Ask anyone who even kind of paid attention to the 2017 Indiana football season, and they’ll tell you it was less than they hoped it would be, and probably even less than it should have been. Top 25 defenses are rarely attached to under .500 teams, after all, and yet Indiana was basically there when the dust settled. Were it a normal season, there would certainly be cause for firing the coach that let such a thing happen. That’s why we’re here, because this wasn’t a normal season. It was Tom Allen’s first season as head coach, and if he got fired at the end of last season for that, you might as well have just shut down Indiana football, because no coach would reasonably accept that level (or more accurately, lack) of job security.
All of that had to be said so that we could get to this point, and really the main question ahead of us today: given that one disappointing year is already in the books, how many more do you accept before you start looking for the next head coach?
Look, I get it: this is Indiana football, perennial occupier of the Big Ten basement, arguably the historical low point for all college football programs to fear falling towards, and all around punching bag year in and year out without fail. And it is for all of those reasons that falling into complacency with mediocre results is just not acceptable. I was in Bloomington for the end of the Bill Lynch term. Here are some of the many things Indiana was at the time: unspectacular, suspect on defense, fully capable of losing to in-state MAC schools, just as capable of getting utterly demolished by conference foes, unable to string together enough wins to make a bowl, less bad than some of the teams they played. Things missing from that list: good, successful, enjoyable to watch for Hoosier fans.
Now, Tom Allen is (in my opinion) far more capable of being a Power 5 head coach than Bill Lynch. The circumstances behind his rise to the big chair are (in a strange way) far more pleasant than those that gave us Lynch. That said, I have seen enough of Indiana football to be wary of coaches like Lynch, Cam Cameron, and Gerry DiNardo. Indiana needed someone like Kevin Wilson (on the field, anyway) to inspire the program back into the mid-tier of the conference. We’re not working with a large margin of error here; it’s not like the SEC, where everyone else in their division gets a chance to play second fiddle to Alabama. If we aren’t at least decent every week, we’re guaranteed no better than a 5th place division finish most years. More often than not, whether we make the postseason rides on getting one or two game results regardless of what happens the rest of the season. The right head coach gets you those games.
Looking back at the second year performances of Indiana recent head coaches, you would be forgiven for thinking that Allen’s seat should even be close to warm yet. The second years of Kevin Wilson (4-8), Bill Lynch (3-9), Terry Hoeppner (5-7, his last season before his untimely death) Gerry DiNardo (2-10), and Cam Cameron (4-7) are far from anything worth writing home about. If you look back even further, the last Indiana head coach to finish .500 or better in his second season was Phil Dickens in 1959. Only 5 times in history has a second year Hoosier head coach finished with a winning record, and the last of those was Bo McMillen in 1935. Suffice to say, this should not be a year where Allen should be concerned.
My real problem is that I don’t know what record I feel good about Indiana having this year. Obviously, anything worse than 4-8 is a major danger sign, but does a second straight 5-7 season qualify as “good enough” to not worry? It took Kevin Wilson until year 5 to finally get Indiana up to 6 wins; is the athletic department prepared to give Tom Allen that long? Bill Lynch got 4 years to prove that he didn’t make a bowl just because he had Terry Hoeppner’s players (spoilers: it totally was); is that the level of patience we should have, given that Allen nearly made a third consecutive bowl with a Kevin Wilson team?
For what it’s worth, I want nothing more than for this article to be looked back on in December as reeking of undeserved pessimism. I hope that Tom Allen wins at least 6 games, leads Indiana back into the postseason, and continues to do so for many years to come. I would be ecstatic if he ends up in Indiana history as the second coming of Bill Mallory, the head coach responsible for more than half of Indiana’s current bowl history. It is simply a lifetime of following Indiana football that has gotten me to this conclusion, and I couldn’t be happier to be proven wrong than in this case.
Circling back to the question I asked near the top, that of how many years do you wait before moving on, this is the best answer I can figure right now, in April 2018: Year 2 is a given; nothing less than a major scandal is likely to knock Tom Allen out of his job before September.
After that? Your guess is as good as mine.