Crean to Indiana a surprising, great move
At 3:03 p.m. Tuesday, a text message arrived that had all the makings of an April Fools' joke.
"I have scoop," an in-the-know friend wrote. "I'm not 100 percent sure, but trying to confirm Tom Crean to IU right now."
Sure, I thought. Indiana is going to whiff on Tony Bennett, dismiss what figures to be its last two returning starters for 2008-09, face looming NCAA probation, appear directionless for the second consecutive coaching search then suddenly snap out of a five-week tailspin to hit a grand slam?
I suspected someone was conning me.
Until the tidbits kept trickling in and it became obvious this was no con.
For reasons that remain unclear as of this writing, Tom Crean will be announced as the new coach of the Hoosiers at 11 a.m. Wednesday. The news was abrupt and just short of astonishing.
It's a great hire for Indiana. It might become a great move by Crean.
Somehow, the school stumbled into exactly what it needed: an insatiable worker who comes with no skeletons in the NCAA enforcement closet. He has respect for tradition. He already has recruited successfully in the state. He'll have encyclopedic knowledge of all things IU basketball within a week on the job. He's pretty close to can't-miss.
The confounding thing is that Crean took a job he had no interest in when it came open before, in 2006 -- when it was a much more attractive position than it is today.
At least there were players then. Kelvin Sampson inherited D.J. White and was able to sign Eric Gordon. If guard Jordan Crawford follows through on his considered transfer, the best player on Crean's new roster will be mammothly overweight DeAndre Thomas. He averaged 3.6 points and 1.8 rebounds this past season and played only 10 minutes per game, in part because he wasn't in shape enough for more.
Then there is the great unknown: What is the NCAA Division I Committee on Infractions going to do to Indiana after hearing its major violations case in June? Probation seems a near certainty. Additional penalties (scholarship cuts and/or further recruiting restrictions?) are not out of the question. The aftereffects of Kelvin's Callgate figure to be felt for a while.
And Sampson himself would seem to be one more obstacle to landing Crean. The two are good friends, having coached together with USA Basketball a few summers ago. Would Crean step over his friend's still-warm carcass and take the job that friend was forcibly removed from?
Crean is not stupid. He clearly entertained all those questions in his own mind and must have answered them to his own satisfaction. He wouldn't walk away from the comfort he has established at Marquette -- to the point of having his father-in-law as an assistant athletic director -- unless he believed he was walking toward something better.
And truth be told, Indiana at its best is better than Marquette at its best. When the Hoosiers have it rolling, this is one of the top seven programs in college basketball.
There is a reason some of the biggest names in the game were at least curious about Indiana this spring. You can win national titles there.
The statewide fan support isn't going anywhere. Neither is the in-state talent. There are five championship banners swaying in Assembly Hall, so tradition is a given. Facilities can and probably will be upgraded or built from scratch.
Crean might have felt he had taken Marquette as far as it can go. He got the Golden Eagles to the 2003 Final Four with the considerable help of Dwyane Wade -- but that was before they joined the murderous Big East. Since then, he has won 20 games for three straight seasons, which is quite impressive, but sustaining that will never be easy in a 16-team meat grinder.
In the Big Ten, a different school has won the regular-season league title three years in a row, and five schools have won or shared a title in the past eight years. Upward mobility is easier. And Crean knows the league from his days as a Tom Izzo assistant at Michigan State.
(Here's a potential conference switcheroo to consider: Crean leaves the Big East for the Big Ten, freeing a space for Milwaukee native and Wisconsin-Milwaukee grad Bruce Weber -- perhaps feeling unappreciated at Illinois -- to return home. Marquette would be wise to at least inquire with Weber.)
Perhaps it was simply time. Crean has been happy at Marquette for nine years, but he's also an ultra-ambitious young coach who always saw himself at a Cadillac job one day.
He would have taken the Kentucky job last year, had it been offered. Maybe missing out on that job prompted him to strike while the opportunity existed this time around.
It's easy to envision Crean succeeding in Bloomington -- eventually. It's not so easy to envision him succeeding immediately.
John Wooden himself might struggle in the land of the candy-cane warm-up pants next season. Crean and Hoosier Nation should be prepared for that -- and for other lingering aftereffects of the disastrous Sampson era.
But the good times should return, and fairly quickly. Athletic director Rick Greenspan, his credibility facing an 0-2 count, suddenly got one grooved down the middle and knocked it out.
And nobody saw that coming.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.