In Indiana football coach Tom Allen’s first head coaching job at a Florida high school in the early 1990s, he announced the team motto as “dare to believe.”

Allen said that first job has been reminiscent of many of his almost one dozen coaching stops through high school and college in the past three decades, leading teams out of losing eras and into newfound success. And he reminds himself of the journey that he, his wife and their kids have all taken by displaying on a wall in his house all the license plates he’s accumulated in that time, from Arkansas to Iowa to Mississippi.

Right next to that decoration is another photo of a quote that starts, “Wherever you are, be all there.” It was as he was explaining this in his news conference Monday, how he pours his heart into every player he coaches, that Allen’s emotions overwhelmed him.

The tears and shaky breaths were understandable, considering the position Allen and his Indiana team have engineered for themselves. The Hoosiers are 4-0 and the No. 9 team in the nation, the first time they’ve cracked the Top 10 since 1969. They’re set to encounter 21-point favorite Ohio State on Saturday, ranked No. 3 and a consistent national powerhouse.

Plus, Allen’s son, junior linebacker Thomas Allen, endured a major hip injury in this past Saturday’s 24-0 victory over Michigan State that required season-ending surgery.

“Been a long journey, my kids have sacrificed, my wife. That’s why I hurt so much for Thomas,” Tom Allen said, fighting back a sob, “because I know what he’s been through to get here. So he’s [tough].”

Allen first came to Indiana as the defensive coordinator in 2016, turning around one of the worst units in the country in only one season before taking over as head coach ahead of the bowl game. His first two full seasons were 5-7 records with only two Big Ten wins each season before going 8-5 in 2019, 5-4 in conference play.

Now the Hoosiers seem on the precipice of what the Gophers accomplished last season, managing the most wins or best start to a season in more than 100 years. But just as Penn State stood in Minnesota’s path in 2019, the Buckeyes are a towering obstacle in the Hoosiers’ way.

Ohio State has dominated this matchup, having not lost to the Hoosiers since 1988.

But Allen isn’t preoccupied with how big an underdog his team is to take the Big Ten East. He’s actually never put much stock in worrying about an unknowable future, saying he learned long ago from his faith to trust everything would be OK.

And considering the long and winding road of his career led him to this moment — a top-10 matchup on the national stage — that seems to have worked out for him so far.

“I love this place. I love these kids. We’re going to fight, man,” Allen said. “I don’t care what anybody says about this stinkin’ game. We’re going to compete. We’re going to fight. And good Lord willing, we’re going to find a way and keep proving everybody wrong.

“That’s all I got to say.”

 

Megan Ryan covers the Gophers and college football for the Star Tribune. megan.ryan@startribune.com

Twitter: @theothermegryan