(Quick note for those finding this old post--I have briefly come out of blogging retirement to share some thoughts on the Crean era at Indiana upon his firing earlier today, March 16, 2017. Future Chris invites you to check out the new post out after reading the old one below. Thanks!)
There's one word to describe my reaction when I heard yesterday afternoon that Tom Crean is heading to Indiana: shocked. Over the past few years Crean's name has been thrown around in relation to just about every big college basketball coaching job in the country. But there was barely a mention of Crean this time around. I actually thought the report was an April Fool's Day joke at first. But to my surprise, it was real.
As with most things during the Tom Crean era, I find myself conflicted in how I feel about his departure. On one hand, I've made no secret over the years about the fact that I'm not exactly the world's biggest Tom Crean fan. The almost yearly stream of departures from the program by players and assistant coaches has always bothered me, as has the fact that I've spoken to virtually no one who has dealt with him directly and indicated that they liked him or found him to be truly genuine. And of course, from a basketball standpoint, my stomach starts churning every time Crean calls a play coming out of a time-out (though to be fair, there were actually a handful of good calls down the stretch this year). While he may be an excellent motivator of men, he’s not really a basketball savant.
But all that said, on a day like this, even I have to concede that he's done some incredible things at Marquette that will have a positive impact long after he's gone. That gorgeous practice facility called the Al McGuire Center (great for the school and the community) likely doesn't exist without Tom Crean. As a guy who grew up watching Marquette play in the conference that has morphed into the Horizon League, I know that without some of Tom Crean's accomplishments at Marquette, the Golden Eagles likely wouldn't have had a chance at gaining entry into the Big East. Knock him all that you want for his tournament difficulties since 2003, but he did go to the Final Four, and that's not something that a lot of coaches have done. Finally, I may be going out on a limb here, but I believe that Tom Crean's teams' success on the basketball court has probably even helped Marquette from an academic standpoint. Marquette's not anywhere near as easy to get into as it was when I was getting ready to go to college, and while I'm not naive enough to think that all, or even most of the increased competition for admission is due to basketball, it certainly couldn't hurt having the name out there on ESPN (Remember, this analysis is coming from a guy who applied to colleges largely on the basis of where I could watch good basketball.).
So what do I make of Tom Crean at Indiana? I'm not sold that he's a perfect fit, but there are two things about him that I think will translate well to the Hoosiers. First and foremost, coming off the Kelvin Sampson scandal, Tom Crean's not dirty. I've never heard a hint of a rules violation surrounding him, and that has to be the single biggest consideration for Indiana going into this hire. Secondly, Hoosiers are going to love his intensity. I've alluded to the fact that among people that I know who've dealt with Crean, he's almost universally unliked. Perhaps the only thing that I've heard that's as universally agreed upon, though, is that people who've seen one of his practices rave about how even during intra-squad scrimmages players look like they're fighting to win a Final Four game. It’s like a court full of Rudys. And given that my "people who've dealt with Crean" group has some heavy overlap with my "people who've seen Crean practices" group, you know he's doing something really right if he's impressing people that aren't particularly fond of him.
That's not to say that Crean's a perfect fit. In my estimation, his biggest strength and biggest weakness are horribly mismatched with Indiana. Crean's biggest strength is his ability as a promoter. His pre-game Jumbotron messages to fans, a mind-blowing number of promotional give-aways, and his tradition of shaking hands with the student section on the way out to the court all helped to build interest in the program. And while it never hurts to be a great promoter (just ask Bruce Pearl), I'm not sure that that's what Indiana needs. Indiana basketball has never seemed to me like one of those things that needs much promotion. People in Indiana are always going to be basketball crazy, even if you don't give then a bobblehead and constantly shake their hands. They don't need to put butts in the seats--they just need someone that knows basketball.
