“Is IU basketball still a blueblood program?” “Is IU basketball still a top-10 job?”
You see these topics brought up regularly, now that the Hoosiers are dangerously close to a second missed NCAA Tournament in the last four years and coach Tom Crean’s job status is once again being called into question.
It has become fashionable for certain segments of the basketball media establishment (both IU-focused and national) to attribute the up-and-down nature of the Crean era at Indiana to a re-ordering of the college basketball landscape. This is basically Sick Boy’s theory from Trainspotting — “Well at one point you’ve got it, then you lose it, and it’s gone forever”. IU was once great in basketball, now it is not great in basketball. And if you think otherwise, you’re a delusional and unrealistic fan trapped in the 1980s.
You think that Indiana should be running with Kansas or North Carolina? You’re obviously ignoring the reality that most kids don’t dream of coming to Indiana to play basketball anymore, that there’s more competition for top talent, and that the system of play which IU rode to greatness under its last Hall of Fame coach is out of date. Which means, I guess, that you should readjust your expectations. You’re no longer Indiana.
There is some appeal to this line of thinking. It conveniently positions Crean as an upper-level coach doing the best that can be done, with limited resources compared to places like Duke and Kentucky. It accentuates every success and explains away every failure. And it recasts IU as a plucky underdog, rather than a national basketball powerhouse.
But most people know that IU basketball is not a plucky underdog. Nor is it some decayed giant oak tree being overgrown by younger saplings. No, IU basketball is simply a program that, through a combination of historical errors in managerial judgment, has employed a series of coaches who have not effectively harnessed the power of the program.
Like most other college basketball programs, IU is great when it has a great coach, good when it has a good coach, and average when it has an average coach. And since 1994, IU has had the following coaches:
- A great coach that stopped caring about recruiting
- A sub-average coach that wasn’t qualified for the job
- A very good coach that landed the program on NCAA probation almost immediately upon arrival
- An average-to-good coach that can’t cut it at this level of basketball
Around 1994, Bob Knight handed off recruiting to his assistants, got a bunch of players that couldn’t (or wouldn’t) play for him, then got fired before being able to coach his way out of that mistake. Mike Davis took over a stacked roster, underachieved for two regular seasons, then leveraged a miraculous run to the national title game into four additional seasons of mind-numbing basketball played by largely disinterested players. IU then made the tremendously stupid decision to hire Kelvin Sampson, a very good X’s and O’s coach who couldn’t tie his shoes in the morning without violating an NCAA rule.
Then they hired Crean.
Tom Crean was not a bad hire. Tom Crean was a perfectly reasonable choice in 2008.
However, Crean has been at Indiana for nine years. Fans who have watched closely the entire time know what they’ve got with Crean. And what they’ve got is a coach who falls somewhere between average and good, but certainly falls short of great.
There are a bevy of statistics and observations within IU’s overall performance to support this assertion. Excluding the first two years of his tenure, Crean has consistently put teams on the floor that struggle with defense, turnovers, and depth at key positions. His teams have only exceeded .500 in the Big Ten three times. And of course, the inability to get past the Sweet 16 has been a black mark on the program, especially when 25 different schools have made it to the Elite Eight since 2011.
Certainly, there have been successes under Crean including two Big Ten titles, three Sweet 16 appearances, and five McDonald’s All-Americans signed. But ultimately this is a results-based business, and despite having a roster full of his hand-picked players for the past seven years, along with a top-10 coaching salary and one of the largest recruiting budgets in the country, Crean simply hasn’t delivered the type of results that Indiana basketball requires.
And the argument that Crean can’t do better because IU is a diminished program is hogwash.
Look around college basketball and you’ll see an incredibly coach-driven business. Coaches retain control over almost every aspect of their program, from scheduling to recruiting to planning to execution. The right hire will take a program from relative obscurity to national success, or maintain a top program consistently over a long period of time.
The top programs now are where they are largely because of the coaches they hired, not the innate greatness of the program. There are very few programs that are completely “coach-proof” and even programs with the bluest of blood have demonstrated susceptibility to the perils of poor hiring.
