When Deland McCullough Jr. was 13 years old, he started to fall in love with Indiana football.
Deland Jr. and his younger brothers Dasan and Daeh used to tag along with their father Deland Sr. to Indiana football practices and games when he coached running backs from 2011 to 2016. Deland Jr. remembers trying to work out in the Indiana weight room.
Now, it’s where he is starting to meet his new teammates.
“I had dreams of playing at IU even when I was young,” Deland Jr. said. “Just IU football and everything, the atmosphere. It just became a reality here in the last couple of months.”
On April 24, Deland Jr. announced his new beginnings as he decided to transfer to Indiana from Miami (OH). After playing in three games over two seasons at Miami (OH), Deland Jr. is excited for the new challenge as he steps up to the higher level that is Big Ten football.
“It’s been a long road but I’m really excited,” Deland Jr. said. “I’m really liking what’s going on so far and I can’t wait for this thing to really get moving.”
This dream became a reality for Deland Jr. after his father decided to return to coaching at Indiana. And eventually, Dasan and Daeh will don the cream and crimson to complete the family reunion. While playing in Bloomington has been on Deland Jr.’s mind for nearly a decade, it wasn’t always as likely as it now seems.
A welcomed surprise
Isaiah Roundtree couldn’t believe what he was reading. As the alert appeared on his phone, the former Indiana running back had to double and triple check to confirm the news.
Deland McCullough was leaving the Kansas City Chiefs to become the running backs coach at Indiana University. Yes, the Super Bowl-winning, Patrick Mahomes-having Chiefs. And yes, the losingest program in college football history, the Indiana Hoosiers. But with back-to-back bowl appearances and historic wins, Indiana appears to be a program on the rise.
“[Deland is] one of my guys so I was super hype, man,” Roundtree said. “I’m fired up that we’re actually good.”
Deland McCullough always wanted to return to college football.
— The Hoosier Network (@TheHoosierNet) February 10, 2021
McCullough’s departure from the NFL and back to college may appear surprising to some, but it turns out he always wanted to come back to Indiana. During three seasons coaching players such as Le’Veon Bell and LeSean McCoy in Kansas City, McCullough said he turned down eight opportunities from other teams.
For McCullough, it was always about the right fit.
“From where I am at with my family…and for what some of my longer-term aspirations are, Indiana University was the spot that fit,” McCullough said.
Hiring a new running backs coach usually doesn’t make for leading headlines, but based on McCullough’s pedigree and players he has attracted to Indiana since being hired on Feb. 8, this hire feels different.
And from Roundtree’s perspective as a former player, a newfound level of excitement is building. Roundtree said he and his former teammates often texted in group chats during the 2020 season, but now discuss how excited they are to attend games in 2021 and the potential of McCullough’s three sons.
“Tom Allen is doing a great job, man,” Roundtree said. “He put a good staff together and if you put a good staff together and everybody’s loving each other, everybody’s having a good time, you get wins and if you get wins, you get recruits. So it’s just one of those things that everything is starting to add up.”
These recruits Roundtree references just so happen to include McCullough’s three sons: Deland Jr., Dasan and Daeh. Moving from the MAC to the Big Ten, Deland Jr. is looking forward to playing at a higher level.
“I’ve always dreamed of playing on a big stage,” Deland Jr. said. “This is something I’m hoping I can take full advantage of and go out there and show everyone what I can do.”
Dasan is the No. 50 player in the class of 2022 and recently flipped his commitment from Ohio State to Indiana. Daeh will play alongside his brother Dasan at Bloomington South High School in the fall, and is rated as the No. 78 player in the class of 2023. As long as Dasan and Daeh maintain their commitment to Indiana, they will become the two highest-rated recruits in program history, according to 247Sports.
The commitment from Dasan and Daeh to Indiana has created unprecedented excitement around Indiana football recruiting. While Roundtree was surprised to see Deland return to coach at Indiana, he saw a glimpse of the talent level of Deland’s sons early on.
The greatest honor I ever had is being a father to my 4 sons!!! I embrace and look forward to it on a daily basis… pic.twitter.com/2F5BcA6g1K
— Deland McCullough (@coachdmc) June 20, 2021
Forming a football foundation
When Deland McCullough coached running backs at Indiana from 2011 to 2016, it was common for him to show up to Memorial Stadium with a companion or two. Well, probably three.
During their formative and adolescent years, Deland Jr., Dasan and Daeh spent their fair share of time at Indiana football practices and games. Roundtree remembers that you could immediately see their love for the game when they came to the team facility.
“You could just kind of tell it wasn’t forced,” Roundtree said. “They actually just loved the game, and now that they are growing up, you can still see that.”
