Replacing his defensive coordinator was Tom Allen’s priority in early January, but a text from a familiar number grabbed his attention.
It was Deland McCullough, whose last year as Indiana’s running backs coach overlapped with Allen’s first season as defensive coordinator in 2016. McCullough didn’t need a job, not as an assistant for the reigning Super Bowl champion and soon-to-be AFC champion Kansas City Chiefs, but when he saw Allen needed a new running backs coach, he was curious whether there might be any interest in a reunion.
So McCullough, in the middle of compiling a game plan for the Chiefs’ offense, stopped what he was doing, picked up his phone and began drafting a message to his former colleague. Included in the note were seven words that caught Allen by surprise: “I want to come back to IU,” McCullough wrote.
“That was a text I wasn’t expecting, to be honest with you,” Allen said Wednesday. “When I read it, I was like, ‘Seriously?’”
Allen was giddy, so much so that when he bumped into one of his staffers soon after exchanging texts with McCullough, the IU coach couldn’t keep it a secret. “You’re not gonna believe who’s interested in this job,” Allen told the unnamed assistant. From there, a hiring plan was set in motion, one that Allen and McCullough kept quiet over the ensuing weeks. The move, which would return McCullough to his old job as IU’s running backs coach while also giving him the elevated title of associate head coach, wouldn’t be made official until the day the Chiefs’ season came to its conclusion. That day was Super Bowl Sunday.
McCullough did what he set out to do at football’s highest level, but staying there wasn’t necessarily the plan. He wanted to become a better, smarter, more accomplished coach, and during his three-year run with the Chiefs, McCullough met his objectives.
Now, it’s Indiana that stands to benefit.
“My whole thing with going to the NFL was to learn and earn respect,” McCullough said. “The learning part for me was to come back to college and make me a better coach. That was my goal in the NFL. As a position coach and doing some of the things we accomplished as a team, I accomplished what I wanted to accomplish by going there. The IU circumstance — every year there have been opportunities to go back to college; none that I sought out. When I saw that opportunity, I hit Tom up as soon as I saw it.”
Though he and Allen spent only one season working on the same staff under former IU coach Kevin Wilson — McCullough took the running backs job at Southern California in March 2017, three months after Allen was installed as Wilson’s successor — their time together left a mark on McCullough. That’s because Allen did the unthinkable during that 2016 season and turned a moribund defense into one of the most improved units in the country.
Scheme and coaching were no doubt part of the Hoosiers’ defensive rebirth that year, but it was the way Allen approached the challenge, leading with compassion and empathy, that those in Bloomington have long credited for the initial improvement. And it wasn’t lost on McCullough — or, really, anyone who was paying attention. Like Kansas City head coach Andy Reid, who spoke glowingly of Allen during a discussion with McCullough earlier this month.
“When I talked to Coach Reid about this, he started talking about Tom like he knew him,” McCullough said. “I said, ‘You know him?’ He said, ‘No, but I can see his energy. I can see what he’s doing.’ Everybody says the same thing. You’re talking even from an NFL vantage point. They’re talking about Tom Allen and the commitment that the university has made and that it’s clearly starting to show and pay dividends. That was further confirmation for me. Not that I needed it, but the more I articulated the fact that I wanted to come to Indiana and the reasons why, the stronger I felt about it.”
Beyond familiarity, the biggest pull for McCullough was the elevated role Allen offered. Though he’s a very good running backs coach, McCullough sees himself one day earning a role as something more. He’s been taking steps toward more prominent positions for years now, and as IU’s new associate head coach, McCullough will be given duties that spread far beyond mentoring Indiana’s backfield.
“That was the main attraction, outside of the bigger picture of IU,” McCullough said. “Every year since I’ve been with the Chiefs, at least three opportunities have come up to go back to college every year. But I said it made no sense for me to come back as a pure running backs coach because I can do that at the highest stage and be a pure running backs coach. If I’m coming back just to be a running backs coach, I could stay where I was at the time, here with the Chiefs.
“So the opportunity to come back and be an associate head coach at IU, specifically, was very strong to me because I know Tom and the administration will support me and continue to (help me) grow as a coach overall and have a bigger impact beyond just the running backs room. I’m looking forward to helping the team as a whole grow and touching people outside of the running backs room, having influence with the coaches and just things we do on the bigger picture — interacting with the athletic department and helping alleviate some things for Coach Allen, for sure, and, at the same time, continue to grow myself as a well-rounded overall coach and understanding and having an appreciation for what it is to run an entire program.”
Former Hoosiers such as Tevin Coleman and Jordan Howard can certainly vouch for McCullough and his command of a room. So, too, can McCullough’s pupils in Kansas City, fellow NFL stars who will now be eager to help IU recruit the next Coleman and the next Howard to Bloomington.
“Every single one of my guys that I’ve coached — and definitely the guys from the last three years — all of them said the same thing: ‘Coach, you’re gonna kill it, and any of them guys you talk to who want to know about good ol’ Coach DMC, call us. FaceTime us,’” McCullough said. “Somebody wants to talk to LeSean McCoy? Somebody wants to talk to Le’Veon Bell? Somebody wants to talk to Kareem Hunt? Damien Williams? Clyde Edwards-Helaire? I got those guys on speed dial and they’re gonna be willing to fill in the blanks. That’s gonna be exciting.”
The Hoosiers, of course, know what they have in McCullough — and they know how lucky they are to have him back in Bloomington. The initial shock of McCullough’s overture has worn off by now, and for Allen, the excitement continues to build.
“We know where he is coming from and what he has been a part of recently,” Allen said. “He had such a tremendous opportunity in the NFL to win a Super Bowl, to be in the last three AFC Championship Games, and he has done an amazing job of connecting with his players everywhere he has been. I think that is the common theme. He is such a great teacher, a great model of how you live your life, and does things with a high degree of detail, effort and focus. I am excited for him to bring that leadership to our team.”