Its been 30 years since the Hoosiers last won a national title, but if youre not Bob Knight, bringing Indiana back from disaster apparently isnt enough
Whats the worth of building respectability in college basketball?
Late in the winter of 2012, not long before Indiana would return to the NCAA tournament that had once been their regular domain, I listened as Hoosiers coach Tom Crean told me how bad things had been four years before.
Crean, who was fired on Thursday despite having won two Big 10 titles in the last five years, had inherited one of college basketballs great messes in 2008. The previous coach, Kelvin Sampson, was run off after numerous NCAA rules violations and what remained was a disaster. There were 19 Fs on the lingering players grade sheets, as well as reports of drug abuse and a general feeling of lawlessness. Anticipating NCAA sanctions, most of the players left. The mother of one offered to let her son stay as long as the new coach would overlook the players positive drug test. Crean declined.
Instead, he chose to rebuild the once-great Indiana program with a handful of walk-ons, sometimes dressing team managers and baseball players. With three years of NCAA probation looming, he had little to offer recruits except a chance to lose most every night. Not surprisingly, few said yes. He took what he could get, which was little. Slowly, he made Indiana respectable again.
It wasnt easy. For those first three years Indiana was horrible. Fans dazzled by Sampsons brief success had trouble digesting the defeats. Even after Crean took IU to back-to-back Sweet 16s, he could do little right. He never won enough games or recruited enough big stars for a fanbase that seemed to not understand what rock bottom was.
For this, it seems, he was dumped. A drumbeat of dissent built around him all season as fans complained that a young team loaded with recruits who had a lot of gold stars after their names didnt develop as fast as everyone hoped. Perhaps in todays quick-fix, win-right-now world, a college coach who goes 18-16 and 7-11 in the conference, missing the NCAA Tournament, should expect his job to be in jeopardy. But its as if Indiana and their fans never appreciated the disaster Crean cleaned up.
Fans dont care about the stories of Creans assistants burrowing through tapes of marginal prospective players in that spring of 2008 hoping to find anyone with reasonable ability willing to play for the Hoosiers. They dont want to know about the grueling practices in those first agonizing years, when players donned boxing gloves and fought for towels hanging on the rim in an effort to build a new, ferocious culture. All that matters is he didnt win enough to sustain a long-outdated notion that Indiana is one of the nations top two or three programs.
And that he isnt Bobby Knight.
Of all the crimes against which Crean stood accused by Indiana fans, this was the one that mattered most.
Its been 17 years since Knight, the schools legendary coach who won three national titles, was fired and yet he remains the standard by which all future coaches are judged. This is a sorry mistake.
Yes, Knight won. He won a lot with 11 conference championships and five Final Fours, but he did so by berating and belittling his players and almost anyone around him. He choked one player, pretended to whip African American star Calbert Cheaney, and when TV interviewer Connie Chung asked how he dealt with stress, he told her: If rape is inevitable, relax and enjoy it.
More than once on that trip to Bloomington, I was told that the real reason IU fans werent warming to Crean is that he wasnt Knight. He didnt run Knights motion offense or his man-to-man defense. He didnt snarl at the rest of the world like Knight.
This is a good thing. Crean might be a football coach in a basketball coachs body. He might be more like his brothers-in-law Jim and John Harbaugh than, say, Roy Williams. Hes a yeller on the sidelines. Hes punched a hole in at least one locker room white board at Indiana. He pushes his players hard but he is not Knight. He built Indiana with dignity.
Knight, on the other hand, told radio host Dan Patrick the other day that he hopes the school leaders who fired him are all dead.
Its been 30 years since Indiana has last won a national title. People seem to forget that Knight never got past the second round of the NCAA tournament his last six years at the school. Crean went past that three times in his last six seasons at IU.
Apparently, rebuilding a nightmare doesnt matter much these days. Crean was fired on the first full day of the NCAA tournament, and the symbolism was hard to ignore. Bringing Indiana back from disaster isnt enough when you are at a school that thinks it matters more than it has in decades. The Hoosiers didnt make the NCAA tournament this year, and so the coach who isnt Bobby Knight had to go.
His dismissal was announced just as the first whistle of March Madness blew.