Indiana Basketball – Tom Crean’s post on leadership “fine”, “contradictory”, “insecure”, “inoffensive”

by Kent Sterling

CreanI’m performing psychological acrobatics like never before in trying to understand and embrace Tom Crean’s views on leadership expressed in his piece at

Because I am a humane and giving person, any time I read something Crean writes or listen to what he says, I try to interpret his words positively.  Sometimes, that isn’t easy.

In this case, it was impossible, despite my sincere efforts to embrace his philosophies.

I even sent the link to friends who are very smart, and perhaps not quite as jaded as I am.  They were asked to read it and shoot me a quick synopsis of their thoughts.  My son is smarter than I am – thank God – so I had him read it, and we discussed it as a family for an hour last night.

The co-author of the post is a very smart guy, sports attorney Jason Belzer.  I was so eager to find the good in the post, I interviewed Jason on my radio show the day the post was published.

The point is, I’m trying to be circumspect prior to rendering a judgement.  Generally, I trust my instincts, but in this case I felt I owed it to Crean to seriously and soberly ingest his wisdom.

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Crean writes of the lessons he took from the Devin Davis head injury, how he has learned to trust his instincts in recruiting, and about the need for “emotional agility” in leadership.  He talks about embracing weaknesses while ignoring self-doubt.

The individual ingredients of the post are reasonable, but their combination is strange.  It reads like an amalgam of lessons learned through the reading of many, many books on leadership – all combined to be oddly unsatisfying – kind of like a chef who has taken bits and pieces from other chefs’ work to create a peculiar signature dish that baffles the palette, “Hey, paprika is great on mashed potatoes! I wonder what it’s like on vanilla ice cream, which really looks a lot like mashed potatoes, except it’s cold!”

One of the oddest parts of the post is that it’s clear Crean has not exactly been resolute in following his own recipe.  He writes, “When we recruit student-athletes to Indiana, we always weigh a player’s athletic potential against his ability to recognize his emotional state and channel it in a way that will lead to a positive outcome regardless of any situation he faces. We judge him on several competencies which give us a deep insight into his character and whether or not he can help us be successful.”

A former classmate at IU and current PR executive in Chicago summed up the apparent contradiction in words and actions, “My question is if he followed all that sage wisdom  and also followed the process he says he uses to recruit the “right” players, then why have so many go into trouble in the last two years and why does he feel the need to run these guys off?

“I could understand that happening in his first few years because the program was so bad, he didn’t have a lot of choice. However, he does not seem to be following his own rules of recruiting and thus you are getting all these questionable characters. This should not be happening at this point in his time at IU. His recruiting seems to be so haphazard and seems to contradict everything he preaches in the article.”

Another friend from IU who has been hugely successful in finance was unimpressed, “I don’t think we are in danger of losing CTC to Army.  It is the anti-RMK. Reeks of insecurity.

“Almost devoid of core beliefs.  Age 50+ and still formulating his schtick.  I see it as insecure blather of a guy who knows his job is damn near gone.  Pick your top 10 college coaches.  Could you see this coming out of them?  Maybe so, I just don’t know.  Could you see it from either of his brothers in law?

“Nothing offensive, content is fine, off the shelf self help section.” Crean’s greatest lesson is that self-doubt gets in the way of potential for success.  If Crean had any self-doubt, he would certainly be unwilling to share his philosophies on leadership for scrutiny by business leaders who visit for bits of wisdom they can apply to their business.

“Keep churning, and hope people don’t listen or read too closely” has served Crean exceptionally well in a very tough business where few earn at the level enjoyed by Crean.

The piece in Forbes opens a window into Crean’s vision of leadership.  Over the last seven-plus years, the result of that leadership has been on the floor of Assembly Hall, in the classrooms at IU, and on the police blotter in Bloomington and Monroe County.  Some good.  Some not good.

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Recruits and their parents should read the Crean post to decide if that kind of leadership is what their son will respond positively to.  Fans should read it, discuss it, and then decide for themselves whether Crean is the right guy to lead a basketball program in which they have such a deep emotional connection.

Crean’s bosses should read it too – closely.  And they should ask others in their lives who they respect but who don’t have routine interactions with Crean.

Comment here as you see fit, and I’ll share the results on my radio show today from 3p-6p on CBS Sports 1430 – Indianapolis.

If I’m swinging and missing in understanding and interpreting Crean’s work, it’s not for a lack of effort.

4 thoughts on “Indiana Basketball – Tom Crean’s post on leadership “fine”, “contradictory”, “insecure”, “inoffensive”

  1. AssemblyCall

    You make some good points, as do the people you quote. I am not as bullish on the post as I was when I first read it a) because it wasn’t actually “written by” Tom Crean, as the byline suggests; and b) because the clarity of thought I initially took from it doesn’t hold up to closer scrutiny.

    However, there is one particular section that (potentially) encourages me as an IU fan — IF it proves to be more than cheap words on a screen and is backed up by action:

    “Of course, scoring highly on the above three competencies does not guarantee that someone will be able to satisfactorily apply emotional agility in every context and situation. That’s because the dirty secret of emotional agility is that it’s the organization, not the individual, who is in charge of feelings. It’s within the sole purview of coaches and managers to dictate the cultural norms and acceptable emotions of their players or employees. Therefore, unless organizational leadership is willing to provide the type of operating environment that encourages people to recognize their feelings and apply them appropriately, it is highly unlikely that even the most in-touch person will successfully utilize emotional agility.

    “One of the principal responsibilities I have as a head coach is creating an environment within the basketball program that is conducive to the emotional growth of my players. The challenges of being a modern day student-athlete are well known, but when coupled with the inner struggle many players face in properly managing their emotions, one can begin to understand why so many end up crumbling under the pressure. This is why our coaching staff and the athletics department as a whole works tirelessly to insure that every decision we make is not done in a vacuum and that each of our student-athletes understands exactly why we did what we did.”

    He goes on to immediately discuss having to dismiss players, which is at least a tacit admission that he hasn’t created the proper environment for the emotional growth of his players. And we know that a dearth of internal leadership, and a lack of clear (or at least clearly understood and followed) boundaries for behavior, have plagued this program.

    So if his tougher stance on discipline, and some of the public pressure he’s placed on his upper classmen with offseason comments, is a harbinger of a program that provides greater leadership for its impressionable young minds, to help develop their emotional agility … then we will be able to look back on this article as a good sign. If not, it’s just more words on a web page, which is just about the cheapest commodity on earth these days.

    I’m hopeful for the former, but time will tell.

    Thanks for posting this Kent. I appreciated seeing your thoughts, and those of your friends. They are insightful.

  2. Jeff Gregory

    When Crean said, “When we recruit student-athletes to Indiana, we always weigh a player’s athletic potential against his ability to recognize his emotional state and channel it in a way that will lead to a positive outcome regardless of any situation he faces. We judge him on several competencies which give us a deep insight into his character and whether or not he can help us be successful,” it makes perfect sense. He said that the staff judges the recruit in order to gain insight into his character, he didn’t say they were particularly good at it.

  3. DownTheStretch

    That roar of laughter we heard all the way up here in Indy was just traced to the inside of Cook Hall where Yogo just finished reading this piece to his teammates after another team-building workout in the sandpits. What a load of horse dung. Compare it to the method of a truly great coach when he was recruiting a kid to IU:

    “Are you effing coming here or not?”


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