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How a now-defunct Hillsborough school sparked Indiana coach Tom Allen’s rise to the top 10

More than a quarter century ago, Tom Allen dared a now-defunct Christian school in Hillsborough County to believe in itself. His Eagles made history.
Before he became the head coach of a top-10 Big Ten program, Tom Allen got his first job at now-defunct Temple Heights Christian.
Before he became the head coach of a top-10 Big Ten program, Tom Allen got his first job at now-defunct Temple Heights Christian. [ AP Photo/Nati Harnik; Inset: Times files (1994) ]
Published Nov. 20, 2020|Updated Nov. 20, 2020

Tom Allen enters Indiana’s game at No. 3 Ohio State on the short list for every coach-of-the-year award.

His Hoosiers are college football’s darlings with the seventh 4-0 start in program history and triumphs over Michigan and Penn State. Indiana’s No. 9 ranking is its highest in 53 years, setting up the program’s first top-10 showdown since the 1968 Rose Bowl.

It’s a remarkable coaching job. But it might not be the best of Allen’s career.

Related: Indiana-Tampa Bay recruiting pipeline outperforms state schools

A quarter century ago, Allen took over a flailing prep program at a small, now-defunct Christian school in Hillsborough County. Temple Heights’ record in its five previous years: 14-35.

In one full season, the 24-year-old nicknamed “Baby Arnold” transformed the Eagles from a bottom dweller without a home field into a playoff team for the first time in almost two decades.

The rebuilding blueprint Allen used then sounds a lot like the one that will be on display in one of this weekend’s biggest games. A focus on relationships, on and off the field. Steady leadership. Unbelievable passion.

And an unwavering dedication summed up in the motto and mind-set Allen installed at Temple Heights in 1994.

Dare to believe.

“We bought into that,” said Brian Dowdy, that team’s running back/linebacker/punter. “We bought into him.”

Kit Watson (left), Nate Dorsey (center), and Willie Peavy (right) were a part of Tom Allen's 1994 team at Temple Heights.
Kit Watson (left), Nate Dorsey (center), and Willie Peavy (right) were a part of Tom Allen's 1994 team at Temple Heights. [ St. Petersburg Times ]

They bought into him quickly after he joined the school in ’92 as a teacher and football assistant. Allen had just graduated from Wisconsin’s Maranatha Baptist University and still had the body of a collegiate linebacker and wrestler — so much so that at least one player nicknamed him “Baby Arnold” because he had the trim waist and massive arms of a miniature Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Once Allen started talking, any intimidation disappeared. He was a stereotypical Midwesterner. Approachable, humble, quiet. He noticed if something was wrong and asked about it. If you needed tutoring, he’d get you help.

“If you needed somebody to talk to,” said former running back/linebacker Willie Peavy, “he’d be there.”

But when practice began, Allen’s competitive switch flipped.

Dowdy remembers slogging through one of Allen’s first practices. Allen noticed, and he didn’t like it. He popped into the drill, without pads or a helmet, lined up across from Dowdy and got in his face to show him what he wanted.

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“That made a really big impression right off the bat,” Dowdy said. “You wanted to play hard for Coach, because you knew he was putting everything into it, as well.”

Like at Indiana, Allen became head coach after an abrupt resignation.

When Steve Lewis stepped down three games into the ’93 season, Allen took over a team that had lost 11 of its previous 13 games. Some of his players cried in the hallway over the news.

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Allen didn’t try to make drastic changes; he consoled them, then told his team to try to move on.

“It was a smooth transition because we all loved him,” said David Council, a linebacker/offensive lineman.

It was better than smooth. One day after his interim promotion from defensive coordinator, Allen won his head-coaching debut against Admiral Farragut. He won the next one, too, and celebrated by jumping on top of his players (which sounds a lot like some of his over-the-top antics at Indiana).

But Allen wanted more. After earning the full-time job, Allen and his team came up with a slogan for the ’94 season: Dare to believe.

Council remembers a librarian bringing out the school’s trophies one day. There weren’t many from the football team, which had only three playoff appearances ever and none since 1976.

This is the year that changes, Allen told them. Why? Because he believed they could do it. He needed them to believe, too.

Related: From the archives: Extra work lifts Eagles to new heights

“He brought in the attitude,” receiver/defensive back Matt Provenzano said. “We knew we could do it, but we never had the leadership until him that said we could do it.”

With the right top-down attitude and leadership in place, Allen’s Eagles started 7-0 to become one of the Tampa Bay area’s prep football darlings. They clinched a Class 2A postseason berth with a 20-point romp over Santa Fe Catholic.

Temple Heights lost to Orlando’s Lake Highland Prep in the first round, but that didn’t tarnish Allen’s remarkable turnaround. The Times named him its Hillsborough County coach of the year.

It ended up being Allen’s only full season as the program’s head coach. He left the next year to become an assistant coach and business teacher at Armwood High — a step up in both careers. It was also the final playoff berth for Temple Heights, which closed in 2006.

Allen kept soaring through the coaching ranks, from high schools to small colleges to the defensive coordinator job at USF in 2015 and, finally, his stop at Indiana.

Tom Allen celebrates his Hoosiers' win over Penn State earlier this season.
Tom Allen celebrates his Hoosiers' win over Penn State earlier this season. [ DARRON CUMMINGS | AP ]

He still remembers where it started; he told Indiana reporters last week that he keeps a signed ball from that ’94 team in a glass case in his office.

“It is amazing to think that is where it all began,” Allen said.

At a now-defunct Hillsborough school, with two dozen boys who followed their coach and dared to believe.