LEO…at its finest!!! pic.twitter.com/g0XzPnNiC1
— Deland McCullough (@coachdmc) April 25, 2021
Even at such a young age, the sons shared the same humility as their father, were well-behaved and simply just wanted to be around football, Roundtree said. Being surrounded by a football environment and good people was important for the sons’ development because of the foundation it established.
“Kids are sponges,” Roundtree said. “When you put them in a certain environment and they take a liking to that, it kind of becomes a passion.”
This passion for football wasn’t only present when they were at Indiana practices or Memorial Stadium on game days. Deland used to invite players to his house, where Roundtree and his teammates would hang out and play football with Deland’s sons, who Roundtree said were always asking to play catch.
“Everybody who played for coach McCullough, he treats you just like a son,” Roundtree said. “Everybody who plays for him responds because of that.”
— daeh mccullough (@daehmccullough) August 30, 2013
McCullough, the master relationship builder
The relationship Roundtree built with Deland helped solidify his aspirations on the football field, but it didn’t always look as if Roundtree would be coached by Deland. Roundtree spent his freshman season playing football at Morehead State, but had a career-altering conversation with Deland after transferring from Morehead State to walk on at Indiana.
Roundtree’s first interaction with Deland came during a practice when Roundtree was playing for the scout team. During a break, Roundtree had the chance to absorb a direct, yet meaningful message from Deland. Roundtree said Deland had a unique coaching style in that he never had to raise his voice, act like a tyrant or intimidate someone.
“[Deland] told me ‘Yo, take this scout team serious, bro,’” Roundtree said. “He was like, ‘If you can do what you did on that highlight film, you won’t have a problem getting school paid for, you won’t have a problem getting on the field.’”
Roundtree took this message to heart, and Deland turned out to be right. Roundtree went on to win Scout Team Player of the Year, which led him to earning a scholarship during his second season at Indiana. It was this message from Deland, coupled with Roundtree’s self-drive, that propelled him to make this jump.
“Because I didn’t get a scholarship out of high school, I kind of had that edge to myself to prove to everybody that I deserved to be there,” Roundtree said.
Roundtree went on to play three seasons at Indiana under scholarship, where his relationship with Deland only continued to grow. Roundtree described Deland as one of the most real, genuine people he has ever met, and it was in these experiences that strong relationships were built.
Roundtree happened to wear the same shoe size as Deland, so the two would even exchange clothes or shoes at times.
— Matthew Weaver (@MB_Weaver) December 15, 2013
“Violence” was a word that Deland used to yell during practice, and Roundtree said it was a simple message, but everyone responded to what Deland said. Roundtree described Deland’s coaching style as “less is more,” but that didn’t take away from his impact on players.
Roundtree spent many hours with Deland in the running back room, and even when he transitioned to the wide receiver room at times, Roundtree always played hard with Deland’s message in mind.
“[Deland] has that personality that you just want to run through a wall for him, and you don’t want to disappoint him,” Roundtree said.
Roundtree’s football career came to a screeching halt during his senior year when he tore his Achilles tendon versus Iowa. And during this trying time in Roundtree’s life, Deland had a similar message to their first conversation when Roundtree played on the scout team: chip away at it every day, do the small things right and eventually, you’ll win.
Roundtree accepted the reality of his football career being over, but used these words from Deland to attack his future.
“I went into the business and finance world, and I kind of use the same mentality. It seems to be working, knock on wood,” Roundtree said.
A talented trio
The relationship between Deland and Roundtree is representative of Deland’s coaching style, but also in the way he raised his children. Andy Sims, the head coach of Blue Valley North High School in Kansas City, said in his first conversation with Deland Jr., a level of maturity uncommon in high schoolers was apparent.
While it would be easy to credit the football-minded Deland Sr. for the talent and character present in the three sons, Sims said the impact of their mother Darnell McCullough cannot be understated.
— Darnell McCullough (@darnellm_) June 21, 2021
Sims said in order to play at the highest level of football, certain tangibles are required: a requisite height and weight, a 40-yard dash time or how many bench press repetitions one can do. But in order to succeed at that level, intangibles are what separate the best players.
Intangibles such as maturity, work ethic and a competitive spirit are exactly what Sims saw in Deland Jr., Dasan and Daeh in his time coaching the trio at Blue Valley North.
Sims’ first year as head coach came immediately after the program won just one game in three seasons, but by preaching these traits, along with the talent of the McCullough sons, Blue Valley North has won three of the past four Kansas state championships.
Sims had the opportunity to coach Deland Jr. for one year, Dasan for three and Daeh for two before Deland Sr. accepted his current job at Indiana. As a senior, Deland Jr. and his then-freshman brother Dasan helped Blue Valley North win the state championship.
Deland Jr. primarily played safety that year, where his quick feet stood out in pass coverage. Because Sims coached Deland Jr. for just one year, he wanted to give Deland Jr. a position to own, rather than moving him all over the field.
“You try to put your players in the best position to succeed,” Sims said. “It’s just a heck of a lot easier when you have three athletes to work with.”
