Archie Miller’s Greatest Challenge

The new IU basketball coach hopes to do what Tom Crean couldn’t late in his tenure: recruit the state of Indiana. But that game has changed since the school’s glory days.

November 2017Add a comment

One day this spring, not even a month into his contract as the new head coach of the IU men’s basketball team, Archie Miller pulled into a parking lot at Lawrence North High School. Miller had come to see the Indianapolis basketball institution, but more important, he wanted to meet its coach, Jack Keefer. Keefer is an institution himself, having recently wrapped his fourth decade with the Wildcats, a team he has led to four state titles.

Keefer welcomed Miller into his office, where they sat on a couch and talked hoops for an hour. It was a valuable 60 minutes given everything Miller was doing to jump-start his program after last year’s dismal record. “He wanted to ask, ‘How do I fit in in this state?’” Keefer says. At the end of the meeting, Keefer told Miller about an eighth-grader who was already giving his varsity players trouble. The kid was actually stopping by in a few minutes to play, and Keefer told Miller he might see him if he stuck around. “Don’t worry about it,” IU’s coach replied. “I’ll be back.”

Miller’s pilgrimage and the state patriotism it implies will, no doubt, thrill IU fans. After all, one of their biggest complaints about his predecessor, Tom Crean, is that he struggled to recruit Indiana’s best players. The Hoosier state remains a special place in terms of basketball talent. If Miller can keep those kids home—if he can recruit “inside-out,” as he said at his first press conference—he can win big. Meeting legends like Jack Keefer might seem to fans like a very good start.

Except that’s not how modern recruiting works. There’s nothing wrong with a new hire getting the lay of the land, but IU’s problems didn’t begin with a failure to charm high school coaches. Instead, the key to Crean’s downfall—and the key to Miller’s potential success—is something much simpler. It all comes down to family.

 

Here’s how recruiting used to operate in Indiana: Bob Knight (or Gene Keady, or anyone else) would call a high school coach and say he was interested in a certain player. If the coach knew the interest was mutual, he’d arrange for his college counterpart to attend a game. If that went well, they’d coordinate a meeting at the player’s home with him, his parents, and both coaches. Keefer remembers the recruitment of Lawrence North’s star Eric Montross in 1990. Keady came to the in-home meeting in a bland, university-issued sedan. North Carolina’s Dean Smith came in a limo; the driver waited outside while Smith showed Montross a long document of Tar Heels who’d gone pro and how much they’d made from those first contracts. Knight stopped by on his way home from a hunting trip. “He was driving some kind of 4×4,” Keefer recalls, “and he said, ‘I believe you’re good enough to make my team.’” Montross went to North Carolina.

Indiana still produces tons of basketball talent. In fact, more than the newly renovated Assembly Hall, more than its rabid fan base, IU’s best asset may be its home state, which excels in every possible way one might quantify basketball fertility. According to Stats LLC, a sports data firm, Indiana ranked sixth out of the 50 states in Division I basketball players per capita last year. Indiana outpunches its peers in terms of McDonald’s All-Americans and NBA players, as well.

But the way those players choose a school has shifted. Gary Harris grew up in Fishers and starred at Hamilton Southeastern; he was named a McDonald’s All-American in 2012 and now starts for the Denver Nuggets. He’s a wonderful example of how good Indiana players can be. He’s also an example of how much things have changed.

Harris wanted to pick a college before the start of his senior season, and his parents took the lead. “Before he became an elite recruit,” his father, Gary Harris Sr., says, “our goal was just a free education.” But as the younger Harris climbed the national rankings, the attention became overwhelming. Coaches from all over tried calling him directly. They approached him after practice and in the lunchroom at school.

His family decided to simplify his recruitment, but that meant doing some research first. The Harrises compiled a wish list: great academics, great athletics, the ability to play immediately, and a campus close to home, so Mom and Dad could get to games. Eventually, the family settled on a final four of Indiana, Purdue, Kentucky, and Michigan State. They assembled a fat three-ring binder with a section on each school. There were private depth charts from the coaches, lists of promising majors, and notes on other recruits. “It was detailed so he could go back to refer to it,” Harris Sr. says.

After one last conversation at the dinner table, the younger Harris decided on Michigan State. The reason was clear. “I can give it to you in one word,” Harris Sr. says. “Izzo.” He loved that the Spartans’ head coach could be demanding with his players while still welcoming them back to campus years later—“that family feel,” Harris Sr. says. Once Harris decided, he called Izzo to let him know. But the coach didn’t answer his phone. Michigan State, it turned out, was practicing on the deck of the USS Carl Vinson, preparing for the first Carrier Classic. Later, Harris called a Spartan assistant, who passed the phone to an elated Izzo.

It ended an exhausting process, but Harris Sr. says his son rarely consulted outside advice. “We tried to keep the circle tight,” he says. “From the beginning, it was always going to be family feedback, then a personal decision.”

 

Of all the ways to measure Crean’s shortcomings in recruiting Indiana, the most striking is this: He didn’t land even one of the state’s last six Mr. Basketballs. While he started strong with Cody Zeller, by the end, Crean had whiffed on Zak Irvin, Trey Lyles, Caleb Swanigan, Kyle Guy, Kris Wilkes, and, yes, Gary Harris.

To understand why Crean and the state couldn’t get along, IM spoke to three recruiting experts (and granted them anonymity). “Fans make judgments about recruiting when they almost never have enough information to do so,” says one analyst who covers the East Coast. “It’s always more complicated than it seems.” Still, some broad themes emerge.

Crean’s struggles had very little to do with Indiana’s high school coaches, mostly because those coaches no longer possess the power they did in Bob Knight’s day. An analyst who focuses on the Midwest points to the example of Park Tudor’s Trevon Bluiett, who was pursued by IU and others. A few hours before Bluiett announced his commitment to Xavier, his high school coach called the analyst and asked, “You know where he’s going?” The coach was still clueless that close to decision time.

