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BENNER: Can Crean handle winning as well as he handled losing?

March 16, 2013

When Tom Crean took over as head men’s basketball coach at Indiana University, he famously proclaimed his primary reason for doing so was because, “This is Indiana.”

At the time, in April 2008, it was an Indiana decimated by broken rules, NCAA probation, a shattered reputation and more bad actors than you would find in a grade school play.

Now, five years later, Crean is Indiana. He and his staff have resurrected the program, recruited outstanding young men who excel on and off the court, developed their skills (Exhibit A: Victor Oladipo), played by the rules, and captured an outright Big Ten regular-season championship in a year the league was the nation’s most difficult.

He has made Indiana basketball nationally relevant again.

Yet with that relevance comes responsibility.

He’s not representing just a basketball program, but the entire university. He is its most visible personality, by far, not unlike a certain Robert Montgomery Knight back in the day.

Thus, it was—to put it mildly—disappointing when Crean got into a post-game verbal dustup with the former IU and current University of Michigan assistant Jeff Meyer at the conclusion of the Hoosiers’ title-clinching win over the Wolverines.

Suddenly, the sideshow became center stage, and Crean—and IU, by extension—absorbed a torrent of national and local criticism.

Of course, coaches taking on other coaches is nothing new.

When IU was playing LSU years ago, Knight said, and I’m paraphrasing, “I thought we were in trouble until I looked at the other end of the court and saw (LSU coach) Dale Brown.“

To former University of Illinois coach Lou Henson, Knight was “a classic bully.”

Temple University’s John Chaney once threatened to kill John Calipari, then at the University of Massachusetts.

So, yes, even grown men making millions of dollars can sometimes resort to impulsive playground childishness.

Perhaps that’s what this was—nothing more, nothing less.

Some believed Meyer precipitated Crean’s outburst by dropping an F-bomb, but there was no evidence of that. However, the video from WRTV-TV Channel 6 clearly captured Crean’s “you wrecked our program” taunt before assistant Tim Buckley intervened and hustled him away from Meyer and the camera.

Perhaps Crean thought he could jab Meyer, and no one would notice. Unfortunately, that was not the case.

One also wonders if Crean would have been so brash had that last-second Michigan shot that hung so tantalizingly on the rim fallen in, instead of rolling off. That was a razor-thin margin between an undisputed title and a multi-team tie.

Really, if Crean felt compelled to take a shot at Meyer, all he had to do was say, “scoreboard.”

Then again, he also could have thanked him. Crean is the head coach at Indiana because Kelvin Sampson and his coaching staff—including Meyer—stuffed the program down a septic tank.

Hello, opportunity. Otherwise, Crean might still be at Marquette University.

Bottom line: This spat—plus the cutting down of the nets after the loss to Ohio State University, plus what some believe to be Crean’s too-brief handshakes with opposing coaches after losses, plus allegations that Crean instructed players to fake deliberate fouls—has detracted from what should be one of college basketball’s feel-good stories.

Never mind that Indiana has players who don’t make a mockery of the term “student-athlete.” Cody Zeller and Jordan Hulls are academic all-Americans. The Hoosiers are earning their degrees, most well in advance of completion of their eligibility.

To his credit, Crean issued a private apology to Meyer and a public one the next day. Let’s hope it was heartfelt, and not just an attempt to make the story go away.

No one much cared what Crean said or did when the Hoosiers were routinely getting hammered by show-them-no-mercy opponents.

But now Indiana is Indiana again. Relevance comes with a price, and a microscope.•

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Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.

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