Indiana Basketball – Passionate fans turn surly and Tom Crean is their latest victim

by Kent Sterling

Assembly Hall is the temple where Indiana fans congregate, and all they demand for their passion is hope.  If Tom Crean cannot provide it, someone who can will be sought.

Assembly Hall is the temple where Indiana fans congregate, and all they demand for their passion is hope. If Tom Crean cannot provide it, someone who can will be sought.

It’s hard to figure.  After 20 seasons of entrenched mediocrity, Indiana University Basketball still resonates in the Hoosier State.

Virtually every home game sees almost every one of the 17,472 seats at Assembly Hall filled with excited fans hopeful that brighter days are ahead for the Cream & Crimson.  Kids ask for a pair of candy striped warm-ups for Christmas, and each recruiting success is examined with a forensic eye for detail.

It’s been 28 years since Indiana’s last National Championship, and 13 years since the last visit to the Final Four.  Over the past 20 seasons, Indiana has compiled 177-163 record in the Big Ten, and the two trips to the Sweet 16 since 2002 coincided with Cody Zeller’s presence in Bloomington.

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Indiana fans continue to loudly insist the Hoosiers are not just relevant, but a top five national program.  UConn has won four of the last 16 NCAA Tournaments. Kansas has won 11 straight Big 12 titles and a National Championship.  Duke has won four NCAAs since IU’s last and has lost five or fewer ACC games in all but won of the last 19 seasons.  North Carolina has won two NCAAs and six ACC titles since Roy Williams took over in 2003.  Kentucky?  All time winningest program with 2,174 victories, a 529-64 record at Rupp Arena, 48 SEC regular season titles, eight NCAA championships, and a likelihood of finishing the current season 40-0.

Hell, Wisconsin has never finished lower than fourth in the Big Ten under Bo Ryan (who took over in 2001), with winning conference records in every single season.  How about Michigan State?  In Tom Izzo’s 20 seasons, Sparty has gone to six Final Fours, 12 Sweet 16s, and finished first or second in the Big Ten 11 times.  Tom Izzo has lost a total of 107 Big Ten games.  Crean has lost 77 in 13 fewer seasons.

I could go on.

None of this is meant to demean Indiana Basketball, which I have loved since IU won a National Championship my freshman year in Bloomington.  The precision and beauty of the motion offense and the tenacity of the Hoosiers’ man-to-man defense was a joy to behold.  Indiana won, and they did it with players who attended class, earned degrees, and were recruited on the up and up.

With many Indiana kids, recruiting was marked by abject indifference from Bob Knight, and still the players came.  And they won.

Indiana University was a remarkable basketball machine that took local kids and beat America’s best.

Those days are gone, but for some reason, the passion of the fans has metastasized.

That unyielding love is a double edged sword that can defend a bully like Knight, or slay coaches who do not satisfy their unquenchable thirst for stylistic play and victories earned in bulk.  Mike Davis was hailed as a flawed but congenial hero in 2002 after IU advanced to the NCAA Championship game, but consigned to the scrap heap after the following four years of mediocrity.  Davis was a hermit in the end, beaten by the fans whose relentless derision was impossible to compartmentalize.

Kelvin Sampson surrendered the moral high ground Indiana had gained throughout generations of exactitude in following NCAA rules.  Dan Dakich was a defibrillator that shocked players back into Indiana-esque compliance, or stunned them right out of Bloomington, and Tom Crean has been an ill-fitting occasionally successful coach too eager to be liked for a fan base who views a natural desire for popularity as a critical weakness.

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The fans that celebrated wins with Crean in the concourse of Assembly Hall now yell “Tom Crean sucks!” when his son Riley enters a game for his high school team.  Crean says his wife feels “anguish” as she watches Riley or the Hoosiers play.

That passion is an unwieldy beast that can turn quickly, but never fades.  There is a constant search for reasons to hope, and it sometimes bring fans to the brink of madness.  As soon as a coach fails to provide motive for faith, they turn.

And they have turned on Crean.

Hope will return to Bloomington because it is the fuel powering the insane fandom that is the last remaining vestige of brighter days long gone.

24 thoughts on “Indiana Basketball – Passionate fans turn surly and Tom Crean is their latest victim

  1. Bert B

    And Florida has been to four Final Fours and three other Elite Eights since 2000 with ten Gators currently in the NBA. Donovan, a future HOFer, has been there 18 years. Add Florida to the list.

    1. kentsterling Post author

      For sure, Florida belongs. Could easily extend to Arizona, UCLA, and many other teams. Michigan, Syracuse, Villanova, etc… Hard to argue that Oklahoma needs to be considered.

  2. Matterhorn

    For the last time Kent winning does not determine whether a program is top 5 or top 10. Was Kentucky a top program with Billy G. or were they just losing more. Same with Alabama football under Mike Shula. Quit stirring the pot it’s not the Indiana fans fault that those in charge of hiring coaches are completely clueless!!