It’s true that many coaches in this state—some of them IU alums, some with the IU logo literally tattooed on their body—didn’t want to send high-schoolers to Bloomington in recent years. “They weren’t thrilled with the way Crean coached,” says a third expert who covers Indiana, “accepting a high turnover rate and emphasizing offense over defense.” But it’s also true that high school coaches no longer “send” anyone anywhere. They were never Crean’s biggest problem, or even his fifth-biggest problem.

Instead, his issues came from connecting with players and parents. In the world of modern recruiting, both groups have become more empowered and interconnected. Indiana’s Amateur Athletic Union coaches now hold as little influence as its high school coaches, but the AAU circuit matters. That’s where top players meet, often as early as the third grade, and they stay in touch through social media. They compare schools’ pitches. When Crean was chasing a combo guard named Bruce Brown, for instance, he was also pursuing a combo guard named Curtis Jones. After the two talked, they realized IU had promised both heavy minutes at point guard. “To a coach, it’s reasonable to tell two kids you can develop them both with the ball in their hands,” the East Coast analyst says. “But to a kid, it’s either ‘I’m the point guard’ or ‘I’m not.’” IU only got Jones.

Parents talk, as well. They go to national AAU events; they get on social media. There’s also been a clear shift in their educational backgrounds. By 2015, four in five college basketball players had a parent who had also attended college, a number that continues to rise. (Gary Harris’s parents, for instance, both graduated from Purdue.)

Recruits’ families, in short, have become more hands-on, especially in this state. “For the most part, when you’re recruiting Indiana, you’re recruiting parents,” the Midwestern expert says. Those parents compare notes, a factor that hurt IU when elite families griped to each other about “Creaning,” the former coach’s practice of signing too many players and then letting his roster churn. Some families also felt turned off by Crean’s intensity.

Crean has always been the internet’s favorite coach to tease—never more so than in 2012, when he sent out an accidental tweet: “I have been thinking about you a lot since last weekend,” he tweeted. “A whole lot.” It was meant to be a direct message to a recruit, but instead it offered a glimpse behind the scenes. Crean’s manner on the sidelines was also his manner in private. “Being in fifth gear all the time,” says the Indiana analyst, “for a guy like Victor Oladipo, that’s great. But for other guys, it’s not.” IU’s coach struggled to calibrate his approach to different players with different needs. “The longer he recruited a kid,” the Midwestern analyst adds, “the worse he did.”

It’s worth noting that by the end, Crean had rejected the Hoosier state as much as it had rejected him—and for some fair reasons. His highest-ranked class, and his most Indiana-centric, was in 2012, a group of players that became known as “The Movement.” But once it turned into his most disastrous class (four of the five recruits transferred), Crean switched his recruiting focus to the East Coast. “No one expected Noah Vonleh to be one-and-done,” says the East Coast analyst of the former Massachusetts star, who now plays for the Portland Trail Blazers. “That resonated in this region.”

But while Crean did well with out-of-staters like Vonleh and Thomas Bryant, his teams remained inconsistent. And that made his home-state misses all the more noticeable. Crean pursued Gary Harris as hard as he pursued any Indiana kid. The Harrises, for their part, have only good things to say about the process. “Crean did an excellent job,” Harris Sr. says, adding that the coach has continued to treat them kindly. In fact, when the two ran into each other at a recent Pacers game, Crean offered a warm hello and asked how Gary was doing. Still, one can read between the lines of an old quote the younger Harris gave The Ann Arbor News in 2012. “Izzo, he never panicked,” the star recruit said. “He was always calm, his normal self when he was waiting it out.” It appears Crean’s personality wasn’t the right fit for Harris—and that the personal connection matters more than ever to players and the families they confide in.

 

Archie Miller has yet to coach his first game at IU, but he’s already making a few offseason changes. While Crean had stopped doing team camps—high-profile events where dozens of high schools bring their squads to Bloomington to scrimmage each other—Miller revived them this summer. Coaches loved that he set the price lower than it had been in the past. Players loved the competition, in addition to seeing Assembly Hall and IU’s other lavish facilities in a calm, fun setting.

Miller’s camp drew some of Indiana’s top high school coaches, including Lawrence North’s Keefer. It makes sense to reach out to them through team camps, friendly texts, and office visits—all of which Miller has done in his first months on the job.

But those coaching relationships won’t determine Miller’s fate. In fact, his efforts on that front say more about his thoroughness—and maybe his understanding of the kind of stories old-school IU fans love to read—than about anything else. “The biggest thing Archie Miller has done is develop relationships with players and their families very quickly,” says the analyst who tracks Indiana. “He does a really good job of connecting with people on a personal level.” So far, Miller has secured essentially seven recruits—the three players from Crean’s final class, whom he convinced to stay, plus four more top-100 recruits he landed in July and August.

One of those recruits was Jerome Hunter, an exciting wing player from Ohio. His high school squad had traveled to Miller’s team camp, and his mother tagged along, too. Miller and his assistants made a point to welcome her, realizing that in today’s recruiting, families matter. This fall, IU fans will be tracking New Albany High School star Romeo Langford as he starts his senior season playing for coach Jim Shannon. The same is true for fans at Kentucky, Kansas, Vanderbilt, and North Carolina. Langford may be the most coveted player to emerge from Indiana since Gary Harris. But while he’ll have lots of competition, Miller surely knows how to approach Langford. “Whether you do or do not talk to Jim Shannon, that’s not changing your chances of getting Romeo,” the Midwestern analyst says. “You’ve got to talk to his father.”

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