Indiana football's Chad Wilt, Tom Allen's new right-hand man on defense, is a lot like his boss

·20 min read

By the time the postseason had arrived in Nate Ollie's junior campaign at Ball State, Chad Wilt had already changed him as a football player.

Wilt was hired as Ball State's defensive line coach in 2011, Ollie's sophomore season, and unlocked potential in the defensive tackle that he didn't fully realize he had. Wilt pushed Ollie in ways he'd never been pushed before, and he became the Cardinals' most productive defensive tackle, earning second-team All-MAC honors in 2011 and a spot on the third team in 2012.

"That’s the guy that got me loving the game," Ollie said of the new Indiana defensive coordinator and linebackers coach. "He said, 'I know you like football, but do you love it?' He didn’t see that passion in me and he challenged me on certain things. He’s always trying to get the best out of you."

But Ollie didn't fully understand the man he was playing for until that December. Ollie's father died that year, and the funeral was held in Chicago, Ollie's hometown, on a Friday the day before Ball State was set to fly down to Tampa, Fla., to play Central Florida in the Beef O'Brady's Bowl. Wilt came to Chicago to be with Ollie, stayed with him there until well after midnight when all the events connected to the funeral were finished and drove him back to Muncie so they could be on the plane the next day. And on the 3-hour, 45-minute drive in the wee hours of the morning, they talked about everything -- life, death, family, basically every conversation a 34-year-old coach can have with a 20-year-old player who just lost his father.

Ollie cites that experience as the reason he got into coaching, because Wilt had shown him how being a coach could allow him to impact people on a human level. The Colts hired Ollie to be their defensive line coach this offseason after his previous stints with the New York Jets and Philadelphia Eagles, as well as Tennessee and Eastern Kentucky in the college ranks.

"I just thought, 'This is bigger than football,'" Ollie said of what was going through his mind on that car ride home with Wilt.

That's how Wilt has viewed coaching for the 22 years he's been in the business -- not as a way to keep winning football games after one's playing days have passed but to help others become the best versions of themselves.

The empathy Wilt showed Ollie is not an aberration. He has a list of former players from over two decades in coaching who have lost their fathers, whether it was before, during or after their time playing for him. Every Father's Day, he makes sure to send every one of them a text message because he knows it's a difficult day for them even if -- especially if -- those players are now fathers themselves. Wilt sees that as one of those responsibilities that comes with the job, but it can also be an honor because on those days he usually gets to get an update on what kind of men his former players have become and how football affected their lives.

"Those are the stories," Wilt said. "Because you know you connected and made a difference. Your time with them meant something."

Wilt's idealism is so enthusiastic and so genuine that it almost comes off as naivete, as if he simply hasn't been around long enough for the job to break his heart or as if he hasn't seen the darker side of the business. But even after more than two decades in coaching plus an entire childhood spent watching his father navigate the profession, he's still the purest of true believers.

"I was told long ago, the definition, if you look at the word 'coach,' it goes back to the 1500s in France and Hungary," Wilt said at his introductory press conference in January. "Literally, the definition is to carry, to take, to transport. You look at the Wild West, the stagecoach. What did they do? They helped take someone from Point A, from Point B, from where they are to where they want to go. That's all of our jobs as a coach. To take people from where they are to where they want to go."

That, of course, sounds like something Indiana coach Tom Allen would say, just with a little more history and etymology blended in.

Allen's hiring of Walt Bell as his offensive coordinator drew a lot more attention than hiring Wilt as defensive coordinator for obvious reasons. Allen initially came to Indiana as a defensive coordinator, he also served as defensive coordinator in his first two seasons as head coach. The 4-2-5 system the Hoosiers use is Allen's creation and at that press conference announcing Wilt's hiring, Allen also announced that he would go back to making the defensive calls in games.

More:Why IU offensive coordinator Walt Bell is the most important hire in Tom Allen's career

Wilt's job is to "organize" the defense, in Allen's words, which means that even if he doesn't have to make in-game calls, he has to be in charge in defensive meetings, put together defensive scouting reports, assign defensive staff responsibilities and make personnel decisions.

Allen has to trust Wilt to act as he would when he's not in the room. So it's helpful that Wilt seems so much like a younger version of Allen.

"He's just a salt of the Earth person, loves his players," Allen said. "Cares about them, great knowledge of football. ... He's passionate. He's fiery. He's tough. He's got a lot of things that I value."

Just as was the case with Allen, those traits come from being the son of a football coach.

