Seeing Red: Will IU Basketball Fans Ever Like Tom Crean Again?

At the start of this season, they were calling for the coach’s head. Then his team cracked the national rankings and made a case for the NCAA tournament. Now comes the hard part: winning back Hoosier Nation.

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f you followed media reports and fan postulation at the beginning of this Indiana University men’s basketball season, you might have concluded that head coach Tom Crean’s dismissal was inevitable.

Illustration by Lincoln Agnew
Illustration by Lincoln Agnew

In November, in the wee hours before a scrimmage at Assembly Hall, freshman Emmitt Holt, 18, hit sophomore Devin Davis, 19, with a car, sending Davis to the hospital with a serious head injury. Both had been drinking. The incident was the latest in a run of alcohol-related player misconduct: Bloomington police had busted 21-year-old junior Hanner Mosquera-Perea for drinking and driving in February 2014, and in April, state excise officers nabbed junior Kevin “Yogi” Ferrell, then 20, and sophomore Stanford Robinson, then 18, for illegal consumption and having fake IDs.

As if that weren’t enough, while Davis lay in the hospital recuperating from his accident, Crean announced suspensions for Robinson—strike two—and sophomore Troy Williams. Although the school didn’t officially provide a reason for the punishment, an unidentified source told ESPN that the two players had failed drug tests.

Like pennies from heaven, the whole sordid affair fell right into the lap of Indianapolis Star sports columnist Gregg Doyel, who, on the job for two weeks, seized the chance to make a splash in a new state. “It’s only a matter of time, now,” he wrote. “Tom Crean cannot coach the Indiana basketball team much longer. When would be too long? The Hoosiers’ first exhibition is Thursday night. That would be too long.”

For malcontents among IU’s fan base, the developments posterized Crean’s tenure with a rude, rim-rocking slam dunk. Concerns over the moral integrity of his leadership quickly turned to critiques of his coaching ability—often in the same breath—as typified by this tweet from @firetomcreannow (the most-followed of several fire-Crean Twitter handles): “Crean can’t teach them to beat a zone, can’t teach them to avoid drugs or get caught drinking. What is he teaching them? #FireTomCrean.”

Perhaps most ominous for Crean, though, was the fact that anyone knew about those drug tests at all. Per IU athletics-department policy and federal privacy laws, university officials are not permitted to release screening results to the public. And that raises serious questions about the identity (and credibility) of the ESPN source with “knowledge” of Robinson and Williams’s tests—and whether someone inside the program might have wanted to burn Crean by leaking them.

On his radio show, Crean addressed a need to “build the right habits and eliminate the bad ones.” Director of athletics Fred Glass, who stepped in as Crean’s boss shortly after the coach’s hiring in 2008, tried to calm the torch-bearing mob gathering outside his office. “Tom is absolutely not in trouble,” he told the Bloomington Herald-Times. “Tom is the solution. He’s not part of the problem.”

A smart handicapper would have bet on things going ugly early this season, and many did. The squad was inexperienced, returning a single surefire starter from the previous season, and paper-thin in the post, with only two rotation players taller than 6-foot-7. Most preseason predictions had them finishing near the bottom of the Big Ten.

Instead, they hunkered down and strung together some wins. By February, IU had beaten four ranked opponents, climbed to second place in the Big Ten standings, and made a case for an NCAA tournament berth. The Hoosiers no longer looked like the hopelessly fragmented and directionless team everyone said they were. They looked like a team that came together and focused on basketball. In some places, that might be an indication of good coaching.

But this is Indiana.

 

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Photo by Tony Valainis

The end of Hoosier Nation’s honeymoon with Tom Crean came much earlier than this season. And, as with any rocky marriage viewed in retrospect, it occurred at a specific place and time: a little after 9:45 p.m. on March 28, 2013, at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C.

One minute and 14 seconds into the East Regional semifinal against Syracuse in the NCAA tournament, the shot clock expired on IU—the first time the Hoosiers lost the ball in a half that would see them commit 12 turnovers and muster a measly 22 points, after averaging nearly 80 per game for the season. Indiana’s guys looked even worse than the numbers. They weren’t just outmanned physically, by a swarm of long-armed defenders who gave Syracuse the effect of having six players on the court instead of five; they seemed utterly baffled by Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim’s stifling 2-3 zone.

More-accomplished coaches than Crean have been outwitted by Boeheim, a 900-game winner. And to be fair, IU calmed down in the second half, committing only seven more turnovers and actually outscoring Syracuse. But it wasn’t enough. After a season-long top-five ranking, a Big Ten title, and a number-one seed in the NCAA tournament, IU fans had decided that a banner was their birthright. Someone had to be blamed, and the verdict was in: Crean couldn’t coach.

