We give a quick post-mortem to the NIT game, then dive in and get to the heart of the controversy surrounding Coach Crean’s job status at Indiana University. The contents of this podcast are probably going to expire within days (if not hours).
On this regular season finale episode of CrimsonCast, we talk about the Big Ten Tournament draw for IU, their chances of picking up enough wins to make the NCAA Tournament as an at-large team (yes, it’s still possible), and the possible NIT opponents awaiting IU if they don’t. We also talk about Indiana’s sordid Big Ten Tournament history (TRIGGER WARNING – we go through every game from 1998-present).
One of the stranger arguments of the “Don’t fire/replace Tom Crean” camp centers on the question of who IU could get that would be better.
“Great coaches aren’t going to line up to replace Crean at IU!” goes the argument. “And Crean is a top-level coach, so we won’t be doing any better.”
Calling Crean a top-level coach is questionable, but even if we put that aside, the entire argument is being misstated. Somehow, certain IU fans and pundits have gotten it in their heads that the program would need to hire a current top 10 (or better) coach, or else it wouldn’t be worth making a change.
But if we look at most of the top coaches of the last 15 years, we see that most of those coaches weren’t “top coaches” before they took their current jobs. In fact, several of them hadn’t been head coaches at all.
Here’s a listing of top coaches during that time period, and their prior coaching experience before taking over their most prominent jobs:
|Coach||Program||Before Current job|
|Sean Miller||Arizona||Xavier 2004-09|
|Scott Drew||Baylor||Valparaiso HC 2002-03|
|Brad Stevens||Butler||Butler assistant|
|Mike Krzyzewski||Duke||Army HC 1975-80|
|Billy Donovan||Florida||Marshall HC 1994-96|
|Mark Few||Gonzaga||Gonzaga assistant|
|Bill Self||Kansas||Oral Roberts 1993-97; Tulsa 1997-00; Illinois 2000-03|
|John Calipari||Kentucky||UMass 1988-96; NJ Nets 1996-99; Memphis 2000-09|
|Rick Pitino||Louisville||NYK 1987-89; Kentucky 1989-97; Boston 1998-01|
|Tom Izzo||Michigan State||MSU assistant|
|Mike Brey||Notre Dame||Delaware HC 1995-00|
|Jim Boeheim||Syracuse||Syracuse Assistant|
|Jim Calhoun||UConn||Northeastern HC 1972-86|
|Roy Williams||UNC||UNC Assistant, Kansas 1988-03|
|Jay Wright||Villanova||Hofstra HC 1994-01|
|Tony Bennett||Virginia||Washington State HC 2006-09|
|Bo Ryan||Wisconsin||UW-Milwaukee HC 1999-01|
Some important things to note:
- Three coaches in this group who won titles or made title games (Boeheim, Izzo, Stevens) went straight from being an assistant coach to being a head coach. Four if you count Roy Williams, which you absolutely should.
- Last year’s national title winner, Jay Wright, came to Villanova after posting a 59% winning percentage and two NCAA tournament trips in seven years at Hofstra.
- Bo Ryan’s experience consisted of 15 successful years at a D-3 school, followed by two years at UW-Milwaukee where he didn’t finish higher than 4th in the Horizon League.
- Three coaches with a combined 10 national titles (Krzyzewski, Calhoun, Donovan) only had prior coaching experience at the mid-major or lower level before taking on their primary jobs.
- Out of this list of top coaches, you could only reasonably argue that two of them were poached from programs of similar stature. Roy Williams moved from Kansas to UNC, but only due to his deep ties to UNC as a former assistant, and only after having spurned the Tar Heels three years earlier. Bill Self found immediate success at Illinois before moving to Kansas to replace Williams, and you have to stretch the concept of “similar stature” pretty damn far to include Illinois and Kansas in the same sentence.
- At the time of his hiring by Kentucky, John Calipari was viewed with a tremendous amount of suspicion by most of the major programs in college basketball. Kentucky itself spurned Calipari to hire Billy Gillispie two years earlier, and other top programs were giving him a wide berth.
- Sean Miller’s high-water mark at Xavier was an Elite 8 as a 3 seed, and his Xavier teams were only seeded in the top half of the bracket twice.
It is certainly understandable that IU fans would prefer the security of an already battle-tested coach taking over the program should Crean leave. But it is not a necessary aspect of any such change, and furthermore it ignores an important pattern in college basketball. “Great” coaches don’t generally take over great programs. They make them, and forge their own identities in the process.
The key is making the right hire, by picking the coach with the best mix of ability and potential that they can grow into the job. Indiana basketball provides a wonderful canvas for the right coach to paint his masterpiece. If a change is to be made, it would be a mistake to assume that Indiana must hire a coach that’s already painted a masterpiece.
“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.
We got together to talk IU basketball for a few minutes and ended up going for an hour and a half. We cover the Michigan loss, the general malaise of the program, the near future, and the far future — basically everything regarding the current and future state of the program.
It’s a noisy podcast file due to some cell phone sounds, so be forewarned. Thanks for listening.
On this episode, we talk a bit about the loss to Nebraska, discuss the broader implications of the team’s struggles and the program’s difficulty in getting over the hump, and answer a bunch of reader questions about a variety of things.
Adam and Anthony stay up late Friday night to take a look at #iubb’s next Top 25 challenge in the Butler Bulldogs.
The two preview the matchups for the Hoosiers, how the pace of the game could dictate the pace of the game, and so much more!
Don’t forget to follow the show on twitter @ADRRSN, @Alower57 and of course, @CrimsonCast!
The Alumni Lounge is back once again!
After experiencing some technical difficulties, Adam and Anthony are back to give you their thoughts on how Indiana is looking through nine games into the season.
Who is our freshman of the year? How have the Hoosiers been coming together as a unit? How will these first nine games change their thoughts on the rest of the season?
Tune into this week’s episode to find out! Also, don’t forget to follow us on twitter @ADRRSN, @Alower57 and of course @CrimsonCast!
On the latest episode of CrimsonCast, we catch up after the Penn State game and discuss why we continue to have these close losses and if there is anything we can do to get over the hub. Or is there nothing wrong and these are baby steps to a better tomorrow?
We also look at the IUBB win vs Kansas and preview the early season off what we saw in 1 game.
The Alumni Lounge is back! Adam Demaree and Anthony Lower talk Hoosier hoops right before the season opener Friday night!
The two discuss their expectations for the season, Tom Crean, and so much more! Plus Adam discusses a fun fact about this year’s season opening matchup.
Don’t forget to follow the show on twitter @ADRRSN, @Alow57, and of course, @CrimsonCast!