On Saturday night, after a wild win against Northwestern, Indiana paid tribute to its seniors — managers, office staff, and the lone player, Collin Hartman. As you probably know by now, after thanking his family, his coaches and teammates, and many others, Hartman proposed to his girlfriend, an Indiana cheerleader, and invited Hoosier fans to witness one of the most intimate moments of his life.
To most it might seem like Hartman simply took a unique opportunity to add some grandeur to his proposal. To me, it seemed like something more.
Hartman’s public display was not just a pronouncement of his love for his soon-to-be wife, but was also a microcosm of the love that so many have for this program. How do I know that he loves it? If you don’t love a place or an entity, you don’t make it a centerpiece of the most important question you have ever asked.
For a lot fans, Indiana basketball is more than just a rooting interest or a hobby, at least for those whose ties precede attending the university. They love the program as well.
This is not meant to be a diatribe about out-of-state students who don’t understand the university, the fanbase, or the program. And it’s not meant to equate what the program means to Collin Hartman to what it means to you and me. Rather, it is simply that Hartman’s proposal offered an opportunity to step back from the emotion and turmoil that has engulfed this basketball season and take a different look at why the conversation surrounding this program has turned out the way it has.
Kyle Swick wrote the other day that Tom Crean has a numbers problem, that he has not made the tournament consistently enough, or as a high enough seed most of the time, to have a realistic shot at winning a national championship. But that’s only half the story. What Crean also has is that this program means more than getting to proudly sport an Indiana sweatshirt while on vacation or brag to coworkers who went to Purdue. It means family. It means memories.
I was not alive when Indiana won its last national championship. I have never seen this program perched atop the college basketball world. Still, some of my favorite memories involve Indiana basketball — the night an 11-year old me first truly understood what it meant when my dad and I celebrated in our living room as the Hoosiers knocked off Duke in the Sweet 16, the season right after getting our driver’s licenses when a buddy and I picked up a pizza and watched nearly every game at one of our houses or the other, the time during the lowly first few seasons of the Crean era when a fraternity brother and I bonded over a trip to Bloomington after buying tickets for $4 each to see Indiana play Howard, and the night that my grandfather and I watched from the Assembly Hall stands the 2008-2009 team win its only Big Ten game of the season against Iowa.
There were bad memories too. There was the night I threw a large rock that I used as a doorstop across my room at college when Syracuse knocked the Hoosiers out of the 2013 NCAA Tournament. There was the night exactly one year after watching that win against Iowa that I sat in a room full of Purdue fans and watched as Verdell Jones missed a 3-point attempt to tie the game against the best Purdue team ever.
It is these memories that allow me to comfortably admit that I take Indiana basketball more seriously than I should. But that’s because I am not rooting for them to win so that I can tell my coworkers who have never been to Indiana that they did. And I’ll wear my Indiana hat to the grocery store every Saturday morning, no matter what they did the week before. It’s because my fellow Indiana fan friends and I text more often when the Hoosiers are good. My dad and I exchange phone calls several times a game when they’re good. I spent a lot of time last season thinking about how much my late-grandfather would have loved the way that team played and how they came out of nowhere to win the Big Ten.
And it’s not just me. I know for a fact, having grown up around Indiana fans, that this is the case for many others as well. The same memories and stories won’t fuel it for them. But for those of you who grew up on this team, you have them. You have memories that mean everything to you. And that’s why you care so much.
Which brings us to this season and last night. The truth of the matter is that these feelings and this connection is what drives the anger we have all experienced. It’s what causes the disappointment that fuels the ever-growing “Fire Tom Crean” crowd. For that matter, it’s also what endeared us to the man in the first place when he revealed that we were getting a program caretaker who knew that this was more than a basketball team to so many people.
Last night, Hartman, who has literally invested blood and sweat into Indiana basketball, inadvertently offered us all an opportunity, in the middle of the fervor resulting from this tumultuous season, to remember that this is more than just a basketball team. It was a real, human moment that should serve as a reminder to all of us in the coming weeks that the reason the inevitable conversation about what’s next is so important is that most people participating in it have personal reasons and memories that go far beyond pride and school spirit that make them care.
It took me a long time to come around to the conclusion that this program deserves better than what Crean has produced over the last six seasons. I found myself as recently as a few days ago thinking that it might not be right, still. There’s the John Groce type of situation that makes you fear what’s next. There’s the idea that you may have to restart if guys depart like they did at the end of the Sampson-era. There are so many other things that were running through my head. Then, Swick finally put into writing the right numbers argument to swing me around on the cold, hard factual side of it.
Last night, I finally realized the reason that at least some of you have felt like it’s been time for a while now. It’s not just the numbers problem, the winning problem. It’s what the winning would do. And while I wasn’t alive in 1987, as a Cubs fan and as someone with the memories I discussed above, I do understand why the winning would mean more than just a trophy and a banner.
If you are still on board with Tom Crean, I understand. If you are ready for it to go the other way, I finally understand.
For a lot of us, Indiana basketball is something we invested in with our families and a tool we used to forge relationships. Hell, for Collin Hartman, it’s where he started his family and took the next step in his most important relationship. Hopefully all of us, regardless of position, can remember this in the coming weeks.