Obviously the expectations of this year’s team are radically different from last year. How has the culture of the team changed with that?
The culture actually started to change back in the spring of 2011. The players we had started to mature. Work ethics that had been substandard got a lot better. I think what they started to absorb was that there was going to be real competition for playing time. It’s been fun to watch.
With IU ranked so high preseason, do you have to keep a lid on the hype?
I let the kids have a little fun with it. Last year, they weren’t picked to do anything. A poll of Big Ten media writers picked them to finish ninth. They responded to that. So my message to them now is: This is fun to see, but it will change. The first time we don’t play well, the first time we lose a game, the doubters will be back very quickly. How will we respond to that?
Do you find yourself in a better mood after a winning season?
Oh, absolutely. Losing is hard. I try to keep things in perspective, but there’s no question that I’m in a better mood. It’s better for our families, it’s better for the players. But there’s nothing that resembles contentment or complacency here.
What does your celebrated freshman recruit class have to learn from upperclassmen like Christian Watford and Jordan Hulls?
There are certain things the young guys will have to learn about spacing and footwork. But I’ve always had freshmen who played a lot of minutes, even at Marquette. Experience is great, but you’d rather have talent. So the upperclassmen are showing these young guys what it takes to succeed in life here—how we study, how to be on time for things. What they’ll learn eventually is that the better you are in these other parts of your life, the better you’re going to be at basketball. As soon as one of those other parts of your life starts to suffer, your game will suffer.
You’re headed out on the recruiting trail today. What’s your pitch to these kids? What do you try to sell about Bloomington and IU?
It starts with how connected basketball is to the fabric of this town and this state. There’s nobody that’s even close to having as many students who go to basketball games as Indiana University. And it has always been like that. I’m selling the third-largest alumni base in the country, more than 180 different majors, what the players have done for decades after basketball. We want them to come here and see the vibrancy of this campus, and a lot of times that sells itself.
Has recruiting gotten any easier with the team’s recent success?
It’s easier to get in doors, but it hasn’t gotten any easier to sign players. And we’ve always recruited guys who could put us in the hunt to win the league. The first recruiting class was Jordan Hulls, Christian Watford, Maurice Creek, Derek Elston. Those guys are all mainstays. If Creek had stayed healthy, he wouldn’t be here anymore. He’d be in the NBA.
Be honest: how many times have you watched the end of the home game against Kentucky last year?
You couldn’t help but watch it if you had ESPN last year! They ran that commercial hundreds of times. I see it a lot in the highlight tapes we show recruits and it’s still thrilling. But as a coach, it’s hard to watch the last 7 minutes. We had a chance to blow that game wide open and didn’t. They let a lot of opportunities slip away. Would we trade the drama and what it did for this program? No. You couldn’t have scripted it any better.
Coolest moment of your coaching career?
No. To me, winning up at Purdue after coming off the Michigan loss last year was as exciting as anything. The way we closed out the North Carolina State away game was a huge springboard for this team. But nothing has had the long-term effects that play has.
You had an almost sickened look after the buzzer. What was going through your mind?
A lot. I was still in combat mode. I’ve had to call coaches and apologize for my lack of a handshake because I was so lost in the moment. It’s hard to turn it off. There were a lot of emotions and there’s no question that relief was one of them. But shock, too. We knew they were going to foul us, so our plan was to try for an intentional foul. I thought we were going to run out of time. But after the basket counted, it was unbelievable.
What game are you most looking forward to this season?
I don’t break it down like that. It’s easy to red-letter certain games and say “This is a big one, here.” They’re usually the same ones the fans look at. North Carolina comes to town. We’re going to play in the Crossroads Classic against a very good Butler team that I think will be highly-ranked before it’s all said and done. But the moment you start thinking ahead of other games, you’re losing clarity.
What are your expectations for this year?
I’ve never been a numerical goal kind of guy. And my boss has never set that kind of goal for me. If he did, I would probably be looking for a new boss. I think your expectation always has to be that everyone is doing everything they can to improve. Where this team is right now, there are a lot of maybes. Will some players start to level off and feel that they’ve arrived? Will we be distraction free? Will we respond well when people jump off the bandwagon? Because outside of undefeated, that’s going to happen to anybody in sports. So far, this team has done well at staying in that boring, clichéd mindset of “one game at a time.”
Are we going to see your brother-in-law Jim Harbaugh on the bench once or twice?
I sure hope so. Jim was at our house from Tuesday to Saturday of Super Bowl week and he didn’t get off the couch a whole lot. He was just coming off the end of the NFL season and he was in straight decompression mode. But he and his brother John both spoke to the team, and our guys thrived on it. The players are really relaxed around them. The Harbaughs come into the locker room wearing Bench Mob T-shirts and they’re regular guys. When I brought Dwyane Wade in, that wasn’t the case. I don’t want to say they were in awe, but it’s easy for them to put guys like that on a pedestal.
When we interviewed Cody Zeller at the beginning of last season, he surprised us when he said he would probably play four years at IU. Do you still expect that to happen?
I don’t have any expectations in that regard. I couldn’t have faulted him if he wanted to leave last year, and I won’t fault him whenever he does go. He came in here and unpacked every bag—it wasn’t like he had one foot out the door. He has entrenched himself at Indiana University. He’s as clear-headed a young person as I’ve ever known. And he is so far away from being as good as he’s going to be. No matter how long he’s at Indiana, we’ll never see all of that. His next coach in the NBA is going to get to enjoy it.
What did you learn during those tough first three years of coaching at IU?
You can never lose hope that things are going to turn. I never got discouraged. Disappointed? Absolutely. They both start with a “d” but they’re entirely different things. Disappointment is inevitable. You control whether or not you get discouraged. I took our family out of a really good environment of winning at Marquette. And we came in here and it was really hard. There’s no question it was hard on my wife when I was coming home in a bad mood. And it was hard on me seeing it be hard on her. It was hard for our kids—they didn’t know anything other than winning. They’ll be better off for having gone through this, and they never shot a basket. I think every person who was a part of this will be better for having overcome the adversity. So I learned a lot, but some of it I have to save for the book.
Photo by Stephen Simonetto