'This is what I want to do'

The epiphany that made Steve Wilt, Chad's father, decide to become a football coach came in 1960 when Ron Rice arrived to be the head coach at Harpers Ferry (W. Va.) High School. Wilt was a junior, and as he recalled, there were just 45 boys in the senior high school, but 25 of them were on the football team. With Rice running the show, that was plenty, even though Rice himself was just five years out of high school at the time. In Wilt's senior year, as he recalled, Harpers Ferry went undefeated and outscored its opponents 330-32.

"It was amazing the way he handled us as players and the way he treated us and the expectations he had," the elder Wilt said. "He was an excellent football coach. Really good. But it just increased my love for the game and impacted me in such a way. I thought, this is what I want to do."

Steve played college football at Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, W.Va., and when he graduated with a physical education degree in 1966, Rice hired Wilt on his staff at John Handley High School in nearby Winchester, Va. They went 43-5-2 together in five seasons. Rice left to be a graduate assistant at Virginia, then an assistant at Maryland before he shockingly died of a heart attack in 1972 at the age of 34. Before Rice passed, however, he helped Wilt take over as the head coach at Handley in 1970 and put in a good word for him in the college ranks. After five years at head coach at Handley, Wilt was hired in 1976 at Shippensburg University, a Division II school in south central Pennsylvania as the defensive coordinator and linebackers coach for head coach Joe Mark, who had been part of the staff with Rice at Virginia. Wilt was hooked as a coaching lifer.

Chad was born in May of 1978 in Carlisle, Pa., and got a sense of how transient life as a coach's son would be before he could even process it. The day after his birth, Steve got a call from coach Challace McMillin at James Madison, a program that was Division III at the time but had designs on moving up the ladder quickly. He wanted Steve to be his offensive line coach, which meant a two-hour move down Interstate 81 to Harrisonburg, Va.

"My wife was in the hospital and she had just delivered," Steve said. "And I had to go in there and tell her we were moving from Shippensburg to JMU."

The Wilts would move twice more before Chad graduated high school, first to the Charlotte, N.C. area when Steve became head coach at Wingate in 1985, then to Upland, Ind., when Steve moved to Taylor University in 1994.

Chad didn't always love the moves, but he adored football and loved being a coach's son. Steve remembered that Chad was always drawing helmets and uniforms on his notepads. He always wanted to wear shirts with jersey numbers on them and high socks with colored stripes to look as much the part of a football player as he could.

Chad got to spend time around the team at James Madison when eventual Super Bowl winners Charles Haley and Gary Clark came through Harrisonburg, but he got lots more freedom once Steve became a head coach. He was a ballboy at Wingate, and his mother, Diane, made a deal with him that as long as his grades were good, he could ride the team bus with his father to road games. Diane demanded that Chad always be paying attention on the sidelines or he would have to come sit up in the stands with her, so he was locked in, and he developed thoughts on strategy. Steve remembers once when Chad got his attention, standing at his feet with a ball in his hands and said, "Dad, don't you think it's time to kick a field goal?"

"I loved it," Chad said. "I loved being on the bus as a kid with my dad’s teams. Being at workouts, being at practices, it captured me. These are your heroes. These are the guys you look up to."

Chad eventually became one of those guys. He starred at defensive end at Eastrook High School in Marion, and had offers to play from several Division II and III schools as well as some attention from the Ivy League because of his excellent grades. Steve tried to keep from pushing too hard in his own son's recruitment, but his mother made it clear what the stakes were. As long as they'd been married, she'd never missed one of Steve's games, and she didn't intend to.

"His mom said, 'You can go some other place and play if you want to, but I’m going to be here watching your dad’s games.'" Steve said. "I think that might have swayed him some."

It did, and Chad went to Taylor after he graduated in 1996. He became a team captain, was a three-time all-conference player, two-time NAIA All-American and also a two-time academic all-league pick.

"To be around him every day, to see him contributing was a real satisfying experience," Steve said. "I never had to get on him about attitude or lack of effort. He made the father/son coaching experience really easy for me."

Chad wasn't sure he wanted to be a coach himself, though, until his junior year. Steve called Chad into his office to show him a letter he had received from a quarterback for Steve at Wingate, a player whom Chad had looked up to. Chad hadn't known that the quarterback, who Wilts did not want identified, was orphaned and sometimes homeless when he was in high school and that he would sometimes sleep in dugouts of baseball fields. The quarterback was writing to thank him for helping him change his life.

