I guess it was nice to know that both teams were having similar issues. It wasn't because of one, it was because of both.''
Allen hated the situation in real time, because this was the Old Oaken Bucket game, of all things. The Hoosiers had won it back in overtime at West Lafayette in 2019, and he wanted to win it again – in Bloomington.
But it didn't happen.
"That was definitely the case in our situation, and it was really frustrating because we couldn't have played if we wanted to. There were too many guys out,'' Allen said. "It was what it was, and there was nothing we could do about it. It was very unfortunate because we wanted to play the game and they wanted to play the game, and we really wanted it for our fan base. It was very disappointing for sure, but it became pretty obvious to both sides that it wasn't going to happen.''
The first try on Dec. 12 was postponed early in the week, and several other Big Ten games had been postponed as well during the fast-break eight-week schedule that was planned. A ninth week, including the Big Ten Championship Game, was in place to accommodate crossover games for everyone between divisions. Indiana was originially scheduled to play Iowa, but after the Purdue game was postponed, the final week's schedule was changed to try to get the Bucket game in.
That didn't happen, either, and even though nothing was said publicly at the time, Allen said this week that the was almost never a chance of the game getting pulled off.
"It was a slim chance, because when you think about it, once a guy tests positive, they were out for 21 days, because I don't think they had changed it to 17 days yet. You were in a tough spot. The only chance you had was that enough of the guys who were out before would come back that next week to be able to play.
"We knew right away that it was going to be hard to pull that off, even though it just wasn't discussed publicly. We talked and I don't know how it was going to change much. We had to try to see who would be available, but instead of getting better, it was getting worse. We had more coaches get it, more players, practically half the team. We had no choice to cancel it at the end.''
Allen said that entire position groups weren't even available had they tried to practice. It was the craziest thing he'd ever experienced as a coach.
"That's the thing that people don't understand when that happens,'' Allen said. "We had position groups completely wiped out, and they couldn't do anything for three weeks, doing nothing, and that's what really even affected even our bowl prep. It really had lasting ramifications, without question.''
Several Big Ten teams went through the same thing in the shortened schedule, and the Big Ten was sort of adjusting on the fly from beginning to end. The league, the first to postpone the fall season, didn't start playing games until Oct. 24. The plan was to play an eight-game schedule, but the conference title game and crossover games in that ninth week.
The league also first announced that teams needed to play a minimum of six games to be able to qualify for the conference championship game. There was a lot of angst flying everywhere – especially from Indiana fans – when the league let 5-0 Ohio State play in the title game anyway.
Indiana at 6-1 and in second place in the Big Ten East, should have been allowed to play Northwestern for the title based on the original October rule. But once Indiana missed a game too, the Big Ten threw out the rule and Ohio State wound up beating Northwestern and making the College Football Playoff, where they beat Clemson and then lost to Alabama in the national title game.
Indiana fans are still angry about that, but the truth is, the Hoosiers wouldn't have been able to play in the title game anyway with nearly four dozen people out, either through positive tests or contact tracing.
That would have hurt even worse.
"There was really no way we could have played either of those weekends,'' Allen said. "It was bad enough that it hit so fast after the Wisconsin game, but what was really frustrating was that it kept getting worse, not better. It was terrible.''
It certainly put a damper on a brilliant season. Many years for the Indiana football, the Old Oaken Bucket game with Purdue is the ONLY game that matters. That wasn't the case in 2020, for many reasons, good and bad.
Including very bad.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the fourth of a seven-part series from publisher Tom Brew's exclusive one-on-one interview with Indiana football coach Tom Allen. Next up: Playing a bowl game with no preparation.
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