Indiana bets big on idealism in firing Tom Crean. Now will it pay off?
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — It has been 30 years since Indiana last won the national title, with Keith Smart’s jumper to cap off the 1987 NCAA tournament title serving as a grainy time capsule of what used to be. Long before the age of AAU kingpins, up-transfers and conference television networks, Indiana basketball competed annually for Final Fours and the Hoosiers resonated as one of the country’s iconic programs.
A generation later, the short shorts won by Bobby Knight’s crew in that game have gone from fashionable to obsolete to retro chic. And by firing coach Tom Crean on Thursday, athletic director Fred Glass is demanding that Indiana basketball make a similar retro transformation.
In nine years, Crean cleaned up the Indiana program from the sinkhole of Kelvin Sampson and a flurry of NCAA sanctions. Crean reached three Sweet 16s of the NCAA tournament and won two Big Ten titles in the past five years. Glass deemed that wasn’t enough. And boy, did he make that clear. “The expectations for Indiana University basketball are to perennially contend for and win multiple Big Ten championships, regularly go deep in the NCAA tournament, and win our next national championship—and more after that,” Glass said. “We will identify and recruit a coach who will meet these expectations.”
Is that statement nostalgic, bold or completely irrational? Well, we’re about to find out. By concisely laying out the loftiest of expectations for the next Hoosiers coach, Glass is creating a litmus test for the caliber of the Indiana job. The next coach must create a Midwest version of Kentucky, Duke or Kansas. In Bloomington, the expectations are national title or bust. “I think this is one of the best jobs in college basketball,” Glass said Thursday afternoon.
Is Indiana a great job? Certainly. Is it an elite one? The ensuing coaching search will tell us. Indiana should be able to lure a top-tier head coach, and Glass didn’t mince words when mentioning that the coaches he’s targeting are leading teams currently playing in the NCAA tournament. He stressed that resources aren’t going to be an issue. He said he’d have no reservations targeting a sitting NBA coach. “I’m confident,” he said, “we’ll get the coach we want to meet our expectations.”
Glass said he’s unlikely to use a search firm in the hire, although he didn’t shut the door completely on that. And as the story shifts from the end of the Tom Crean era to the next coach expected to hang banners in Assembly Hall, Glass’s grandiose proclamations put him in a position where he needs to lure a big fish. When I asked Glass if the standard is higher than winning two Big Ten titles in five years, he disagreed with the premise of the question, saying that “the inconsistency” of the program led to his decision.
It sounds simplistic, but Glass needs to find a distinct upgrade from Crean. And that’s going to put a lot of pressure on Glass, who didn’t blow anyone away in his only recent high-profile coaching search. After firing football coach Kevin Wilson in December, Glass hired Indiana defensive coordinator Tom Allen. While Allen should be given a fair chance, you’d have to search long and hard around college athletics to find anyone impressed with the hire. Let’s just say Urban Meyer, Jim Harbaugh and James Franklin didn’t shudder in fear. (More likely, they went to Google. And it will surprise many if Allen wins Wilson did, which, really, wasn’t that much).
But that’s Indiana football, which generates less buzz in these parts than the basketball program offering a sophomore from Fort Wayne. Glass firing Crean enters him into a new level of scrutiny, one for which we have no idea if he’s really prepared considering he lacks the experience in college sports that most athletic directors of his caliber have. Every sitting coach who gets a raise or turns Indiana away will be dissected more than a Donald Trump tweet. This is Glass’s first basketball hire, and there’s really no indication of how ready he is for it. “I don't think we can overstate what a big deal this hire is,” he said.
There were times in Glass’s press conference Thursday when his idealism and fandom cast him as overmatched and naïve. Glass channeled back to his childhood in the state, skipping school to celebrate the 1976 title and rejoicing again when the Hoosiers won one during his senior year in 1981. He mentioned a “double check” for candidates with IU ties and ties to the state. He wants the opportunity to talk to former Hoosiers players, high school coaches and AAU coaches. Perhaps most baffling, he said he’d interview any coach with IU ties, waxing nostalgic about the power of connection to the school. In a modern coaching search, all that sounds like a giant waste of time and energy. You could almost hear the veteran athletic directors laughing at the romanticism.
This is the part that Glass, who has spent most of his career outside of athletics, may not properly comprehend. Modern recruiting at the level he wants Indiana to go is done mostly through agents, certainly not the Hickory High coach. Undefeated seasons, like the one Knight authored, are predicated a lot more on player acquisition and navigating a corrupt recruiting environment than slipping ball screens. Maneuvering the summer basketball world, transfer black market and overseas scene are far more critical to success than having great relationships with the coach at Bloomington South. Players have become quasi-professional mercenaries, ping-ponging from program to program for the most shots, most touches and biggest stage. Are there small-town kids shooting on a hoop attached to their barn dreaming of the candy stripes? Sure, but you’re going to need more than them to bring you back to the Final Four.
For Indiana to return to the plane of Kentucky and Kansas, it needs to recruit like them. That’s a lot harder than it was 30 years ago. Glass took umbrage to a question asking if a job at a program that hasn’t won the national title in 30 years could still be considered elite, referencing a column by SI’s Michael Rosenberg.
“I don’t accept that,” he said. “Someone suggested that if I fired Tom Crean I ought to come out in a Members Only jacket because it would be 1970 or 1980,” he said. “Even though that’s my era, I don’t have a Members Only jacket.”