The national media shoveled on the dirt even before the corpse of IU’s season was cold, and invoked the name of Bob Knight’s replacement, a man whose abuse by fans set the standard in Bloomington. “At least Mike Davis won a Sweet 16 game,” USA Today sportswriter Dan Wolken tweeted shortly after the Syracuse buzzer. Davis took his team to the NCAA final in 2002 and lost to a superior Maryland team, and yet Wolken couldn’t have slapped Crean with a greater insult unless he’d mailed it on Kentucky-blue stationery. Worse for Crean, two of IU’s starters, Cody Zeller and first-team All-American Victor Oladipo, later went fourth and second in the NBA draft. How could Indiana not win it all with two top-five picks?

This, after a five-year love fest of candy stripes and “Crean & Crimson” T-shirts. Once a hot commodity from Marquette University, Crean had rekindled the ashes left by former coach Kelvin Sampson’s NCAA violations. Crean got an understandable free pass in his first few seasons, and then secured a commitment from Zeller, a coveted in-state recruit. Zeller helped the team to a now-famous buzzer-beating win over top-ranked Kentucky that caused coach John Calipari to swear off ever scheduling a game at Assembly Hall again. A late-season tear in 2012 launched IU into the Sweet 16.

And then the ecstasy, and agony, of the 2012–13 season. What Crean really needed to restore the faith of the Hoosier faithful after the Syracuse debacle was a strong follow-up year. Instead, he got 17–15 and a snub from the NCAA tournament selection committee. Fans nitpicked every substitution, in-game adjustment, and play call. Then, inevitably, came the speculation that management might be shopping for a new coach. A March 2014 New York Daily News article cited rumors that IU boosters were poised to pony up the cash for Crean’s $12 million contractual buyout, in order to hire IU great and NBA coach Mike Woodson.

Every setback was a crimson flag: Freshman Luke Fischer’s sudden homesick departure to his native Wisconsin. (Fischer now plays for Marquette, of all places.) Austin Etherington’s transfer to Butler. Jeremy Hollowell’s exit to Georgia State. One-and-done star Noah Vonleh’s escape to the NBA—without informing Crean beforehand. As the present season got underway, fans fantasized that former Butler coach Brad Stevens might leave Boston for B-town.

This isn’t the first time fans have turned on Crean. In 2003, he led Marquette to its first Final Four in decades. Doubters grumbled that superstar Dwayne Wade carried Crean on his back. Evoking a refrain now familiar in Hoosier Nation, Doug Russell, a sports-radio host in Milwaukee, says, “there was always the perception that he was a decent recruiter but not a good bench coach.” After Crean left, Marquette produced a video of the basketball program’s all-time highlights. When fans saw Crean’s face on the Bradley Center jumbotrons, they booed.

More difficult to reconcile are the persistent doubts about Crean’s character, which followed him from Marquette to Indiana. Part of it is perception: When he’s winning, Crean’s sideline pacing and breathless halftime interviews are “energetic” and “passionate.” When he’s not, the behavior is “manic.” His charisma, nice suits, and expensive-looking haircut are either the emblems of a polished, savvy leader or signs that he’s “slick.” In media circles, word is that Crean declines interviews after the smallest of perceived slights. Russell says Indiana’s sports-information department denied him an interview after Crean came to IU due to “disparaging remarks” he’d made on his radio show. (They also declined IM’s interview request with Crean, citing lack of time during the season.) Rumors about player discontent have also circulated widely, but as of yet, not one has said as much on the record. In November 2014, CBSSports.com’s Gary Parrish quoted an anonymous source “close to the program” as saying “there is definitely a disconnect between Tom and the players.” In the article, a former team manager confirms the disconnect and complains that Crean addressed him with “Hey, you” instead of remembering his name.

“Everybody’s expectations are the same—mine, Tom’s, Hoosier Nation, the players,” says athletics director Fred Glass. “Hang a sixth banner.”

Such accounts conflict sharply with reports of what a good guy Crean is. Julian Swartz, who worked under Crean at Marquette and then Indiana, offers a glowing testimonial. “The overall thing I feel about him is he deeply, genuinely cares about people,” says Swartz, now director of player development with the University of Memphis. “You see the stuff in the media, and it’s like, if people could just truly know, especially behind the scenes, everything that he has done to help others.” Swartz left IU after Crean’s first season due to Swartz’s struggle with mental illness. He says no one did more to help and support him through that time than Crean. “I’m not at Memphis without him,” says Swartz. In 2012, a Louisville TV station ran a story about Crean stopping to help a motorist stranded alongside State Road 45 on a cold, snowy night.

