Radio shows, national television, meeting with fans at home or on the road, one of the biggest brands in the country, one of the most historic arenas in basketball’s history and, most pressing of all, five ever-looming national championship banners on the wall.
All of these factors come with the head coaching job for Indiana men’s basketball. The banners a bar yet unreached, the media exposure casting eyes on the program and the criticism that comes with it.
Indiana has hired five coaches to the job since 2000. Four have been fired or forced to resign for a myriad of reasons.
Mike Davis wasn’t ready to take the program there. Kelvin Sampson was forced out over NCAA rules violations. Tom Crean rebuilt a mess of a program but was constantly looking over his shoulder, never truly settled in. Archie Miller shied away from the job’s spotlight and was poor when it came to fan engagement. None were comfortable in the role, one way or another.
Enter Mike Woodson.
He’s the program’s first head coach to be from Indiana and first to have played for the Hoosiers since Lou Watson, who coached the team from 1965-1971. A graduate of Broad Ripple High School in Indianapolis, he understands what the sport means in the state more than most.
Now , entering year three, he has yet to achieve the on-court highs reached by Davis and Crean. But, in multiple facets, he’s already succeeded where his immediate predecessor, Miller, failed.
Woodson has made the tournament in each of his first two years. He’s ended losing streaks to Michigan, Wisconsin, Rutgers and, most importantly, Purdue. Woodson’s Hoosiers are 3-1 against Matt Painter’s Boilermakers after Miller failed to fell Purdue in eight tries.
Indiana has avoided or mitigated the late-season slumps of the late 2010s in Woodson’s first two years in charge of the program and he owns a 3-2 record in the Big Ten Tournament, an event that’s been sore for the Hoosiers since its inception.
But Woodson’s successes go beyond the court. In the recruiting realm, four of Indiana’s ten highest-rated commits in program history have signed with Indiana in Woodson’s two years leading the program.
Off the court, Woodson has done all of the little things well. He’s perfectly willing to pose for pictures with fans around town and on the road, going as far as introducing members of his coaching staff to diners at restaurants.
When students chanted Woodson’s name during his speech following a victory over Michigan on Indiana’s senior night, he was quick to say that the celebration wasn’t about him. When a student’s response, yelled from the Assembly Hall stands, was “I love you Mike Woodson” the man was quick to reply with an “I love you more.”
The most important thing about all of this is it doesn’t come off as fake, some act for the cameras. This isn’t a Brian Kelly-sudden-southern-accent situation. It looks like what you see is what you get with Woodson.
The head coaching job at Indiana transcends itself. You’re not just a basketball coach, but a highly visible public figure as well. It’s a lot of attention and the right person for the job has to be built for it.
So far, Woodson is acting like the public figure the job demands its occupant be and excelling at it.
The on-court wins help but nothing sours a fanbase quite like the combination of a losing, unwatchable team and a lack of built-up good will through the years. Indiana has seen that before and that’s not what it’s got right now, far from it.
Of course, the on-court success has to keep coming and eventually translate to deep runs in March. Crean never got past the Sweet Sixteen during his era in Bloomington, and the job still demands results like that.
Indiana feels like a program with some real momentum for the first time in years. The next few will prove if Woodson can break the mold, he still needs to prove he can win games at the highest levels.
But the foundation looks solid and, so far, Woody looks the part.