Right now, life is good for Indiana Hoosiers head basketball coach Tom Crean. His brothers-in-law faced off in the Super Bowl, where John Harbaugh’s Baltimore Ravens bested Jim Harbaugh’s San Francisco 49ers. His Indiana squad started out the season atop the rankings and is back at No. 1 yet again. And he has reincarnated one of college basketball’s powerhouses in the same time that his former star at Marquette, Dwyane Wade, captured his second NBA championship with his sights on number three.
But it wasn’t always easy being Tom Crean.
Flash back five years ago for me. If you recall, the storied tradition of Indiana Hoosiers basketball was at an all-time low. Following the dismissal of the legendary Bobby Knight amid controversy surrounding the last man to head an undefeated team to the national title, Indiana could not regain its footing.
Miles Mike Davis started out hot, making it to the NCAA championship game his first full season in charge after taking over for Knight, only to flame out quickly with back-to-back NCAA tournament-less seasons in 2004 and 2005. He resigned shortly thereafter — even after leading the Hoosiers back to the tournament in 2006 — ushering in perhaps the most embarrassing era of Indiana basketball — the Kelvin Sampson era.
Sampson, who has the highest winning percentage in Oklahoma basketball history, fled the Sooners for the Hoosier state amid NCAA recruiting violations, and wouldn’t you know it, Sampson was no reformed saint once he landed in Bloomington. He made the tournament with freshman sensation Eric Gordon leading the way his first year and was steering the Hoosiers back to the dance in 2008 when the other shoe dropped. Sampson violated NCAA recruiting rules yet again and was summarily forced out before the end of the season.
Indiana was slapped with three years of probation, self-imposed scholarship restrictions and heavily restricted recruiting opportunities.
That was the hand Tom Crean was dealt when he was offered the head coaching job at Indiana. He could have folded his cards and remained at Marquette, where he built the program into a Big East contender year in and year out, and no one would have blamed him. But Crean decided to walk into the lion’s den and try to revive one of the storied programs in college basketball, not take the easy way and continue to live his comfortable life as a Golden Eagle.
What I’m not sure Crean knew was that he was facing more than just those NCAA sanctions. Gordon predictably headed off to the NBA, and the team’s other best player, D.J. White, graduated. On top of that, two players transferred and three others were kicked off the team.
Just like that, an NCAA tournament team vanished, and Crean was left reeling. So was the program, which went a combined 28-66 in Crean’s first three seasons in Bloomington, including a university-worst 6-25 record in year one. It looked as though Crean was in way over his head, and the Hoosier faithful was glaring in his direction. After all, this is a fan base used to winning, one so demanding that it chased off Davis even as he went to an NCAA championship game and rebounded after two tough years to get back to the tournament. To say he was on the hot seat would be an understatement.
Then last year happened. Even with all the losses and all the restrictions and all the pressure that comes with Indiana basketball, Crean never wavered from his plan, from what worked so well for him at Marquette. He persevered, and finally it all came together last season. Behind guys like Jordan Hulls and Christian Watford, Crean began to establish his way. And with the arrivals of Victor Oladipo a couple years ago and then McDonald’s All-American Cody Zeller last year, it all finally clicked.
The Hoosiers defeated No. 1 Kentucky in a thriller, and then went out and beat the class of the Big Ten in second-ranked Ohio State and fifth-ranked Michigan State, riding that momentum of defeating three top five teams to a 27-9 record and Sweet 16 NCAA Tournament run just one season after finishing 12-20. Just like that, Indiana was back on the map, and this year, Crean has emphatically put his stamp on not only Indiana basketball, but college basketball as a whole.
As it stands, the Hoosiers are the No. 1 team in the country. They are the class of the Big Ten, arguably the best conference in America, and a team that is sure to be a No. 1 seed and a Final Four — not to mention title — favorite. Crean has a do-it-all senior in Watford, and two National Player of the Year candidates in Zeller and Oladipo to go along with a roster full of players who have bought in to his system. Indiana basketball is once again atop the NCAA kingdom, and Tom Crean is their king.
But it hasn’t been an easy road. It was difficult enough to leave Marquette, let alone to leave a successful job where he was respected and even revered for a tenuous situation to say the least. Then that situation became even worse, with departures, defections and losses piled on top of losses. All the while, Tom Crean never let it faze him. He just kept on plugging away.
It wasn’t easy. Boy was it not easy. But nowadays, he sure is making it look that way.