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Sports Business

Crean still struggling to gain acceptance at IU

January 23, 2014

Nineteen games into the 2013-14 IU men’s basketball season, and I’m starting to hear some familiar refrains.

After a 12-7 start, coach Tom Crean is starting to get beat like a piñata at a birthday party. And who’s administering most of the beating? IU alums and supporters, of course.

“I’m beginning to wonder about Tom Crean,” a sports marketing source with IU ties told me over lunch this week.

My jaw dropped—a little. Crean is the same guy who raised the program out of the ashes and put them up on a pedestal as the No. 1-ranked team in the nation for much of last year. They won the outright Big Ten regular season championship for the first time in 20 years.

Yes, the wheels began to wobble a bit on last year’s team late in the season. But the Hoosiers still made the Sweet Sixteen in the NCAA tournament and were eliminated by a buzz-saw Syracuse team.

Oh, I know, teams coached by a famous man in a red sweater (plaid jacket before that) never would have been so ill-prepared. How fast we forget. Previous IU teams have done much worse.

Remember, Crean was the guy who found Victor Oladipo when no one else was looking for or at him. Crean also sold blue chip recruits Cody Zeller and Yogi Ferrell on his program at IU.

But I wasn’t really surprised by my lunch companion’s comment.

I’ve heard it all before. Crean’s teams don’t play defense. All his offense does is run a three-man weave at the top of the key. His teams lack discipline. They’re too run-and-gun. They’re inconsistent. And, my personal favorite: Crean claps too much. I mean, why else would we call him Clappy the Clown? Who needs enthusiasm, anyway?

I’ve heard it all before. Mike Davis was called a lot worse than that.

“I don’t even recognize the [IU] team anymore,” one alumni told me during Davis’ early years. “He’s getting all these guys from out-of-state, people I don’t even recognize. It doesn’t feel like the team I used to support.”

And that comment was made when Davis was still having a modicum of success in Bloomington.

I wonder what that alum thinks now. Crean—as well as just about every coach of a major college NCAA Div. I basketball program—is essentially recruiting nationwide, if not globally, these days.

The days when IU—or any college basketball team—is composed primarily of people within a 90-minute drive are over.

I’m not a Crean apologist. Nor do I make excuses for Davis’ faults and failures. That’s not the point.

I can’t help but notice that within the same breath as many of these complaints, some kind of comparison to the venerable Bob Knight is made.

I’ve got a sad new flash for you. The Knight era is over.

But I have some even sadder news. Some people who profess to be IU’s most ardent supporters won’t let The General’s reign die entirely. And that fact is what’s most likely to drive out coaches like Crean. If the Hoosier nation's grip on the past doesn’t loosen, sooner rather than later, the IU head coaching post isn’t going to be such a plum job.

I’m not saying the memory of Knight should be wiped away. He’s done far too much for IU and this state for that. But the endless comparisons of Knight to the man currently coaching the men’s team in Bloomington must stop. It’s destructive. The hangers-on are going to eventually drive a couple nails (more than they already have) into the program’s coffin.

But alas, I’ve come to the uncomfortable conclusion that—short of a couple of national championships—no men’s basketball coach at IU will ever be fully accepted by the school’s alums and supporters until, say, about 2064.

That’s when all the old guard, the folks that can’t stop remembering the glory days under Knight will be either dead or sipping their meals through a straw down at the old folks home. And their influence—no matter how overt or subtle—will be dead right along with them.

In case you were wondering, I too am of the generation that will be long dead (barring a miracle) by 2064. But that’s beside the point.

Supporters of other schools don’t seem to have the same issue as the Hoosier faithful. Sure, Marquette was initially forlorn about Crean’s departure. But they’ve since embraced his successor, Buzz Williams, with fervor.

Butler backers may be the best at living in the moment. They’ve lost a line of good coaches. No program had reason to be sadder than Butler when Brad Stevens made the stunning revelation last year that he was leaving for the Boston Celtics. Yes, there are still some moans among the Bulldog following, but the fan base seems to have embraced Brandon Miller despite a less than perfect start to this Big East season.

Good grief, UCLA mourned John Wooden’s departure from Westwood for less time than Knight has been eulogized in Bloomington, and the Wizard brought the Bruins 10 national championships.

Yes, I understand the way Knight was shown the door at Assembly Hall has fed the stream of negativism that continues to pollute the IU program. But it’s time to clear the air.

Let criticism be leveled where criticism is due. But let it be about what’s happening today, and not in relation to what happened in a bygone era. And certainly not about something that happened more than 13 years ago.

Living in the past is only going to put the program back in the dust. Or worse yet, in the ground.

And 2064 is a long time to wait for it to rise from the dead.

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