When Peyton Manning left Indianapolis, that was it, that was all. Not just for the Colts, but also for the fabric and definition of Indiana sports in general. You attach your identity to certain historical sports greats, legends and memories. All of Indiana’s — not just Manning — were fading or gone.
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Indiana sports were basically in shambles, living on memories. That was way back in, well, March. And that’s why it’s so strange that roughly 230 days later, the state of Indiana already appears to be returning to its rightful sports normalcy.
Notre Dame’s comeback has already been the talk of the sports world. But on Friday, the Associated Press preseason basketball poll was released, setting up the narrative coming next. The No. 1 team in the country?
The Indiana Hoosiers.
It has been so long. And it’s just ironic that life would be coming back to Indiana sports just as Manning, the iconic ex-Colts quarterback, left town in what looked like the final nail.
Think of what this must mean to the state. Everything must feel right again.
Wake up the echoes? Dust off the red-sweatered memories of Bobby Knight?
At Indiana, coach Tom Crean isn’t bringing back old memories, but possibly making new ones. It has been a long time since the program started to fade under Knight, and he finally embarrassed the place for the last time. Then, other coaches followed: Mike Davis started well, but couldn’t recruit. It ended with Kelvin Sampson’s rule-breaking, and NCAA investigators.
It was one long slide. Indiana and Notre Dame have gone roughly a quarter of a century without a national championship.
But Crean might finally be cleaning up the mess that has been piling up at IU.
Is it possible for Indiana basketball to ever put Knight in the past? Probably not, actually. But this could be a start.
“There was no blueprint for anything that was going on at Indiana,’’ Crean said. “It wasn’t like you could go call somebody who’d say, `Yeah, we lived through this.’
"It really was, in my mind, the equivalent of having the death penalty in football. I didn’t call any of the old SMU people. I don’t know them.’’
Look, Crean is working miracles. But it’s too much to compare Indiana hoops to SMU football. Indiana still had all the tradition, not to mention a good run in 2002. It is a staple of college basketball, and never was in permanent disarray. SMU football, the only major program forced to shut down, was built up years ago only temporarily by businessmen and boosters willing to pay big, and unethically, for players.
SMU still hasn’t fully recovered. In college basketball, it takes only a couple of players to turn things around.
Still, in five years, Indiana has gone from 6-25 to No. 1 in the nation. It has been so fast under Crean.
“Quickly? No, no,’’ he said. “When you live through what we’ve lived through on a day-to-day basis, there’s nothing quick about that.
“There’s no shortcuts to take. And we’re not shortcut people, anyway. Shortcuts come back to bite you pretty quick. We had hit rock bottom.’’
Crean gets full credit. He was set at Marquette, and took a major career gamble going to Indiana in 2008, where the roster was nearly non-existent. He said he wasn’t expecting things to be as low as they were. But how is that possible?
After Davis failed (2000-06), Indiana was so desperate to hire a good recruiter that it went after Sampson, who was under NCAA investigation at the time IU was courting him. It was a similar desperation Notre Dame showed in once giving Charlie Weis a 10-year contract despite his lack of experience as a college coach.
Both places were trying to hang on to something that wasn’t there anymore.
But Sampson sure could recruit. He was fired in 2008 under more NCAA troubles, and the roster fell apart. Prized recruit Eric Gordon (stolen unethically from Illinois) left for the NBA after his freshman year. Crean would take over a team with only two returning players.
“When you’re rebuilding a program, and there’s not people there inside the program that say, `This is how we do it. You’re not in the gym enough; you’re not doing this enough; this is how competitive it is,’ then you pay for it. There’s no question we paid for that.
“I’d point to how hard it was on all our families. You’re not just the basketball coach, and not just the caretaker of the program. You’re the husband and the father . . . You just keep moving forward with whatever you do. You’ve got to go with the plan every day and you can’t ever deviate, even if it’s not working.’’
Crean said that after his first year, he had another job opportunity, but spent less than “10 seconds’’ before saying no. He was staying.
By year four, last season, the Hoosiers reached the Round of 16 in the NCAA Tournament. Now, all starters are back and center Cody Zeller, Crean’s first signature recruit at IU, is a preseason candidate for national Player of the Year.
“You don’t get any banners for your preseason ranking,’’ Crean said.
Yes, but the Hoosiers are back in the national picture again. So is Notre Dame football. And Indiana is Indiana again.
All it took was for Manning to leave town?
Well, what it took, actually, was for Indiana and Notre Dame to accept what they had become, stop panicking about losing what they used to be, and start fresh. The Colts were forced to do the same thing in letting Manning go, drafting Stanford phenom Andrew Luck and starting over.
Now, the state looks forward to making new history.