IU and its football coaching woes

December 1, 2022

The Tom Allen era at Indiana University is over. I write that with sadness. Certainly IU Athletic Director Scott Dolson is working the phones right now, calling wealthy alums to manage the $25M or so buyout costs associated with terminating Coach Allen’s contract. Even at this cost the buyout will be a bargain. We should, however, be realistic about what it might take to find someone who can be successful as Head Football Coach at IU. This commentary focuses on two things in IU’s coach hiring history: the repeated failures of promoting assistant coaches; and the sheer difficulty of finding a successful coach for a major collegiate sport.

During the last 40 years, IU has promoted assistant coaches to become head coaches of major sports teams four times (twice in football):

  • Mike Davis, who succeeded Bob Knight as IU Basketball Coach. He coached from 2000–2006 winning .592 of the games he coached. IU went to NCAA championship game in his first year coaching the team. From there it was downhill.
  • Mike Freitag, the longtime assistant to Jerry Yeagley who succeeded Yeagley when the latter retired at the end of 2003. Coach Frietag’s men soccer team won the NCAA championship in 2004 but it was downhill from there to the end of his tenure in 2009 (86-32-19 or .667)
  • Bill Lynch, who replaced the effective and beloved Terry Hoeppner as IU Football Coach when Coach Hep died of Brain Cancer. Lynch was the emotional choice to be promoted as part of the general mourning associated with Hoeppner’s passing. From 2007–2010 Lynch’s teams went 19–30 (.388).
  • Tom Allen, who succeeded Kevin Wilson after the latter resigned at the end of 2016 amid accusations of player mistreatment.

Not one of IU’s promotions of an assistant coach to head coach was successful in the long run. There’s a lesson here: don’t do that again. (Note: During the last 40 years IU never promoted an assistant coach to head coach in Women’s Basketball nor Men’s Baseball and has enjoyed long term success in both sports.)

But beyond that clear lesson of what not to do, what TO do is not at all obvious. For example, one might have thought that at IU it would have been straightforward to find a suitable successor to Coach Knight as basketball coach. In reality it took 21 years. In addition to Mike Davis, IU stumbled through the following Basketball Head Coaches:

  • Kelvin Sampson (2006-2008), who proved that it is possible for a head coach to be stupid enough to lose two jobs in a row breaking the same simple and clear recruiting rule over and over again. (Coach Sampson seems never to have understood the concept of phone records and repeatedly violated limits on number of calls to potential recruits).
  • Dan Dakich (end of 2008 season), who as a favor to IU coached for 7 games to fill out the season Sampson was fired and thus deserves our gratitude.
  • Tom Crean (2008-2017), who was a really wonderful person and a credit to the IU and Bloomington communities. He was, however, unable to win consistently or maintain player discipline as a coach at IU. His greatest accomplishment as a basketball coach was probably recruiting Duane Wade to play for him at Marquette. 
  • Archie Miller (2017-2021), whose biggest accomplishment was making all of the above look like great coaches.

IU finally has, with Coach Woodson, a basketball head coach who is successful on the court and a good leader and good person off the court. It took more than two decades. And that is at IU, a longstanding men’s basketball powerhouse that should have been a magnet for top coaching talent.

Let’s look at football, with the beloved Bill Mallory as perhaps ideal of what IU might hope for in a football coach. Coach Mallory’s contract was not renewed at the end of 1996. From then to today we have:

  • Cam Cameron (1997–2001). Coach Cameron had been a dual sport threat as a student at IU, ran an excellent program, but didn’t win enough. (18-37; .327).
  • Gary DiNardo (2002-2004). Coach DiNardo won even less than Coach Cameron, but always had creative excuses for each and every loss. (8–27; .229).
  • Terry Hoeppner (2005-2006). Coach Hep was the real deal. I happened to be in the stands when IU beat the heavily favored Iowa here in Bloomington home during his second season. Cancer cut his life and his career tragically short. That wretched disease shortened his career to just 23 games (9–14; .391).
  • Bill Lynch (2007–2010).  Discussed above.
  • Kevin Wilson (2011-2016). When hired by IU Kevin Wilson lived for a while in an apartment on campus. One night during this time he walked, drunk, into the entrance of a dorm other than the location of his temporary abode. When the dorm night guard stopped him, Wilson began screaming, “Do you know who I am?” over and over till IUPD showed up, rescued the student dorm guard from the much larger Wilson, and escorted Wilson to his apartment. Wilson’s time at IU ended in a resignation prompted by the threat of legal action being prepared on behalf of student athletes who asserted that Wilson and his staff had been abusive.  On top of the issues of his personal character, Wilson’s teams lost a lot (26–46; .361).
  • Tom Allen (2016-2022). Discussed above.

So there you have it: 25 years, six coaches, almost all of whom were seemingly reasonable choices at the time they were hired, and the only person who turned out to be a good hire died tragically two years after arriving at IU. Note that in the above I have put emphasis on the character and the win/loss record of head coaches. Joe Paterno taught us the importance of character.

What happens for IU football now? The student athlete transfer portal makes rebuilding easier than in years past. If IU could collect one second string offensive lineman from each existing B1G team through the student portal, it would have a second-rate offensive line that would be a vast improvement over the current iteration. IU however is just not an attractive place to be a football coach. The fan base is uncommitted (not without cause) and the facilities are ….  adequate. One thing we can count on is that the next coach will be expensive. What we can hope for is someone like Coach Woodson: an effective coach and an upstanding person. Unfortunately the only thing we can know for certain about head coach hiring decisions it that it’s impossible to know whether a good decision was made until years after the fact.

A very reasonable question was asked about this situation: why not just let Coach Allen play out the remaining 5 years of his contract? First, that would be cruel to IU football fans. But more importantly it would hurt IU student athletes in the so-called “minor” sports – from tennis to field hockey to rowing. The cost of buying out his contract will be born by wealthy alums, who will make donations specifically to enable IU to move forward. The side effect of poor income for IU football would hurt other sports. Athletics is in IU budget terms an auxiliary and over the long run it has to balance its budget. The university isn’t supposed to subsidize it. And any financial program in the US that does not have football as its top source of income is financially imbalanced. I’m by no means a sports authority but I stayed to the end of the first three games this year. Even though all three ended in wins, it was not good football. Five more years of this would wreck the budgets for other sports. There is I suppose an alternative model: IU could become one of these schools where the football team travels most of the season, expecting to be beat and be paid decently for it along the way. But IU has at times in the past managed to have good football teams. There’s no reason to think it is impossible in the future. Just hard.