But different from Deland Jr., Sims used Dasan in every way imaginable. Sims described Dasan as a hybrid between a safety and a linebacker, which mirrors Indiana head football coach Tom Allen’s husky position, a role in which Marcelino McCrary-Ball has succeeded. Sims positioned Dasan at safety, cornerback, inside linebacker, defensive end, wide receiver and kick returner, all positions in which he excelled even while playing through an injured toe.
— Dasan Mccullough ¹ (@Dasan2022) June 13, 2021
Sims said Dasan’s high football IQ and thorough understanding of defensive placement made him the perfect candidate to play all over the field. Standing at 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds, Dasan’s frame and athleticism allowed him to guard slot receivers, blitz off the edge, play in the box and roam around.
To make a pro comparison, Sims likens Dasan’s game most closely to Isaiah Simmons from Clemson, whom the Arizona Cardinals selected with the eighth pick in the 2020 NFL Draft.
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The youngest of the three McCulloughs currently committed to Indiana is Daeh, who will be a junior at Bloomington South High School next school year. Sims said Daeh’s natural ball skills allowed him to contribute to state championship teams at an early age.
And if Sims had another year or two with Daeh, he may have utilized Daeh in multiple roles like he did with Dasan. But as a sophomore, Daeh played cornerback for Sims and took on a dominant role as an underclassman.
— ⁷ (@daeh2023) June 1, 2021
“That was one side of the field that we didn’t have to worry about, which is huge, defensively,” Sims said.
While each McCullough son possesses slightly different traits, one ability each has in common is the ability to support the run. As defensive backs, this might not be a make-or-break trait, but one that Sims said separates the trio from others.
“Neither of those guys lack contact courage,” Sims said. “They’re going to come down and strike you just as much as they are going to pick off the pass.”
LEO: “A way of life”
Since Deland Sr.’s return to Bloomington, he has begun to make an impact beyond the running back room. Part of the appeal to Deland Sr. to come back to Indiana was an opportunity to take on a new role as an associate head coach.
Throughout the early days in this position, Deland has tried not to force anything. He said leadership and having a presence are strong suits of his, but he prefers these traits to become apparent in his role organically.
Deland has made an effort to build camaraderie amongst players outside of the running back room. So far, Deland said he has fit in and done his best to be productive while earning the respect of the players and fellow coaches.
“I think it is happening the right way,” McCullough said. “It won’t be anything like I walked in the door swinging the big stick and saying all these crazy things.”
This humble yet impactful personality in Deland is also reflected in the way his sons carry themselves. Sims said because the trio of sons have grown up around high levels of football, they have seen players do things the right way, and somewhere along the line, respond to situations the wrong way.
Sims said this has helped Deland Jr., Dasan and Daeh’s maturity grow at a rapid pace, which benefits them on the field. They are able to use these intangible qualities on the field to garner the respect of their teammates and position themselves as leaders. For Sims, the one thing that all three sons have always had is the ability to make those around them better.
“It’s not always about a 40 time or a defensive play made,” Sims said. “There are 365 days in the year, so they have that many opportunities to influence their teammates.”
This mentality also reflects in the motto Allen has preached since day one of becoming the head coach at Indiana. LEO means to love each other, but Allen has said that it goes deeper than that. It is to have each other’s back, to know that the guy standing next to you is giving his all and that any win or loss is because of the entire team and coaching staff.
This motto has created a sense of family, but with three McCulloughs committed to play for their father Deland over the next few years, Indiana football will quite literally be a family.
— Coach Kevin Wright (@CoachWrightIU) May 23, 2021
Roundtree said he and his former teammates have already planned a trip back to Bloomington for the homecoming game. Roundtree is eager to reunite with Deland, who he still keeps in touch with, but also to feel the excitement around the program.
“That’s why I really want to go back,” Roundtree said. “I’m curious to just ask them the same question like, ‘Yo, how is it? What’s it feel like having a big family affair in Bloomington?’”
For Deland Jr., the ability to say his dad is his coach at the Big Ten level is something not many players can say. And by the time Dasan and Daeh get to Bloomington, three sons on a team with their dad on the coaching staff might be an historic first. But when that time comes, Deland Jr. knows it’s all business first.
“It’s exciting when you have your dad right around the corner,” Deland Jr. said. “When we’re in this building I expect him to be a coach more than he is my dad.”
As an Indiana football season with unprecedented expectations is less than 80 days away, Deland has noticed the impression Allen and his LEO motto have made on other programs. Deland said it has been exciting to put the culture of Indiana football on full display during a busy offseason, and he hopes this can continue to draw in the right type of player in order to progress forward.
“LEO is not just a catchphrase, it’s a way of life around here,” McCullough said. “It’s very evident to me, and [I’m] just glad to be part of it.”