And that brings me to what I see as possibly Crean's biggest weakness--he's a pretty shaky game coach. Simply put, if there are 15 seconds left on the clock and my team's down 2 points, I'm not feeling real confident if I look over at the bench and see Tom Crean putting together the plan (why do I feel like I'm foreshadowing a Wisconsin loss at Indiana next year where I end the night feeling like I'm being repeatedly kicked in the groin). I could be wrong, but Indiana seems to me, more than almost anywhere else, to be a place where they'd value an Xs and Os genius. Tom Crean is not that. His ability to get guys to run through walls for him can mitigate this weakness a lot of the time, but I have to think that his lack of remarkable basketball acumen with not play well with a fan base that expects their coach to be a skillful tactician.
So it will be interesting to see how Crean does at Indiana. I suspect his tenure may be a bit more rocky than most others do. Crean’s not as bad a coach as people thought during the year when he ended the season losing to Western Michigan in the opening round of the NIT in front of just 3000 fans, but he’s also not as good as people thought when he went to the Final Four. Problem is, Indiana’s hiring the Final Four guy. If they ever get a glimpse of the NIT guy, things could turn nasty.
A few final thoughts before I wrap up my farewell to Tom Crean entry:
1) I don't yet know what the general feeling among Marquette fans on Crean's departure is, but I hope it's not excessive anger or resentment. At the end of the day, Crean's a guy who made significant improvements to the program in the 9 years he was around, made his job much more attractive to any potential replacements, and only left when one of the 5-6 most storied programs in the history of college basketball came calling. Again, there are plenty of things not to like about him, but he left Marquette a lot better than he found it.
2) Looks like that dilema of having one too many players signed to scholarship for next year should find a reasonable way of working itself out now. (And for the record, I think Dominic James and Jerel McNeal are coming back, and always have.) Heck, the new coach may even be scrambling to fill all of the spots...
3) With regard to replacement coaches at Marquette, I'll talk only about my thoughts on the two local names that are sure to pop up, since I haven't had a chance to really look at who's available. Forget about Tony Bennett, because while he's a Wisconsin native, my feeling on him is that he didn't turn down the Indiana job because he didn't want it, but rather he turned it down because he feels he owes some loyalty to Washington State for the opportunity that they afforded him and his father. The chance to come home probably doesn't change that. However, the prospect of coming home is an interesting one when applied to Rick Majerus. Majerus cited as one of his reasons for taking the coaching job at St. Louis that it afforded him the ability to drive to Milwaukee in just a handful of hours if he needed to provide assistance to his Milwaukee-based mother. Like Bennett, I see Majerus as a loyal guy who probably doesn’t want to leave St. Louis out in the cold after just one year (I've long believed that he'd have Bo Ryan's job right now if not for the fact that Utah had been very accommodating to him with a leave of absence in the season prior to the Wisconsin job coming open). But if offered the job, might Majerus’s family considerations outweigh his professional loyalty?
4) Whoever Marquette hires, this is a real chance for them to have at least one big year. The cupboard is not bare, and I’d be very interested to see what someone with a little more basketball acumen than Tom Crean can do with his stable of excellent guards.
5) Welcome to your first year as athletic director, Steve Cottingham. Bet you didn’t think things would get this fun right away, huh?
6) This isn’t specifically Crean related, but I’ll mention it anyway. Yesterday as I was driving to an appointment after work, I wanted to listen to local reactions to Tom Crean’s departure on local radio. Since the two stations that I normally listen to were playing Bucks and Badgers programming, I flipped over to 1250, Milwaukee’s lesser-known sports talk station. Something called the Gary and Cliff Show was on, and well, let’s just say that if you ever want to know about Marquette basketball, this isn’t the show to listen to. It’s frightening to me that a host of a Milwaukee sports talk radio show could be unaware that Rick Majerus was once the head coach of Marquette, or speculate that Majerus might have left for Ball State because that may have been a better job at the time. Looks like I’ve been right all along in refusing to listen to 1250.
7) I'm excited for the upcoming Marquette season already. Not because I know anything about what the year will bring, but because I'm genuinely excited to see how I feel about Marquette. For the past few years, I've had a hard time genuinely rooting for them, and I suspect it's due to my distaste for Tom Crean. This year I get to figure out my reluctance to truly embrace Marquette is attributable to Crean, or some other reason, like the entertainment value that I get from seeing my friend Greg overly upset after Marquette losses. Only time will tell.