"He really had nothing growing up," Chad said. "But he was back at his old high school, a head coach, married, a father, and the point of the whole letter is him basically saying to my dad, 'I wouldn’t be any of these things if it wasn’t for you, if it wasn’t your influence in my life and your guidance and showing me what those things actually meant and were supposed to look like.' That’s when I realized what my dad actually did. That was my a-ha moment."

It caused Chad to consider his father's influence in a deeper way. He thought about how whenever they went on the road for games or on vacation, he would always make a point to clean up the hotel room as much as he could to make sure the maids who came in afterward had to do as little as possible. It was part of an overall belief that his job was to leave things better than he found them. So he decided to carry that message forward with him.

"How can I leave this program better?" Wilt said "How can I leave our players better? How can I leave our culture better? Pushing them toward their goals, their vision for their life or possibly reshaping them. Probably what my dad did for that quarterback."

'He's got that juice'

Wilt helped out his father for a season at Taylor as a student assistant as he was finishing his degree in sports management, then coached at William & Mary for a spring before getting his first full-time work at Central Connecticut State, coaching defensive line and special teams for a season.

From there he made his first move up to FBS level football, taking a graduate assistant job under Al Groh at Virginia in 2004 after Groh had returned to college ball following a decade in the NFL that included a Super Bowl title with the Giants. Wilt was part of a staff that took the Cavaliers to two bowl games, and his work ethic stood out among the GAs.

"Chad was energetic," Groh said. "Very responsible in whatever task he had when he first came to us, be it big or small, menial or challenging. It was apparent his attitude was, 'Whatever they give me, I’m going to do it better than anyone they’ve ever had.' Usually when a young fella comes in whether it’s a graduate assistant in college or an intern in the NFL, it’s that type of mentality that gains the attention of the people who are already there and puts them in position to maybe come back later on in a full-time position."

Which is exactly what happened. When his tenure as a GA was over and he'd acquired a master's degree and done valuable academic independent study on historical leaders, Wilt followed Virginia linebackers coach Danny Rocco to Liberty for two seasons, then came back to Virginia to coach defensive line for what turned out to be Groh's final year.

Wilt ended up coaching at eight programs in 12 years, not because he was constantly looking for jobs but because jobs kept finding him. In a few cases he found himself in need of a job after his head coach was let go, but he was constantly fielding offers because coaches liked what they saw from his defensive linemen on film. That was why Pete Lembo hired him at Ball State in 2011, and it paid off as well as he could have hoped.

"His linemen are going to be very, very fundamentally sound," said Lembo, who now coaches special teams at South Carolina. "He’s a very detailed, thorough teacher. He’s mastered his craft and not only does he know it but he communicates it extremely well. And beyond that, he's a great relationship builder."

Wilt likes for his position rooms to be democratic. He tries to listen to players as much as he talks, giving them input and keeping them engaged. But he's also demanding when it comes to effort level and specific when it comes to fundamentals, which is how he ends up elevating players.

"Some defensive line coaches will say, 'Just put your hands on the guy! Just hit him! Strike him!'" Ollie said. "Well OK, but coach Wilt is going to tell you exactly where to put your hands. He’s going to tell you to put your hands on the inside sternum or hands on the shoulder pad. 'Hey, when you hit that guy make sure your thumb is up.' He’s going to tell you step vertical, don’t step inside, Make sure you’re staying on your track and on your line. It's those kind of details that make you better."

Wilt also keeps himself in good enough shape that he can always maintain energy throughout practice, and he can always do whatever he asks his players to do.

"He was an All-American, now," Ollie said. "He’s got that juice, especially in individuals. He’d give a demonstration, go through the bags. We’re like, 'If he’s going through there and hitting that bag, shoot, I gotta do it too.' That juice, that energy, that passion, you feel it. The guys playing for him, we fed on that."

Wilt churned out all-conference defensive linemen as well as NFL draft picks and has been to 10 bowl games as a coach -- three with Army, two with Virginia and Ball State and one each with Maryland, Cincinnati and Minnesota. Last season, he was part of a Minnesota defensive staff that finished third nationally in total defense and sixth nationally in scoring defense, as the Golden Gophers went 9-4 and beat West Virginia in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl.

"Phenomenal football coach," Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck said. "High energy guy. Very meticulous, great recruiter, great developer of talent. Always in a good mood. Always in a in a positive mindset, can make anyone feel really good."

