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Spencer Allen's search for stability may end at Northwestern

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New Northwestern baseball coach Spencer Allen is the first black head coach in Big Ten history. But that's not what defines him.

Photo: Henry Bushnell

April 2, 2001. The place is Ames, Iowa. The time is 8:30 a.m. It's a Monday morning. And a phone is ringing.

Twenty-three-year-old Spencer Allen picks up. It's an odd time to be getting a phone call. The message that comes through the phone makes it even stranger.

Ten o'clock, it tells him. In the football lounge. Everybody.

Allen didn't really know what to make of it. The scrappy second baseman and his Iowa State Cyclones were riding high after taking two of three from Big 12 power Oklahoma State in a weekend series, and had an off day. Maybe, the senior captain thought, one of his teammates was in serious trouble.

An hour and a half after the phone call, Iowa State athletic director Bruce Van De Velde stepped to the front of the football lounge with players and coaches gathered before him. He opened his mouth, and spoke. His words were fatal.

The baseball program, he announced, was being cut. Zipped. Terminated.

Initially, there was shock. Quickly, shock morphed into anger. There were no glimmers of hope, there was no turning back. The proverbial door was slammed shut. Right in the players' faces.

"Baseball was everything," Allen once told the Iowa State Daily. In that moment, "everything" seemed over.

★★★

Growing up in Olympia, Washington, Spencer Allen, like every little kid who holds a bat behind his ear and squints out from under an oversized cap on a sunny Saturday morning, had been a dreamer. A Major League dreamer. Aside from a brief phase during which he thought he could be the next Michael Jordan, Allen, a three-sport athlete all the way through high school, set his sights on the Show.

Coming out of high school, the middle infielder headed to Oregon State with a scholarship and high expectations. Up until that point, he had known nothing but success. But upon his arrival, he was hit hard by reality.

"Oh," he remembers realizing. "These guys are pretty good too."

Allen was taken aback. He hadn't necessarily expected to start as a freshman, but he had expected to play. Instead, he wasn't even travelling. And he couldn't handle that.

"For 23 years, that's all you've done. And so for about a month, I was struggling, mentally." -Spencer Allen after realizing his playing career was coming to an end

So it was off to junior college for a year, and then to the Midwest, to Ames and Iowa State. There, dreams were re-kindled, and moderate success returned.

But then came that momentous early-April day, and with it the deflating realization that those dreams had wilted. Allen tried to cling to them. "Maybe I can just be a senior sign," he thought, "an organization guy that gets a chance for two years [in the minors]." But it wasn't to be.

And that wore on Allen.

"For 23 years, that's all you've done," he says. "And so for about a month, I was struggling, mentally."

But the end of a playing career doesn't equal the end of a baseball career. In fact, a few months earlier, Allen had been approached by an Iowa State coach about joining the staff the following season as a volunteer assistant. And for some reason, that excited him. He began to spend long road trips pouring over "Coaching Baseball Successfully," a book by legendary college coach Andy Lopez, and quickly developed a passion for the mere idea of coaching.

That didn't surprise Nick Zumsande, who was a first-year assistant coach at Iowa State. Throughout the season, Zumsande, now a scout with the Miami Marlins, remembers having a recurring thought:

"The way [Spencer] played, his character, how he carried himself, that always stuck in the back of my mind. For some reason, as a coach, I've always sort of gauged guys that played for me. And I would say, ‘Hey, this is a guy we should think about hiring. He'd be a really good coach someday.' Spence was one of those guys."

But suddenly, that volunteer opportunity at Iowa State had vanished. There would be no season, no coaching staff in Ames in 2002.

Allen was lost.

After leaving Iowa State, he did a year of student teaching, then found his first coaching job back in the Pacific Northwest at Edmonds Community College in Seattle. His first year of coaching brought two things. One was a championship. The other was confidence:

"Man, this coaching thing is easy," he thought.

But, of course, he knew it'd be anything but. Things began to speed up.

For a decade, Allen zig-zagged to and fro, between the Midwest and Pacific Northwest. From Edmonds to Iowa. From Iowa to Creighton. From Creighton back West, as a regional scout for the Detroit Tigers. From there to Purdue. From Purdue to Washington State. From Washington State back to Creighton. And then finally to Illinois.

"It was hard on my wife," Allen admits. "There've been some tough conversations. I've missed reunions, and nephews and nieces growing up, that's been hard.