    1. kentsterling Post author

      If not wins, then explain what determine the ranking of a college basketball program as it compares to other basketball programs. Tradition of winning as opposed to current wins?

      What I’m saying is that a generation of losing (mostly) in the NCAA Tournament has allowed an entire student population to enroll at IU without any memory of March relevance, which has allowed programs to ease past IU in any objective ranking of Indiana as a national power.

      Billy Gillespie was a two-year departure for Kentucky, but his record in the SEC during those years was 20-12. Sure, he was a terrible coach, but was eight games over .500 in conference. Indiana is 14 over .500 in the last 20 years.

      Mike Shula wasn’t very good either, but they went to the Cotton Bowl in his third year of four at Alabama. Mike DuBose was really the worst of the post-Bryant, pre-Saban coaches. Alabama missed three bowls due to poor play between Bear and Nick. Equating Alabama or Kentucky with Indiana’s recent run of mediocrity is spurious. Neither program ever went through a 20 year era like Indiana has.

      Greenspan was a buffoon who ran the athletic department at IU when two coaches many in the fan base hold in low esteem were hired.

      I like your passion. Glad you read here and share your thoughts.

      1. Matterhorn

        I would look at 20-30 year ticket sales and how they compare with other major programs. How much do those floor seats at AH cost in comparison to other programs. How does attendance vary based on winning and losing. I know ain’t nobody goint to a Florida Basketball game if they were to start missing the tourney or Ohio State. I would look at the budget allocated for basketball vs. football when it comes to recruiting. As far as winning goes when Cody Zeller was on the cover of Sports Illustrated did that change how the program ranked? I say no it was just more relevant from a national perspective.

        1. kentsterling Post author

          Ticket sales will measure local relevance, and it’s probably a very accurate indicator. As far as a national perspective, or how it’s perceived by recruits from outside the state, it is meaningless. I would also guess that a significant portion of the relevance in state in inversely proportionate to the passion for the football program. If you’re an alum, would you rather go to a football or basketball game. The opposite dynamic is true for all SEC teams, minus Kentucky.

        2. Pauly Balst

          Dayton is clearly a top 5 elite program. They have sold out through thick and thin for decades.

          Florida had thousands of empty seats for SEC games the year after their last national championship, so they are definitely not elite.

      2. Rick

        I disagree, Greenspan was responsible for the expansion of Memorial stadium north end zone, the hire of Coach Hoepner (the last time IU had consistent attendance) and the hire of Crean. Sampson was a bad hire, but I think the old IU president made that call. Kent, your always standing up fro Fred Glass, are you guys best friends????

        1. kentsterling Post author

          Not friends, but I like Fred and think highly of his ability to manage. Hep was a good hire. Greenspan got that one right – which is difficult to fathom. Fred is getting things right. What he inherited is tough to blame on him.

  3. Doug A

    Have to agree with you Kent. If Crean does stay how bad is his reputation damaged to the recruits he is chasing? Do you feel they will be looking elsewhere while IU backslides some more?

  4. Warren in TN.

    Hello Kent, and a tip of the hat to my fellow readers on the site.

    I really think that, to put proper perspective on Indiana Basketball right now, is a combination of factors that make it what it is today. Matterhorn hits on a key component, which is the never failing nor faltering passion of the fan base that will never give up on the program. Few schools can match it. Like Kentucky fans, Hoosier fans are on a short list of the most passionate fans in all of college basketball. That will never change, and when you have that kind of support, I believe you can always come back from any bad period for a program, no matter how many years go by.

    The other side of the coin is the relative lack of excellence for a period of time, and how that erodes at a long history of success, at least as far as it lies in the the eyes of future recruits.

    Indiana HAS NOT been relevant for a very long time in terms of the prestige of winning a title. Most players today have no living memory of IU’s glory days, and weren’t alive when the Hoosiers won a title. Champ at the bit all one wants to at that fact, but there it is. It can’t be denied. It also can’t be denied that it hurts Indiana when other teams and schools can point to their relative success over IU when going head to head recruiting that talent, regardless of where it originates from these days.

    So the truth of where IU’s “relevance” lies somewhere in between the failure of the past 20+ years, and the never ending passion of Hoosier fans.

    Personally, I feel like Indiana can still recover from the many years of bad/mediocre basketball if they can get the right coach to come in and take control. Sometimes change is, in and of itself, a good thing that refreshes a team (at any level, of any sport) and rejuvenates its’ fanbase. That’s where I think Indiana is, not as far away as some see it, not quite so close to a return to greatness as others perceive.

    When that coach is found, I believe it won’t take long that long for Indiana to return to the forefront of the discussion of college basketball year in and year out. the Hoosiers have undeniably been on the outside, looking in, on that discussion for what seems like a long time. It’s not a knock on the program, just a painful fact that has to be honestly confronted and addressed when looking at the overall direction of the program.

    Kentucky took a long, hard look at the direction of its’ program as the decline sat in on the Tubby years, and the collapse of the program in the BCG years. That took long enough, with a fan base equally as passionate for hoops as Hoosier fans are.

