Thursday, March 16, 2017

Nine Years Later: Another Crean Ending

Just under nine years ago Tom Crean announced he was leaving Marquette. A day later, I wrote what has ultimately become the most widely read post in the history of my blog. And all these years later, each year I still know exactly when Indiana’s season is turning south when I get an e-mail notification that someone has commented on the blog that I stopped updating long ago. That e-mail notification undoubtedly means the same thing each time–someone on an Indiana basketball message board has linked to my old Crean post and a small group of people is essentially proclaiming me to be Nostradamus. And I’ve got one post from the old blog that’s going to be pretty popular for a couple of days.

I get a few smiles when my old blog gets dredged up and a bunch of nice strangers say that I gave a perfect analysis of who Crean is and how his time at Indiana would play out. Like the people linking to it, I’m also kind of amazed that I was so strangely accurate in my forecast. As is true for most people, I get things wrong a lot more than I get them right. But I will admit that when I wrote the Crean post, every opinion that I held about him something that I felt very strongly about. So it’s kind of cool to think that I really did know what I was talking about back in .

I thought with the benefit of nine years worth of perspective that it might be fun to reflect on my old blog post for anyone who might be interested in what I’m thinking today, as a much quieter college basketball fan. This was actually already in the works before Crean’s firing earlier today, but his termination obviously makes it a good time to reopen this topic. I was always fond of bullet points when I was writing the blog, so I’ll stick with that format for my various reflections here:

–I always get a chuckle reading the message board posts that link to my Crean post, as they almost always say something to the effect of "This Marquette fan really got this right." It’s technically fair to say that I’m a Marquette fan. I certainly wrote the post from that perspective, have always liked watching Marquette games, and even had season tickets for a brief time. But I’m actually a UW-Madison graduate and am a pretty die-hard Wisconsin fan. So it’s mildly amusing that my most popular post defines me as a fan of my favorite team’s most bitter non-conference rival.

–Despite that aforementioned rivalry, one thing that my Wisconsin fan friends and my Marquette fan friends have long agreed upon is that it’s highly enjoyable when we get to see a Tom Crean team lose. I think some of my MU friends even faced a bit of a moral dilemma over who to root against when the Wisconsin and Indiana played each other.

–Since I’ve mentioned sympathies toward different schools, I’ll suck up to any Indiana fans reading and note that IU was my second choice school coming out of high school. If not for the lure of in-state tuition, I’d likely be a Hoosier. As a matter of fact, last week I finally wore out the mesh shorts I bought in the bookstore when I toured the campus back in 1995. Or rather, my wife did–I should never have allowed her to borrow such a sacred article of clothing.

–Nine years later, I’m a bit more sympathetic to the Crean hiring than I was when I wrote my blog post. That’s partly because I didn’t understand how low things had sunk at Indiana at the time. Sure, we all knew that Kelvin Sampson’s reign had put a black cloud over the Hoosiers. But when things started trickling out like the story about Eli Holman angrily breaking a flower pot in a meeting with Crean, or Eric Gordon talking about how he had to stay away from his teammates because a number of them were using drugs, the need for a complete overhaul of the program became way more clear. As I wrote at the time, hiring someone clean was the biggest consideration for Indiana. And Indiana definitely hired the most high-profile clean guy they could find.

Furthermore, while there are plenty of negative things to say about Crean, one has to concede that he’s pretty good at rebuilding programs. Consider what he’s done at Marquette and Indiana. At MU, he took a program that was trending more towards a mid-major conference than a power conference. Four years later, he found himself in the Final Four and parlayed that into a spot in the Big East, which at the time was probably the best conference in the country. At IU he took over a program on probation and a roster littered with guys he needed to weed out for the good of the program, and by his fifth year the Hoosiers were the preseason #1 team in the country.

Sure, I think we can all agree that Crean’s personality and shaky basketball knowledge will probably keep him from ever building a consistently great program. He’s got a less than satisfying ceiling. But in terms of public relations and recruiting, it still remains hard to beat him. Even as a guy who pumps his fist in excitement every time I see Crean lose in heartbraking fashion and sprint through the post-game handshake line without looking at anyone from the opposing team, I must concede that if my program was in a dark place, he’d be the first guy I’d call in an attempt to turn things around. He’d be a perfect hire for a lot of schools if you could force him out right when things started to get good again. Unfortunately, that’s not really how the world works.

–My favorite moment of the Crean era? That’s an easy one–Crean’s first Big Ten win–a 2009 home win over Iowa. I didn’t like this moment because Indiana won (my preference was still for Crean losing). I liked it because his reaction to the win was the most Crean thing ever. Here’s Indiana, one of the most storied programs in college basketball history, notching a win (what would ultimately be IU’s only Big Ten win of the season, no less) over an Iowa team that entered the game 2-7 in Big Ten play and would finish just above the Hoosiers as the last two teams in the conference that season. And what does Crean do? He turns it into an impromptu pep rally in Assembly Hall, grabbing the microphone, gleefully addressing the crowd, and shouting to the fans "This is your win!"

I wish I could find archived video of Crean speaking to the crowd. I’m sure it would seem just as ridiculous to me if I saw it today. The best I can do is this video I found of a student TV production recapping the win. That video is amusing in and of itself, as none of the three players interviewed, Kyle Taber, Nick Williams and Malik Story, would be with the team the next season. Taber graduated, but Williams and Story, both freshmen at that point, did as so many other Crean players have and transferred elsewhere at the end of the season.

I say none of this to degrade the experience of IU fans at that game, by the way. I’m sure any small victory felt magnified for loyal fans gritting their way through the dark days of Indiana hoops. But Crean’s amplification of this nice little moment into something completely over-the-top was a great insight into how he runs things. Promote the heck out of any success that you have, and completely downplay the negatives while hoping that everyone just moves on. It works, but I’ve also always found it highly disingenuous. (I'm reminded of how, when he was at Marquette, he was always quick to join the post-game radio show after wins, but after tough losses you could bank on him sending out an assistant to do the talking.)

Ultimately, Crean's tenure at Indiana was not that much different than his time at Marquette--it was just magnified by a higher level of expectations. Crean’s got significant strengths, but they’re very specific. Indiana needed those specific strengths when Crean was initially hired, but the Hoosiers’ needs quickly changed as he got the program out of the gutter. Tom Crean, quite simply, is not a guy you want running your program unless it needs some major fixing. And once he fixed the major problems at IU, Crean was a terrible fit for the Hoosiers.

In the end, I’ll remember him as I saw him at the end of Tuesday night’s NIT game against Georgia Tech–sprinting through a handshake line after a loss without genuinely acknowledging his opponents and hoping that everyone will forget what just happened as soon as possible.

I can’t wait to see what’s in store for him next. And for the fans of whatever school Crean ends up at, please know that even though I’m not blogging regularly anymore, I’m always here for you, happy to lend support through this difficult era for you. 


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