- Dana O'Neil, ESPN Senior Writer
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SAN ANTONIO -- The two pieces of white toast sat forlornly on Tom Crean's plate, unbuttered and untouched for a good 30 minutes of an hour-long breakfast meeting.
By the time Crean reached for a knife, the toast was so cold the butter just sat there like a yellow blob.
He never did take a bite.
Crean was too busy shaking hands, greeting well-wishers who found the new Indiana coach unsuccessfully hiding in the back corner of the hotel restaurant during the Final Four, and talking with more enthusiasm than anyone in Bloomington has felt since Feb. 22, when Kelvin Sampson's short-lived tenure as the Indiana coach came to an end.
This wasn't some salesman trying to convince himself, and you, he did the right thing. This was a giddy kid who woke up to find he'd landed his dream job as a grown-up.
"If you look at what's there and could be there, maybe you don't go," said Crean, who took a break from his Final Four whirlwind to meet with a handful of reporters on the morning of the national semifinals. "But you don't look at it that way."
If ever there was a job calling for unbridled optimism and blinders, it is Indiana. The program needs a savior more than it needs a coach right now, a person who believes there is salvation in the comfort of the candy-striped pants. That's Crean, who looked at the Mount Everest of troubles and still called the job, "an opportunity, not a challenge."
Crean left a successful, comfortable gig at Marquette for the disastrous stew that is Indiana with eyes wide open. He knew he had a team more fractured than "Dynasty's" Carringtons; NCAA restrictions already in place and likely more to come in June when the verdict on Kelvin Sampson's chronic dialing habit comes down; and a Hoosier contingent that would always look askance at him because he wasn't a Bob Knight guy.
Crean has learned something since arriving in Bloomington.
Things are even worse.
Crean said many of the Hoosiers are in dangerous academic waters and with little time to salvage the semester, may find themselves academic casualties.
"The academics have got to get in order, fast," he said. "We're going to see who has the desire to get better, who has the desire academically. That's going to be the biggest eye-opener right now."
Throw in the dismissals of Armon Bassett and Jamarcus Ellis, the defection of Eric Gordon to the NBA, the release of recruits Terrell Holloway and Devin Ebanks from their letters of intent (Holloway said last week he plans to go to Xavier) and possible scholarship limits when the NCAA hands down its results, and Crean literally has no clue how many people will be on his roster.
Depending on how many scholarships he has available, he has options. Junior Bobby Capobianco out of Ohio made a verbal commitment to IU last week. Nick Williams, a 6-foot-5 shooting guard from Alabama, asked for and received his release from Marquette and is now considering IU and Arkansas. Bryan Bouchie, whose father Steve played on the 1981 Indiana national championship team, is transferring from Valparaiso and is said to be considering the Hoosiers. Ditto Verdell Jones, a 6-4 combo guard from Illinois who took an unofficial visit earlier this month.
But Crean won't be able to watch any of them play or make any in-house pitches. Nor will he be able to go out and assess talent in the junior class. While his coaching counterparts hit the road last week for another open period in the recruiting calendar (as did Crean's newly-named assistants Tim Buckley and Bennie Seltzer), Crean was stuck in Indiana. He can't recruit until Aug. 1, after the AAU season has concluded with the shoe-sponsored festivals in Las Vegas and Orlando.
If I'd thought about it longer, I could've talked myself out of it. But I didn't want to. It's Indiana.
He's not Sampson, but because he is the Indiana head basketball coach, he still falls under the restrictions Sampson brought with him from Oklahoma to Indiana after his first phone fiasco.
Which makes you wonder, why is this man smiling?
"It's Indiana," Crean said.
This is a man who attended a Bob Knight coaching clinic as a 19-year-old and swears the notes are still stuffed somewhere in his mother's house, who has read enough books to qualify as an Indiana basketball historian. The habitual sideline pacer even said that during his first game he might just assume a Knight-like kneel.
Crean is the perfect antidote to the dysfunction. You listen to him, feel his passion and hear his earnestness, and you get swept right along with him, envisioning Indiana as a formidable beacon that is far stronger than this tsunami.
In Bloomington, where fans watched a top-five team disintegrate into a disinterested first-round flameout, Crean's energy is being gobbled up like candy. This can be seen with the Crean and Crimson T-shirts that have been hot sellers since Crean hoisted one during his introductory press conference.
"I don't know if he was everyone's first choice, but he was certainly among the top three or five for most people," said Mike Pegram, who runs the rabid IU Web site peegs.com. "He really hit a home run at his press conference. He struck a chord. His enthusiasm is really welcome here and I think because of that and because of the roster situation, people will cut him some slack for a couple of years."
Smartly, Crean realizes that his first priority, more than installing his own system, is to patch up the Indiana family. The players left in the wake of this mess are understandably confused. Crean didn't try to belittle their reaction, telling each of them, "I know you came here for a different coach; we all came here for different reasons, but Indiana is the pull." He doesn't expect anyone to transfer, but knows nothing is a certainty right now.
Crean doesn't intend to end his Indiana Unification Program with his roster. He talked about bringing back past players and teams that make up the fabric of the program. When he got to Marquette he was stunned to learn the 1974 Final Four team had never been honored and he made that one of his priorities.
At Indiana, he joked, he could honor a different team at every game.
So Crean hopes to reach out to former coach Mike Davis and more important, is optimistic that somehow he can bring a peace treaty between the university and its most famous exile.
"He knows I respect him tremendously," Crean said of Knight, whom he saw at the Final Four dinner.
Pegram said extending the olive branch directly to Knight isn't necessary, but embracing the Knight era is.
"If he can bring back Coach Knight's players, his alums, that will go a long way to repairing the fan attitude," he said. "And it will be a start with Coach Knight."
Crean also invited both Gordon and D.J. White to take part in the individual workouts he was conducting beginning last week and spoke to Bassett after Bassett called -- "I'm not in a reach-out situation," Crean said.
He hasn't spoken to Ellis though. Both Ellis and Bassett were dismissed after missing an appointment and failing to show up to run laps for punishment later.
"I'm not going to disrespect any decisions that were made," said Crean of Bassett, who was booted from the team by interim coach Dan Dakich the day before Crean was hired. "But I'm also going to respect my own ability to make a decision."
As much as the allure of this particular university, it is Crean's ability to trust his own gut that led him to Indiana. He admitted when he first started as a head coach he was too busy listening to other people's opinions to filter out what he liked and didn't and form his own mind.
Now with nine years as a head coach and one Final Four on his resume, he's learned to listen and welcome suggestions, but to ultimately decide for himself.
There were more reasons to say no to Indiana than to say yes, but aside from his mentor, Tom Izzo, who he said was "really helpful, middle-of-the-night helpful," Crean relied on his own counsel.
"If I'd thought about it longer, I could've talked myself out of it," he said. "But I didn't want to. It's Indiana."
And then Crean dashed off to shake more hands, fueled by a two-Pepsi breakfast while the waitress cleared the abandoned toast.
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.