Okay, but can he coach? “There are always going to be criticisms, but from my point of view, they have done a great job preparing their team,” says Dan Dakich, ESPN analyst and sports-talk host on WFNI 1070 The Fan (owned by Emmis Communications, which also owns IM). As IU’s interim head coach in 2008, Dakich was passed over in favor of Crean. But if Dakich has an ax to grind, you wouldn’t know it.

“Tom has always been a guy who has scouted well, very well, and he’s been a guy who puts his teams in good positions,” says Dakich. “They have a plan, and like with any coach, sometimes that plan, man, it’s really dialed-in and it works, but the players don’t make shots or miss a blockout.” He also contends that IU does as good a job at developing players “as any program in the country.” Under Crean, former forward Christian Watford, a “skinny guy” from Alabama no one had heard of, became a bloodless shooter and pro prospect. More recently, Dakich has seen Mosquera-Perea, a freaky athlete who was “terrible in high school,” evolve into a “serviceable” Big Ten player.

Dakich’s colleague at ESPN, former coach Seth Greenberg, calls Crean “a tireless worker” who “does a terrific job” making in-game adjustments. “I know everyone sees his frenetic pace on the sideline, but that’s just who he is,” says Greenberg. “That does not stop him from seeing the game.”

Chris Holtmann, who faced Crean as head coach at Gardner-Webb in 2011 and again with Butler—IU’s second win over a ranked opponent this season—praises Crean’s ability to “adapt to the personnel and utilize their strengths.” When Mosquera-Perea, one of the team’s few big men, went down with a midseason injury, Crean filled his starting spot with the shorter, unheralded Collin Hartman. The smaller lineup peeled off three straight wins, and Hartman’s inspired play electrified fans. Crean, says Holtmann, “really turned what people would perceive as a weakness—their lack of size—into an advantage.”

At the end of the day, only one opinion matters: Fred Glass’s. “I’ve seen the guy up close,” says Glass. “Seen the way he breaks down film and coaches these guys, both on individual skills and strategy. I’ve believed since the beginning that he’s not only a great recruiter, which people seem to acknowledge. He’s not only a great motivator, which people generally acknowledge. He’s not only a great developer of talent, which I think his naysayers grudgingly acknowledge. He’s a great X’s-and-O’s coach. I didn’t need this year to have that confirmed for me.”

Has Glass flirted with other coaches? No. What does Glass expect from Crean? Pretty much the same thing you want from him. “If you’re at Indiana, and you don’t qualify for a major postseason tournament, it’s a disappointing year,” he says. “Everybody’s expectations are the same—mine, Tom’s, Hoosier Nation, the players. Hang a sixth banner. I don’t think Indiana is really satisfied, nor should it be, with anything less.”

 

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Photo by Tony Valainis

In January, Indiana hosted 13th-ranked Maryland at Assembly Hall—a huge, ESPN-televised matchup. Tied for first place in the Big Ten, Maryland held a half-game lead over Indiana in the league standings. IU’s pregame press materials included their usual reminders about what Crean’s program has accomplished: Three NBA Lottery picks in the past two seasons, tied with perennial powerhouse Kansas. Eighteen regular-season wins over ranked opponents since the 2011–2012 season, more than any other Big Ten team. The highest field-goal percentage of all major-conference schools.

During team introductions, the announcement of Crean’s name elicited polite applause from the crowd—a marked improvement over the boos that greeted him earlier this season. But after the final buzzer, which sealed a season-defining, blowout win for IU, he lingered on the court, pointing at the stands and basking in a standing ovation. He showed up at the postgame press conference sans jacket and tie, and with his open collar, tan, and million-dollar smile, he looked relaxed, like a man who’d just returned from vacation. He took a few moments for a casual chat with some of the media guys and asked how their families were.

During the presser, national sportswriter Pat Forde remarked that, early on, this IU team didn’t seem to have a “high ceiling.”

“High ceiling? I don’t know,” Crean replied. “We’re improving. And they’ve been improving all year. What these guys have done over a period of time is draw closer. They really worked hard, I would say, to control what they can control.”

Eventually the subject turned to the troubles at the start of the season. “Did we have some things come up? Absolutely,” Crean answered. “We dealt with them. And we’re still dealing with them.

“There’s a lot of season left,” he added.

Three days later, in Columbus, IU lost by 12 to Ohio State, a team they’d beaten at home two weeks earlier, prompting @firetomcreannow to tweet that it was “Time to stop ordering those rings.” Which proves two things: One, it’s hard to win on the road in the Big Ten. And two, it’s hard to please some IU fans, no matter what you do.

 

 

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