Commentary

State of the program: Indiana

Mixed results for Tom Crean early on as history-rich Hoosiers try to dig out of a hole

Originally Published: November 5, 2010
By Eamonn Brennan | ESPN.com

CHICAGO -- On April 1, 2008, when Tom Crean took the podium as the 11th head coach in Indiana basketball history, he found himself discussing why he chose to leave the security of his job at Marquette for a long-humbled program facing possible NCAA sanctions. His answer proved remarkably simple:

"It's Indiana."

The phrase, vague but packed with meaning, resembled a particularly brilliant campaign slogan. It became, well, exactly that. Opportunistic T-shirt companies wasted neither time nor ink. Die-hards plugged it into their message-board signatures. Students scrawled the rallying cry onto signs and lifted them all over the school's campus in Bloomington, Ind.

[+] EnlargeIndiana Basketball
Brian Spurlock/US PresswireThe history of Indiana basketball is ever-present in Bloomington and around the state.

"It's Indiana." For fans who needed to hear that the good old days weren't forever behind them, that the program could succeed in the present and the future, Crean's catchphrase hit every note.

Two years later, the phrase raises as many questions as it answers. In 2010, what is Indiana basketball? After a decade of turmoil, what remains? What has changed? And how does a new coach with a bombed-out roster navigate the unique mixture of challenges -- its fan base's desperate desire not only to win, but to win The Indiana Way -- that a program like Indiana presents?

There's no question Crean's challenge has been significant. In some ways, Crean himself didn't know what he was getting himself into.

"Looking back, there's no question that the Indiana job I took and the Indiana job it became were two different jobs," Crean said. "People's memories can be a little short-lived."

Crean was referring to -- what else -- his rebuilding process in the wake of the Kelvin Sampson era at IU. At first, Crean's job looked like a challenge. A few months later, "challenge" was a massive understatement. After a wave of bizarre player defections, transfers and NBA attrition, Crean's first Hoosiers team had two returning players -- Kyle Taber and Brett Finkelmeier.

Never heard of them? Neither, probably, had Crean. For perhaps the first time in its history, Indiana's returning lineup averaged fewer points per game (1.6 between the two) than IU has banners on its ceiling (five).

That's not a challenge. That's a Sisyphean-sized rock.

How did Indiana get there? Ten years later, the story still starts with Bob Knight.

"To be honest with you, I wish Coach [Bob] Knight was still there," said Tom Abernethy, a member of Indiana's legendary 1975-76 national championship team, which went 32-0 on its way to the title under Knight. "That may not be the best answer, but I guess that's just how I see it."

Abernethy is far from alone. Knight's sweater-clad specter still lurks everywhere at Indiana. The legend's controversial firing in 2000 had the effect of splitting the Indiana basketball "family" in two. On one side were those who condemned Knight's behavior off the court and cited his flagging success on it. On the other side were those (former players and traditionalists among them) who didn't see a difference between Knight and Indiana basketball itself. Coach Knight was the program. So what was the program now?

Looking back, there's no question that the Indiana job I took and the Indiana job it became were two different jobs. People's memories can be a little short-lived.

-- IU coach Tom Crean

The wounds of Knight's departure were salved momentarily in 2002, when new coach Mike Davis led the Hoosiers to the cusp of a national title. But after that brief flash with success, Davis' tenure eventually declined -- the 2003-04 season's losing record was the school's first in 35 years -- and in 2006, Davis resigned.

"I think we reached our darkest days in Mike Davis' tenure," said Jim Gillenwater Jr., a 1979 IU grad and 20-year season-ticket holder who still attends every game with his family. "When you look at the evolution of coaching styles, we went from the days of having a team that worked hard and competed in a very disciplined way. Coach Davis recruited a different kind of player.

"Bracey Wright used to stand 17 feet away from the hoop when shooting his free throws. That would have never happened under Coach Knight."

With Davis gone, Indiana sought a proven winner. They got one with then-Oklahoma coach Kelvin Sampson. Sampson had won 20-plus games in nine straight seasons with the Sooners and had taken his team to the Final Four in 2002, when (perhaps ironically) he lost to Indiana.

Sampson also came with baggage packed. His zero percent graduation rate would have been concern enough for most IU supporters. But the real problem was Sampson's phone history: A program with a vaunted history of NCAA compliance hired a coach who oversaw, and was being punished for, 550 impermissible phone calls to recruits by himself and his staff.

In 2006-07, the NCAA barred Sampson from making phone calls or recruiting off-campus for a year, his first at IU. Then, Indiana fans' most dire predictions came true: Thanks to internal phone records, Sampson was caught making some 10 conference calls to recruits in violation of his NCAA penalties. After an internal investigation by president Michael McRobbie, Sampson settled with Indiana and resigned.

IU was back to square one. Again. And this time, its reputation had been irreparably damaged.