North Carolina is a worthwhile example. After Dean Smith’s sudden retirement, longtime assistant Bill Guthridge was handed the reins of the program. He duly led a team full of Smith recruits to a second-place finish in the ACC and the Final Four. The following two years saw UNC lose 10 and 14 games, and while Guthridge did make a second Final Four in 2000, his exit was hastened by a very real concern that his recruiting and on-court accomplishments were leading North Carolina down a dangerous path.
Enter Matt Doherty, who won an ACC title and 26 games his first year as coach, then struggled to eight- and 19-win seasons before being canned with a career winning percentage of 23-25 in ACC play. UNC managed to bounce back fairly quickly, but that was almost entirely due to hiring Roy Williams away from Kansas.
Wisconsin is a consistent power in college basketball, and has become in the 2000s and 2010s what Indiana was in the 1970s and 80s. But this was primarily due to a series of intelligent hires by Wisconsin during the 90s. After missing every NCAA tournament from 1948-1993, the Badgers’ hires of Stu Jackson, Dick Bennett, and Bo Ryan transformed what was the second-worst program in the conference into a team that racked up multiple conference titles and deep NCAA tournament runs.
Michigan State has been a stalwart program for a couple of decades under Tom Izzo. But the Spartans weren’t always at that level. Michigan State missed seventeen straight tournaments from 1960-1977, then won a national title in 1979, then missed eight of the next ten tournaments. Jud Heathcote’s teams were perennially mid-pack in the conference. Izzo did not inherit a giant of a program, he built it.
We are living in a world where Northwestern is going to make the NCAA tournament for the first time ever, a feat that is largely due to their hiring of Chris Collins as head coach.
Even Kentucky hasn’t been immune to this phenomenon. UK has been to more Final Fours than anyone else since 2010, and the Cats are a tremendously successful team. But go back a couple of decades and the story is a bit different. Tubby Smith won a national title with Rick Pitino’s players in 1998, then embarked on a perfectly respectable run that still left UK fans exasperated. After that national title win, UK didn’t make another Final Four during the rest of Tubby’s tenure, and suffered five seasons of double-digit losses in 10 years. National media members consistently lambasted UK fans who complained about Tubby, telling them that they were lucky to have a coach of his caliber, and that they were being completely unreasonable wanting to fire a coach who won conference titles and (some) NCAA tournament games.
After parting ways with Tubby, UK hired a hot commodity coach in Billy Gillispie, who promptly crashed and burned and was let go within two years. And then Kentucky hired John Calipari, and has become the surest thing in college basketball since 2009.
It’s not the program, it’s the coach.
Indiana has been here before. From 1955 to 1971, the Hoosiers went to a grand total of two NCAA tournaments, suffered 10 losing seasons, and finished 4th or worse in the conference 12 of 17 times. At the dawn of the 1970s, you could’ve easily argued that Indiana had long since lost whatever “blueblood” status it once had, and that it had been surpassed by the far more successful regional programs such as Kentucky, Michigan, and Purdue.
But then IU made the right hire, brought in a great coach, and started competing on the national stage almost overnight.
After nine years, Crean’s program is what it is. It’s a program that can attract some top talent, can develop some unheralded talent into draft-ready status, and can also feature woefully mismanaged rosters that are missing key parts. It’s a program that schedules as poorly as any major conference team, year after year. It’s a program prone to wild swings in fortune, ricocheting between success and mediocrity in consecutive years. It’s a wildly inconsistent program, and that’s due to the coach.
There aren’t any glaring structural issues that disadvantage IU basketball compared to other programs which succeed at a high level every year. What exactly are the functional aspects of Indiana University basketball that make it inferior to Wisconsin or Michigan State? Why has IU been surpassed by the likes of Butler, Louisville, and Michigan? How has Kansas maintained a superior program despite having worse recruiting and geography issues than Indiana?
It’s not the program, it’s the coach.
Will IU end up making a coaching change this year? At this point, it’s all speculation. But the idea that has been floated, the one which says that IU shouldn’t make a coaching change because this level of program is the best it can do, is wrong.
The history of IU basketball, and of college basketball, shows that successful coaches beget successful programs. That same history has shown that modern coaches don’t need 10 years to demonstrate that they can maintain the level of consistent success required for an elite basketball program. And the resources, recruiting area, and demonstrated past successes at IU show that an elite program is well within the grasp of the right coach.