Two years ago I wondered aloud if Indiana University should have at least taken a look at Butler’s Brad Stevens before
offering its basketball coaching job to Tom Crean.
I was almost laughed off the air by the radio talk show host I was chatting with, not to mention peers in my own newsroom. Heck, even my wife—an avid sports fan—thought the idea was ludicrous.
In the end, I had to agree. Hiring a 31-year-old with one year’s head coaching experience did seem a bit ridiculous.
It doesn’t look so ridiculous any more. And I’m guessing more than a few fans languishing in Hoosierland these days are wondering the same thing. Would IU be better off with home-grown Brad Stevens than the imported Crean?
I’m a long way from saying Crean has failed. He simply hasn’t been given enough time to resurrect the program from the ashes. But if he keeps missing on the likes of Gordon Hayward, the questions will grow louder. Crean, who came to IU with a spiffy resume and polished presentation, might want to forget about the national blue chip recruits he keeps whiffing on and focus on the talent making its way through Indiana high schools.
Coaching legend Bob Knight’s own admission on ESPN this morning that there is no doubt that the two best teams and best coached teams—Butler and Duke—met for the championship last night, probably doesn’t help Crean’s case right now.
But there's a larger issue at hand. And that issue speaks to the very way in which the IU athletics department has been run for the last 20 plus or minus years.
The long-term stability of Knight at IU covered up a lot of warts for a very long time within the school’s inept athletic department. As crazy as The General was at times, he worked for peanuts and never made crazy salary demands, brought in legions of supporters and lots of alumni donations.
The money and publicity Knight brought in helped fund the school’s successful swimming, soccer and other non-revenue generating sports teams.
You wouldn’t confuse me as a Knight apologist by a long shot, but his firing by then president Myles Brand certainly brought on a number of problems. And IU sports administrators shot themselves in the foot so many times—with the mismanagement of the Mike Davis situation, the indecision on Steve Alford, the hiring of Kelvin Sampson—they finally had to lay down on the ground and cry uncle.
While Butler officials have identified not one, not two, not three, but four coaches who could succeed in their system, IU has fumbled around aimlessly with not only its basketball, but its football program as well.
IU Athletics Director Fred Glass deserves a pass for now. He’s still cleaning up the mess left by past IU sports administrators. But he's got to be on a short leash, and his choke chain must be getting snugger with every Bulldog success.
Glass must prove he can identify, hire and retain talent in key positions. Actually nurturing and elevating talent within IU's own system would also be a brilliant idea that IU has never seemed to grasp. Butler athletic directors making half of Glass' salary at IU have managed to master that concept.
We can only hope that the good folks running IU’s athletic department have by now realized that it’s people, not facilities that make a program successful. Rattling around in the basketball offices and locker rooms at Hinkle Fieldhouse shows you that.
I can’t remember the last time IU struck gold with a bright, young coach. The late Terry Hoeppner—IU’s former football coach—was a fine man. I repeat, a fine, fine man. The same goes for Bill Lynch. But both were a long way from being in the early stages of career ascension when hired by IU.
I won’t even mention Cam Cameron and Gerry DiNardo. That would simply be a low blow.
And don’t tell me a football program can’t succeed at IU. If Butler can be within a whisker of beating Duke University for the national basketball championship, IU can play in the Rose Bowl—at least once every 15 years.
I’ve seen the way this state has rallied around a successful Indianapolis Colts football team. I have to believe it would be the same case if IU flourished on the gridiron.
Glass and his staff are fighting a war on two fronts. And at the present, they’re losing both of them—and fans, revenue and donations along the way.
Now I will be the first to admit, I don’t know beans about basketball Xs and Os. But someone within the IU athletics department should. If someone as ignorant as I was pondering if Stevens could succeed at IU, surely the thought at least crossed the mind of someone in Bloomington.
And I’m guessing Stevens would have started for a lot less pay than Crean. IU had the perfect opportunity to start a guy low and make him prove himself before coughing up big bucks.
Now Stevens has proved he can cull Indiana (and beyond) for the best talent, even if that talent isn't perceived by others. He’s certainly proved he can coach. IU donors would have thrown money at the university in his name.
But alas, Butler found him. They found him when he was 23. They nourished and supported him and watched him blossom under the right circumstances. Some thought the school was taking the cheap way out when they hired the man with no head coaching experience. It turns out they were just being smart.
Smarts, that’s a commodity that’s been in short supply down in Bloomington for a while.
Now IU faithful are left with the latest in a long line of "What ifs."
And if its basketball team is still floundering in a year or two, IU will have to pay big if they want to reap what Butler has sown.