    The simple truth, as I see it, has to be that Indiana is clearly getting nowhere with Crean. It’s time for a change, no matter the monetary cost (which, with such an enormous buyout clause – was a mistake in itself) and indicates maybe more changes are needed higher up ….

    Gotta be bold, gotta’ bite the bullet. Otherwise, Indiana will continue to be stuck in neutral and spin its’ wheels without something changing very soon. It’s time. So good luck on the transition and in making the right decisions. An ole’ fart like me, even though I’m a UK fan through and through, remembers those glory days of IU. You’ll get them back, so keep fighting the good fight! 🙂

    1. Rick

      I agree, there needs to be changes higher up! IU is like the family business who has a bad case of nepotism. Until they fix this problem, it will never change!

    2. Matterhorn

      Very, Very good summary, nothing more really needs to be said. Just time to make the right hire and let’s face it it’s Brad Stevens no matter what the cost.

    3. Pauly Balst

      Warren, thank you for another blast of clarity, I am glad you are well, and wish you the best. I tend to agree that as long as Indiana as a state produces talent, we will be fine once we have the right coach.

      My perception is that in college basketball and football, paying for quality coaches is a worthwhile investment. Maybe I am wrong, there are probably many examples of highly paid coaches not producing. What do others think?

      I have a vision of Bob Knight waking up and laughing every morning.

      1. kentsterling Post author

        I have never been able to envision Bob Knight laughing.

        If you are unwilling to pay competitive (crazy) wages for a college coaches, schools will either hire idiots, or young guy who will move on quickly to schools that will.

        With revenues being astronomical because of media deals, why not pay someone millions to teach young men to throw a leather ball through a hoop?

    4. kentsterling Post author

      It’s almost as if IU believes it needs to atone for 29 years of success provided by an unrepentant ass.

  5. Brandon Stevens

    IU fans will get their wish when Crean announces he’s leaving for Bama shortly after our NCAA exit.

  6. Ryan

    i love the article Kent I been following you for a few years now. IU basketball has been my life as long as I could walk. I do not know if Crean can recapture the heart of IU fans like he did back in 2012 with Zeller and Oladipo really after the UK buzzer win. But the guy has given everything he has to this school and maybe there was some underachieving years but they are very much still relevant as a top team in my book. Nowadays it’s the teams like UK that get the one and done players that are sitting on top of the rankings. IU has never really taken that kind of approach to recruiting mainly because players know that’s not the kind of school they are. I guess if they want to get back to greatness it’s time to Usher in a new era.

    1. kentsterling Post author

      Thanks for coming by. I appreciate it, but IU has taken that approach to recruiting for years. Some (like Eric Gordon and Noah Vonleh) decide it’s a good fit. Most don’t. Embracing the one-and-done philosophy isn’t necessary to succeed. Wisconsin and Virginia do very well without early jumpers. So do Wichita State and Villanova. Good teachers get the most out of their players.

      Agreed on Crean giving everything he has. His work ethic sets a great example for all of us.

  7. Ryan

    Just to fixate on the one and done for a moment, maybe the NCAA should look into changing this rule like in football and I think it could really level out the playing field. Then again could you imagine how good UK would be if this team was together 2 more years.

    1. kentsterling Post author

      Kids would jump to Europe in droves if the NBA required three years after HS for draft eligibility. If they adopted baseball’s rule – immediately after HS or in three years, that would help a lot.

  8. Jeff Gregory

    I disagree about IU not being elite. I can only say that they don’t look elite RIGHT NOW. I tend to agree with what Chris Spatola told you concerning IU’s program on your show. He knows that IU is elite. The tradition, the banners, . . . it will take another 20 years of mediocrity to kill its status. That is when the baby boomers will die out. The IU basketball program is like the farmer that own hundreds of acres and struggles. He remembers the time when he was making money hand over fist – and is sure it will happen again. Why? Because it is all he has. Basketball is all Indiana (the state and the university) has. There has been too much invested in it to cast it as only a has-been.

    Not only does IU have the tradition but it also is a basketball-first school in a premier conference. That makes it is a very desirable place for quality coaches to land. It is just a matter of the right AD to make the right calls.

    1. kentsterling Post author

      I like the farmer analogy. That he printed $$ in 1976 doesn’t put his grandkids through college in 2015.

  9. GardenStateHoosier

    “Elite” covers so much ground. For some folks it means one thing, and for other folks it means another …. and then they start arguing about it! LoL

    How about if we break it up in little pieces?
    — fan base …. elite
    — tradition … elite
    — facilities … elite
    — old Banners … elite
    — last decade, or two …. not so elite

    We only need to fix the last item. A new coach, the right coach this time, can fix that.

    Seven years is MORE than enough time, regardless of the special circumstances. Jeez, we’re talking about just fifteen or so players … or, really, 7 or 8 that play with regularity. How hard is it to find 8 guys that can play?? Apparently, much too difficult for the current coach.


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