He does have a tall task, finding a squeaky clean coach to win like Bill Self and John Calipari. In addition to the title drought, Indiana hasn’t made a Final Four in 15 years. What Glass sees as “the beauty of the opportunity” for the next coach, a pragmatist can view it as expectations that need to be shifted toward reality.
Now it’s up to Glass to back up his big talk with the right coach. Bob Knight isn’t walking through that door, and finding a coach who wins like him is going to take a perfect hire by an athletic director high on idealism and low on experience.
Who will Indiana hire?
Archie Miller, Dayton
The low-key Miller finds himself in Indianapolis for the NCAA tournament this week, a less than ideal place to lay low. (The worst part of Miller’s week, however, was his No. 7 Flyers drawing No. 10 Wichita State in the first round.) Miller has long been speculated as the top realistic candidate for this job. He has led Dayton to four consecutive NCAA tournaments, two straight Atlantic 10 regular season titles and is only 38.
Miller is the younger brother of Arizona’s Sean Miller, who may also get a call from the Indiana brass. Archie Miller has been judicious about what job he’d take to leave Dayton, as he has perhaps the best job in the A-10. But it’s hard to imagine him turning down the Hoosiers if they called.
Chris Mack, Xavier
Mack has reached the NCAA tournament in seven of eight seasons as a head coach. That includes four consecutive bids while Xavier has played in the Big East and three overall Sweet 16 appearances.
Mack, 47, has turned down scores of jobs to stay with the Musketeers. Like Miller, he’d only be tempted by an elite job. The feeling here is that Miller and Mack are the two most realistic targets after Glass kicks the tires on some bigger names. The Hoosiers job offers enough of an upgrade to pull them away from the strong situations they clearly adore.
Chris Holtmann, Butler
Don’t underestimate the impact of Butler’s consistent NCAA tournament success on Crean’s demise. The back-to-back Final Four runs under Brad Stevens and the consistent brilliance under Holtmann didn’t go unnoticed in Bloomington. Clearly, Butler has had a much better decade than Indiana. So will the Hoosiers go get Holtmann? He’s also been patient with opportunities but would likely to take the job.
Who could Indiana reach for?
Steve Alford, UCLA
He’s obviously an iconic Indiana high school and Hoosiers star. If anyone read between the lines of Glass’s presser, he clearly values that. (Maybe to a fault.) But there’s a small matter of a $7.8 million buyout, which even with Glass’s bold proclamations about resources not being an issue would still be significant.
But consider this: Alford’s seat was hot enough last year that he gave a year back on his contract, a move as stunning as it was foolish. (Things have gone better this year, as Alford has UCLA a No. 3 seed and may not even be available to hire for three more weeks.) The institutional ego of UCLA basketball and the personal ego of Alford make for a heady one-on-on matchup. UCLA isn’t begging a coach to stay. That means the Bruins brass would likely be open to negotiating that $7.8 million down to something more reasonable.
If UCLA makes a deep run in the NCAA tournament and the Indiana job is still open, this would make for fantastic theatre. (Imagine the potential of LaVar Ball going on Dan Dakich’s show once a week.)
Gregg Marshall, Wichita State
There are few candidates on the board who could potentially win the way Knight did at Indiana. No one will ever question Marshall’s fire, coaching acumen and ability to identify and develop players. But multiple athletic directors who’ve explored him as a candidate over the years have come away squeamish, as he’s as overbearing as he is talented. (Texas officials didn’t even kick the tires, which should tell you something.) Marshall’s lack of self-awareness would make the jump from the backwoods of the Valley to the fishbowl of Bloomington a potentially untenable leap. Indiana is one of the few places that could pony up the $4 million annual salary likely needed pay Marshall, but if Tom Crean’s personality wore on people here, it’s hard to imagine Marshall would be received better.
Tony Bennett, Virginia
He was atop former athletic director Rick Greenspan’s list when this job was filled nine years ago and he said not thanks. He’ll certainly draw interest from the Hoosiers, but it’s hard to imagine Bennett leaving Charlottesville, considering the success he’s had there and the niche he’s carved. (Also, would a coach who has struggled to consistently go deep in the NCAA tournament take a job where the description clearly demands it?)
No chance, but will be bandied about
Brad Stevens, Boston Celtics
This isn’t happening. Period.
Billy Donovan, Oklahoma City Thunder
His career is tied to the fickle whims of Russell Westbrook, which has to be a pinch scary. But at the very least, the timing would be extremely thorny as the NBA season ends April 12 and Oklahoma City is slated as the Western Conference’s No. 6 seed. Indiana isn’t the type of job you jump from an NBA playoff team to take. “Ultimately if someone wants to be the head coach at IU, that's a detail,” Glass said of the NBA timing. For Donovan, that seems like an untenable detail.
Fred Hoiberg, Chicago Bulls
The Mayor won big at his alma mater, Iowa State. But if Indiana officials looked under the hood of his recruiting—a conga line of troubled transfers with discipline issues—they’d get a little queasy. No coach in recent basketball history succeeded with a riskier recruiting gameplan. It’s not a tenable model.
Plus, Hoiberg is better off getting fired by the Bulls and taking the big paycheck that comes with it. He’s also been a dismal NBA coach, which wouldn’t help here.