clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The Last Temptation of Crean

New, 3 comments

Tom Crean has made his IU tenure all about resiliency and rebuilding. After his most challenging week yet as Indiana men's basketball head coach, can he do it again?

Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

Note: These are the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the rest of the TCQ staff.

I've never been a Tom Crean apologist or a defender. Throughout last season, I became frustrated during almost every game because of Crean's substitution patterns, lineup choices, in-game adjustments, or the lack of timeouts used. The frustrations were there during the 2012-13 season as well, but when you have two top-5 draft picks on the roster, it is easier to look the other way from the flaws. Regardless, I've often felt that Crean didn't get as much out of this players as he could be, and while I haven't been as critical in my writing on this site about Crean as I have been in private conversations, I've definitely blamed him for more than a fair share of Indiana losses (Penn State last year being the nadir). In fact, my frustration got so bad that I once wrote a utilities check out to my roommate that was made in jest to the Fire Tom Crean Fund. And don't even mention to me the four-letter word that starts with Z that they play in Upstate New York.

Off the court, it hasn't always been better. Yes, Crean looks like Dwight Schrute. Thanks for being the 4000th person to tell me that. I also find Crean's Twitter account to often be too pious for someone who is the highest-paid public employee in the State of Indiana. Along with that, there were his flippant tweets after finishing 17-15 last season. The rings after the first Sweet 16 appearance seemed superfluous, as well as the 2013 Big Ten Champions banner. And of course, cutting down the nets after a home loss was a ridiculous stunt, as was getting caught up in the moment with Jeff Meyer after the Michigan victory. His staff also has had their moments - assistant coach Tim Buckley's attack on a reporter for his valid criticism that the 2012-13 team underachieved in the tournament seemed thin-skinned and awkward.

But the incidents of last week for Indiana basketball have made me realize something else about Crean. The guy truly seems to care. He wants Indiana to win as badly as the rest of us, and he wants Indiana to continue to be a great basketball program, and he's going to try and do it his way. He's not going to go down without a fight, and I respect him for that.

I never met Crean when I lived in Bloomington. When I told a coworker and fellow IU alum this, he seemed surprised, because of how prolific Crean has been in meeting students and fans. The current and previous editors of this site both recently relayed stories about how Crean seemed to recognize them and know who they were. This runs contrary to that former manager's story that came to life last week.

Other accounts from friends in Bloomington have been similar to what Kyle and AJ have said. By all accounts, Crean has always been willing to talk to students, residents, and IU fans. I know he attends events and functions for his children. I've heard about how he'll always respond when you strike up a conversation with in the Barnes & Noble on Third Street. Every story I hear about Crean around town demonstrates that he understands his role, and that he knows that "It's Indiana" is more than just a saying. He knows he has to be more than just a coach, but also, play the roles of politician, ambassador, and yes - pastor.

So often in sports, people are obsessed with people athletes or coaches who do things "the right way." Look at the media's infatuation with Aaron Craft, Tim Tebow, or the entire St. Louis Cardinals team for proof of that. I don't believe that there's a "right way" in sports - instead, everyone has their own unique way of operating. So I wince when people say that Crean has tried to do it the right way here. Crean's doing it his way - and though the moves along the way haven't always been to my liking, he did a good job of following a blueprint for the first five years. Step One was to bring back pride in Indiana basketball. It's not as easy as it is with IU football to preach patience to the fanbase, but he did it, and fans gave him a long grace period. Step Two was to return the team to glory on the court. Over the next two years, the team made back-to-back Sweet Sixteens, and was ranked #1 for a while. However, Step Three, maintaining this success, has been the hard part. And unfortunately, the attempts to make this third step a reality have erased the gains of the first two steps.

You can vent as much as you want about how Crean didn't do as much as he could have to stop these incidents. It's easy to say this in hindsight, just like it's easy for Crean to say after the fact that he should've held another practice on Halloween night. We don't know what the internal conversations with the team were like though. However, three incidents involving five players in nine months seems to be the start of a dangerous pattern. Everyone in the program from top to bottom needs to be held accountable. I don't care too much about what the basketball players do off the court, because when has a college student has ever been a saint? Ultimately though, they do play for a Division I basketball team, and I care about them making smart decisions that don't jeopardize their team and their university, especially as athletes who represent the school (and help to bring in a ton of revenue, which I think athletes should get more of a cut of, but that's an argument for a different column).

What's happened with Indiana basketball over the past nine months, and especially Halloween weekend, should be problematic not just because these players wear the candystripes, play in front of an incredible fanbase at Assembly Hall, and play for a team that has won five national titles. Dan Dakich, during his radio show rants last week, was only half-right. Starting the season with three players suspended and one in the hospital isn't a problem because of where (or when) it happened. It is because of what has happened. This should be unacceptable at any school, and not just because "It's Indiana." What unfortunately has transpired in Bloomington really could have happened anywhere. Crean has taken responsibility, and been even more open in this situation than he's needed to be (taking calls on his radio show last Monday was not a good decision). Say what you want about Crean, but the guy seems genuine and wants to get this program back on its feet, and has probably heard every criticism in the book. But the press conferences and interviews that Crean has recently given show a man who cares and wants to make good, even if it means he will eventually fall on his own sword.

Unlike in our B1G predictions post, I'm no longer certain that Crean will survive this season - to survive at this point, he needs an incredible showing from a team that will be without a scholarship player that would have been part of an already thin frontcourt. It may take more than just an NCAA tournament bid. Yes, that buyout is huge, but this university and its boosters will find the cash if they really want to get rid of him. Fred Glass's strong support of Crean may make that seem unlikely, but Glass needs to support him at this time - what would it say to players and fans and recruits if Glass hadn't given Crean a vote of confidence last week? Despite my misgivings, I respect Tom Crean for trying to take a legendary program in disarray, putting his stamp on it, doing things his way and going all-in to try and make Indiana Indiana again, without trying to be someone who he wasn't.

The odds are stacked against him now, and it may be too late, but I can't rule out the possibility of a comeback. After all, he's still the same guy that accepted the challenge of coaching Indiana basketball to begin with back in 2008. Sure, I'll likely complain about Crean's game management or substitutions once again throughout this season, but honestly, I won't mind it as much, because it will signify that a sense of normalcy has returned to Bloomington.