"And some people look at it as a negative. But I look at it as a positive. I've got great experience, I've got contacts all over. I look at it and go, ‘This was worth it. This is why I'm here today.'"

★★★

It's April 2 again. But this time, the year is 2015. The place is Evanston, Illinois. Exactly 14 years after Spencer Allen sat in that room in Ames, somebody in the Northwestern athletic department hit ‘send' on a press release, and an announcement was made. Paul Stevens, Northwestern's head baseball coach of 28 years, would be retiring at season's end.

Not too long after that, Allen sat in another room, but this time facing Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips. It was his second of what would eventually be three interviews. Allen looked Phillips in the eye, and had a simple message: "I'm ready for this job."

Why? Because of that back-and-forth journey that baseball had taken him on.

"I've done everything," the former hitting coach says. "I've recruited, I've ran an offense, and that put me in [this] position."

Allen picked up the final piece to the puzzle this past season as an assistant at Illinois. He helped lead the Illini to a remarkable 50-10-1 record, a 27-game win streak and an NCAA Super Regional appearance. It was the one year in Champaign that showed him how to run a program.

But entering that second interview, another question still lingered: Was this really the job Allen wanted?

After all, Northwestern had only finished .500 or better in the Big Ten — hardly a powerhouse baseball conference — three times in the past 20 years, and funding for the program had been relatively meager. In fact, according to a source, in recent years, some close to the program were of the belief that Northwestern should cut baseball. It wasn't generating revenue, and it certainly wasn't generating success.

But Phillips wasn't having any of that. Instead, he went in the completely opposite direction. While still not a fully-funded sport (meaning that the university does not pay for all the available scholarship spots) in 2016, the baseball program will be far closer to the 11.7-scholarship limit than before, according to the source. Previously, to make up the difference, Stevens had to fundraise. Now, more of that money will be coming from the athletic department. Even more importantly though, the uptick in both financial and sentimental commitment to the program is exemplified by the comprehensive renovations of Rocky Miller Park, which include a turf field and an elaborate new clubhouse.

After the second interview, when Phillips made this commitment clear, Allen was convinced.

"I didn't know if I was the guy [yet]," he says. "But I knew I wanted [to be]."

Allen feels there's stability in Evanston. After all, the previous coach stayed on board for 28 years. And having gone through what he calls "the lowest of the low" at Iowa State 14 years ago, that's important to him.

★★★

The walls in his office are bare. There are two visible pieces of paper in the room. One, with instructions for joining the Wi-Fi network, hangs next to his computer. The other, with a jam-packed schedule of meetings and interviews, sits on his desk.

When Spencer Allen speaks, he seems comfortable. He looks at home in his brand new Northwestern polo, and with his sunglasses perched atop his head.

Moments later however, he searches through drawers for the Andy Lopez book — the same one he read on bus trips as a senior at Iowa State as cornfields whizzed by outside the window — only to realize it's still in the trunk of his car. It's clear he's still getting settled in.

He's already been hard at work though. In fact, when Phillips offered him the job, his mind immediately turned to two things: "Coaches and recruits. Who can I get." He has wooed pitching coach Josh Reynolds from Kansas State, and added former Iowa Hawkeye Dusty Napoleon as an assistant. On multiple occasions, he enthuses about what they'll bring to the program.

In general, not many negative words slip out of his mouth. Allen is quick to praise and direct attention to others.

When the subject of his race comes up, he's no different.

There's no escaping the facts. College baseball is not very diverse. In 2014, only 4.8 percent of players were black. Prior to Allen's hiring, there had never been a black head coach in the Big Ten. And according to ESPN's Adam Rittenberg, Allen will become the first in any of the Power 5 conferences since 1983.

Allen is resigned to talking about it, because he understands it's a big deal. But he says his past hasn't been defined by the color of his skin; and if he has it his way, his future won't be either.

"I don't want to have a label," he says. "If people look at me that way, that's fine. But I don't want to be carrying the torch. Because for me, it's disrespectful to the Tony Gwynns, the Jackie Robinsons, those people deserve it. They're giving me the opportunity today. I'm not the pioneer."

His words aren't necessarily going to stop people from seeing him as a pioneer. It's just that he hopes to be seen as something else too.

"White, black, Asian, whatever..." he asserts. "I want to be known for being a great coach."