by Kent Sterling
Indiana Basketball needs a leader that will define its culture and bring hope for success each season, and Tom Crean is not it.
It’s not that Crean isn’t a good person, or an ineffective representative of Indiana University. There are many good things about Crean, traits you would seek in a coach that can lead an athletic program. Players get grades and degrees. They work hard too. Check and check.
But if Indiana is going to be one of the top programs in college basketball, it needs to be one of the best in the Big Ten first – and it is not.
Two weeks ago, I wrote a post about the metrics Indiana University should use to evaluate the position of head basketball coach at Indiana. Here is how Crean stacks up:
1 – Comparison with other coaches in the Big Ten – In a head-to-head battle between IU’s coach and every other coach in the Big Ten, who’s better? In a conference with Bo Ryan, Mark Turgeon, Tom Izzo, Thad Matta, Matt Painter, John Beilein, and seven others, lodging near the top of the list is tough but necessary or Indiana is doomed to mediocrity.
Which of those first six would you rather have than Crean? Ryan? Of course. Izzo? Without hesitation I would make that swap. Matta? Not a big fan, but based on results, that’s a no-brainer. Painter seems a better fit at Purdue, but the Hoosiers could use their own version of Painter. Beilein is a hell of a coach. Turgeon is the one guy I would pass on in favor of Crean.
Crean didn’t rank among the top 50 in college hoops by a panel of ESPN experts a year ago. Would he move up because of a 20-14 overall record, 9-9 in the Big Ten, and a first round bow out in the NCAA Tourney as the first double digit seed in IU history?
2 – Ability to recruit Indiana – I’m sorry to those who see Indiana as a national program who should be able to recruit the finest talent in the country, that’s not who IU has shown itself to be – not today, not ever. When Indiana is best, it chooses players from among the best in its home state, and augments with those from neighboring states (illinois and Ohio). If kids from Indiana choose to leave the state to play, why would a rational kid from California, Texas, Florida, or Massachusetts choose to come to Bloomington. This isn’t Kentucky, and it shouldn’t be. During eras when Indiana kids excel, there is plenty of talent to stock a potential champion.
Gary Harris, Ryan Cline, Zak Irvin, Kyle Guy, Branden Dawson, Deshaun Thomas, Trey Lyles, Trevon Bluiett, and many others have chosen to go elsewhere, and the incoming class features two players from Missouri. Crean was able to get Cody Zeller, Yogi Ferrell, and James Blackmon Jr.
3 – Ability to out-coach fans – In Indiana, this is harder than in most places. One of the cruelest legacies of Bob Knight’s 29 years in Bloomington was his generosity with a vast curriculum of basketball knowledge. Indiana fans know more about defense than the majority of high school coaches outside Indiana, and a desire to see fundamentals executed properly is strong. If a coach can’t strategize and teach basketball well enough to satisfy fans, he is doomed.
Indiana defenders closed out with their hands down, were beaten to the rim in transition, and appeared baffled by their own efforts at playing zone. There were countless possessions where two IU players were in zone while the other three were in man-to-man. There is no doubt Crean knows a lot about basketball, but somehow the lessons were lost in translation to the players – and thus to the fans.
4 – Academics & graduation – Many from outside Indiana believe the blather from IU fans about grades and degrees to be hubristic claptrap that is waived as long as Indiana wins. Not for those who enjoyed the years when banners were hung while classes were attended. College basketball cannot be a minor league feeder system for the NBA regardless of banners, not at Indiana. Indiana University is a school first, a basketball program second, and players need to reflect that standard. Winning without a culture it validates is hollow, and Indiana fans won’t tolerate it.
Here, Crean scores. The APR at Indiana has been perfect for years, and most players graduate in three years. During a time when the only compensation for the works that brings in millions of dollars to the NCAA, conferences, schools, and athletic departments is an education, that needs to be a priority. At Indiana under Crean it has been.
5 – Winning – Amassing victories is a result, not a trait. If the first four criteria are met, winning should be a given. There are fans who work backwards though. They want the wins, and have no interest in the methodology behind them. These are the people who still believe Kelvin Sampson was a good hire. Without winning, all the magnificent culture in the world is meaningless. Sad, but true. If a coach can manage to fulfill #2 and #3, he is going to win at Indiana, and he will be evaluated as a winner in #1. The kids earn #4 as compensation for their effort, even though they might see it as a penance while at IU.
Let’s give Crean a pass for his first two years in Bloomington as the program was rebuilt following the Sampson scandal. The following five found Indiana atop the Big Ten regular season standings once – a season that ended with a loss in the Sweet 16 to Syracuse. In those five seasons, IU’s Big Ten record is 44-46.
Whether you like or loathe Crean, and I like him, 44-46 tells the story of a program mired in mediocrity.
Without taking into account the arrests and suspensions that caused many to question Crean’s ability to bring discipline into the lives of those he leads, Indiana’s path forward needs a fresh approach by a leader who can rally and unite the Indiana fan base. Add the arrests and galling recent admissions of low expectations, and the course is crystal clear.
All 13 scholarship players are scheduled to return, and at least two recruits are coming to Bloomington. That means two current players will be “Creaned”. Yes, the practice of oversigning and bouncing players currently on scholarship is actually named for Tom Crean. That’s not a good thing.
Back to those low expectations for a second. Here is what Crean said following the Hoosiers loss Friday, “They have persevered through adversity, persevered through different trials, and they did some things that not a whole lot of people expected them to do. Unofficially picked 11th in the league and they get into the NCAA Tournament with a 10th seed as the youngest team.”
That is a nauseatingly self-congratulatory appraisal of a mediocre season, and if there was any doubt Crean needed to go before Friday, it evaporated after hearing that. If Crean doesn’t hold himself accountable for failure, how can he claim to lead young men toward maturity?
Whether athletic director Fred Glass wants to wait until July 1 to save $5-million on the buyout, that’s up to him, but Crean returning for another season is likely to cause an unpleasant situation to turn downright ugly. The death spiral has started, and nothing can stop it.
Recruiting will be adversely affected as all coaches recruiting against Indiana will tell recruits that Crean is soon to be gone. Once that happens, future success is impossible – unless success is defined as finishing tied for seventh when picked to finish 11th.
Claiming victory after a season that ended by losing 10 of its final 15 games is weak, and Indiana Basketball deserves better than weak.
(Kent Sterling hosts a radio show afternoons from 3p-6p on CBS Sports 1430 in Indianapolis.)