Fleck wasn't thrilled to lose Wilt, especially to someone in the conference, but even he could see the fit at Indiana was too good for him to pass up.

"I'm really glad he's with Tom," Fleck said. "I have utmost respect for Coach Allen. I think he's one of the gentlemen of college football. He couldn't be with a better guy."

'Why wouldn't I do that?'

Wilt has a line of neon post-it notes hanging over a shelf over top of his laptop in his office on which he has written messages to himself. Some are inspirational quotes from others. Some are standards he remembers to hold himself by.

Much of what is written on them are ideas he's tried to live by for years, and now that he's at Indiana, he's struck by how many of them sound like something his boss would say.

"We were just so similarly aligned on what we value and what we appreciate and how we want to coach," Wilt said, holding one of the notes in front of his laptop during a Zoom interview with a reporter. "I got a post-it note right here. 'Positive passion is contagious, so is negative energy. Which one am I giving off? Which one am I giving to others?' This one here, 'The highest human act is to inspire,' -- Nipsey Hussle. Tell me that doesn’t sound like Tom Allen, right? Here you go. “Pride, passion and purpose.” Tell me that doesn’t sound like Tom Allen. 'Demand perfection from yourself and expect nothing less. Be pissed off at us if we don’t hold you to the same.’ That’s my coaching philosophy, right? Tom Allen might say it a different way, but at its core, its meaning and intent behind it, it’s the same."

Wilt knew before he heard from Allen about the job that this would be the case, as he's known Allen since 1997 when Steve was at Taylor and Allen was the defensive coordinator at nearby Marion High School. In 2015, when Allen was defensive coordinator at South Florida, Wilt was at Maryland, and before the two teams played they met for a discussion that ended up lasting nearly 20 minutes.

So even when Allen explained to Wilt that his first coordinator position of his career would not include calling plays, that didn't make the offer any less enticing.

"That would be my ego getting in the way if I didn’t feel that way," Wilt said.

Allen had already decided to take over play-calling duties before he decided who he was going to hire. He called plays in 2017 and 2018 when he first got the job, but Kane Wommack was working under him and was well schooled in the principles of the defense by the time Allen handed him the reins in 2019 and for two seasons the Hoosiers caused as much havoc as any team in the Big Ten, finishing second nationally in interceptions in 2020 with 17 in just eight games. In 2021, however, they picked off just five passes in 12 games, ranking 119th nationally in the category and making it clear to Allen that the scheme had strayed too far from his vision. He didn't fire defensive coordinator Charlton Warren, who joined the staff at North Carolina, but determined he needed to grab the reins again regardless of who he picked to fill Warren's position.

That being said, Allen felt taking on defensive coordinator duties as a head coach wore him out a little the first time and made it harder to be a steward of the program as a whole. It made sense then when he was getting his system established, but it made a lot less sense six years into the job. He couldn't run every defensive staff meeting or make every personnel decision or script every play in practice. So he needed someone he could trust to take a lot of the organization, and Wilt has filled the role exactly as he'd hoped.

"Chad does a great job," Allen said. "He runs all the meetings. That's really important. Allows me to be on both sides, be in the quarterback meetings, be in full team meetings at times. I think that's really key."

The job includes a lot of responsibilities Wilt has never held before. He's coaching linebackers, which he's never done. He's never had to organize staff responsibilities or schedule scheme installation for preseason camp. He's always been in charge of his room and his room alone. Now he has other members of the defensive staff coming to him for answers or second opinions, like when assistants show him film of recruits at their position to see if they fit the defensive scheme as a whole.

"I got less sleep during spring ball than I've ever had during spring ball," Wilt said. "I have to get my work done ahead of time so when things pop up I can take care of those, so that's why I'm in the building at 5 a.m. But I'm excited about that part of it."

Whether it's at Indiana or elsewhere, Wilt's former bosses see a job where Wilt gets to call his own shots as an inevitability, but said it speaks well for him that he understood this to be the right move.

"I think it’s a perfect intermediary step for him where he has more responsibility and still gets to work under a fabulous human being and one of the best defensive minds in the country," Lembo said. "Just knowing the character and values of those two, I think it will be a fabulous partnership."

And it could eventually give Wilt the opportunity to lead and develop young men as the head of a program.

"He's going to be a head coach one day," Fleck said. "He checks all the boxes. Now it's just a matter of time."

This article originally appeared on The Herald-Times: IU football: Chad Wilt, new defensive coordinator, is like Tom Allen