To many college hoops fans, this story is nothing new. Less well-publicized was what happened after interim coach Dan Dakich, and then Crean, took over. A host of transfers -- thanks to disciplinary, academic and personnel issues -- cost Crean the likes of Xavier's Jordan Crawford, Ohio's Armon Bassett, Detroit's Eli Holman and others. Behind the scenes, stories of unpunished behavioral problems under Sampson abounded. Local beat writers took to calling former IU commitments like West Virginia forward Devin Ebanks the "Ice Miller All-Stars," after the Indianapolis law firm that conducted IU's internal report on Sampson.

In the end, Crean was left with one senior (Kyle Taber), five freshmen he hastily recruited in the summer of 2008, six walk-ons and a handful of junior college transfers. Eight years after Knight's dismissal, IU was about to have the worst season -- a 6-25 mark in 2008-09 -- in the program's history.

"Anytime you start taking kids that might have some questionable character, that's what really imploded that program," Abernethy said. "But also you need guys that can play. That's the combination I'd like to think you build a good program with, and those guys haven't been around enough the last 10 years."

Crean's vocal understanding of that problem is one of the reasons that, despite his 16-46 record at Indiana, there is an unmistakable energy surrounding his tenure. It's hard to talk to a former player -- even those who wish Knight was still roaming the sidelines -- without hearing mostly positive things on Crean and his tenure to date.

[+] EnlargeTom Crean
Brian Spurlock/US PresswireTom Crean has made a connection with IU fans, but winning has to come next -- and soon.

Some fans lost the faith last season, when Crean was struggling on two fronts -- the Hoosiers were in the midst of an 11-game Big Ten losing streak, a stretch that included eight losses of 15 points or more, just as it was becoming clear that Crean's 2010 recruiting class would not match the top-10-level talent he landed in 2009. The die-hards became restless, as they are wont to do. But most have come back off the ledge.

"He started with almost nothing, and fans understand that," said Gillenwater Jr. "I think this year is the year you want to see him get to about 75 percent of what the program can be. Fans won't wait around forever. We're going to want a nice jump in wins from Year 2 to Year 3. But we are happy with the foundation he's building, and no reasonable fan would expect them to already be fully back in two years."

After the Sampson debacle, Indiana has renewed its call for "foundation." The "foundation" is twofold: The program should recruit good, smart, well-rounded student-athletes. But thanks to the provincialism of Indiana fans, and the intense focus on the state's talent-rich high school ranks, that's not enough. Many IU fans aren't happy unless the program recruits the very best Indiana prospects. When they leave the state, it's the coach's fault.

Crean has made strides in this regard. His 2009 class included the reigning Indiana Mr. Basketball, Jordan Hulls, as well as Derek Elston, a forward from Tipton. (That class also included sophomores Maurice Creek and Christian Watford, who appear ready to make significant strides in their second seasons.) The 2011 class contains Austin Etherington, a talented Arcadia native. Crean already has three top-100 2012 recruits -- Hanner Perea, Ron Patterson and Peter Jurkin -- and two of them (Perea and Patterson) call Indiana home.

The 2011 class -- as well as the program's future -- could get a major boost if Washington, Ind. native Cody Zeller, the No. 15-ranked player in his class, commits to Indiana in the near future as many expect. If Zeller commits, it would be something of a coronation for Crean's in-state recruiting efforts, and for a new pipeline he has formed with Indiana Elite, one of the best AAU programs in the country and the summer team of many of Indiana's highly ranked prospects. Zeller, Etherington, Perea, Jurkin and Patterson all play for Indiana Elite.

"Indiana lost an entire generation of recruits," Crean said. "That's hard to overcome, but to succeed here, you've got to recruit the state, no question. I think it's obvious that we are."

Combine that recruiting momentum with Indiana's just-built new practice facility -- a state-of-the-art facility adjacent to Assembly Hall that brings IU to the forefront of the college basketball facilities arms race -- and many of the program's supporters are beginning to feel twinges of hope, even as the likelihood of a .500-ish season looms.

"You will sometimes talk to people who are impatient," Abernethy said. "Maybe the last three years have freaked them out. I'm not of that persuasion. It's a very difficult environment -- there are great basketball schools in the state of Indiana -- and everybody has a wish list. But at this point I have a lot of faith in Coach Crean and the progress he has made. I think most people do."

Indeed, no one is happy being a 10-21 team, but for the first time since Knight was fired 10 years ago, Indiana fans seem able to separate the program's context from the man caught in its swirl.

Crean seems capable of toeing the line between tradition and momentum. It's a tricky balancing act. It requires tribute to the past and groundwork for the future. Thus far, despite the poor product on the court, Crean has expertly navigated the two.

For his part, IU's 11th coach is convinced it's still as simple as this: It's Indiana.

"I've never received more letters than when we announced [our players' improved GPAs]," Crean said. "Our fans want to win, but they want to have success the right way. That's what the players have to want, and they do want it. That's what the program is. And we're going to keep building on that."

Eamonn Brennan covers college basketball for ESPN.com. You can see his work every Monday through Friday in the College Basketball Nation blog.