When Indiana coach Kevin Wilson started searching for a new defensive coordinator in January, he didn’t know Tom Allen from Woody Allen.
Tom Allen had just completed his first year as the defensive coordinator at South Florida, where his unit ranked in the top 35 nationally in seven statistical categories.
The three years before that, Allen was the linebackers coach at Ole Miss. In his time there, the Rebels went from last in total defense in the SEC to first nationally in scoring defense.
Indiana’s defense, meanwhile, had performed as if led by a comedian like Woody Allen.
In five years under Wilson, the Hoosiers set 54 school records on offense. But in total defense nationally, they finished 109th, 106th, 123rd, 95th and 121st.
So Wilson, fresh off IU’s first bowl game in eight years and with a new six-year contract in hand, followed a tip from his offensive line coach, Greg Frey, a Florida State graduate who played against Nebraska in the 1994 Orange Bowl.
Frey, still with deep Florida ties, wasn’t sure of Allen’s name but told Wilson “the guy at South Florida’’ generated heavy buzz in the coaching grapevine with his work.
At the national coaches’ convention, Wilson contacted Allen to gauge interest. Wilson soon took a day off from recruiting to visit Allen in Tampa, Florida. The men talked for two hours before the subject of defensive scheme came up.
“There was a dynamic spirit about him,’’ Wilson said by phone Tuesday. “I had several guys in mind. I didn’t know Tom, but I knew his pedigree and did some research, and everybody spoke highly of him.
“I was looking for a guy who could work where there was a tempo offense and still play good defense. Everywhere he had been at a program that struggled, he did better. He had been a part of culture change and culture improvement.’’
The hire happened within a few days. Now, Allen’s work for Indiana — Nebraska’s next opponent, on the road Oct. 15 — is generating more buzz.
The Hoosiers, 121st in total defense and 117th in scoring defense last season, are 51st and 40th in those categories. And they are coming off what some are labeling a program-changing victory: 24-21 in overtime against defending Big Ten champion Michigan State.
So what convinced Allen to become IU’s third defensive coordinator in the past six years and the fifth person to hold the title of D-coordinator or co-coordinator in that time?
First was the chance to come home.
Allen grew up in New Castle, Indiana, where his dad was football coach and Sam Alford (father of Hoosier All-American Steve Alford) was the basketball coach. Allen also earned his master’s degree from IU.
Second was the Big Ten Conference.
“A chance to be a coordinator in this league,’’ Allen said, “is a big deal to me.’’
Third was Wilson’s personality and how he has willed the FBS program with the most losses ever into respectability.
“Kevin fills up a room,’’ Allen said of the fast-talking former Oklahoma assistant. “I didn’t know him. I knew of him professionally. He has a lot of energy and excitement. I coach with passion, too.’’
Allen uses a 4-2-5 alignment, with a focus on fleet defenders trying for “takeaways,’’ not “turnovers.’’ If a player uses the word turnovers, Allen makes them do pushups.
“We play a very aggressive brand of defense,’’ Allen said. “Takeaways have been and will continue to be a very big emphasis for us.’’
Allen wasn’t happy Saturday when Michigan State drove 75 yards in the final 4:38 for the tying touchdown. But in overtime, the Hoosiers forced MSU into a three-and-out, including two sacks that pushed a field-goal try back to 49 yards.
The kick was wide, and Indiana countered with a field goal to claim its first victory over a ranked Big Ten opponent in 10 years.
Wilson said he’s not proclaiming his defense “turned around’’ after four games under Allen.
“We’re doing better. We’ll see over time,’’ Wilson said. “We’ll be tested this week by speed from Ohio State. But Tom Allen has done a great job of setting the standard he wants. I’m glad he’s here.’’