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Dominoes are a funny thing. And they make a funny game—to play and to watch.
Who would have thought the Big Ten’s realignment into a super power could send Tom Crean to Michigan State and Brad Stevens to Indiana University?
Twelve degrees of separation? You bet. But this is how it works.
The Big Ten forms a television network knowing darn well that to maximize the revenue from it, the conference will have to expand into more and larger markets.
This whole realignment idea for the Big Ten didn’t just sprout up last year. It has roots tracing back nearly a decade when the conference’s university presidents and athletic directors began discussing the Big Ten Network.
And now, all other conferences are playing catch up. Somebody better wake up Jack Swarbrick at Notre Dame and tell him to get in the game. This isn’t 1980. And don’t tell me about ND’s TV contract with NBC. The fact is when this thing shakes out and the Big Ten has a conference title game, every team in the Big Ten will rake in more TV revenue than Notre Dame—by a large margin. Yes, by 2012, the likes of IU and Northwestern will have more football earning power than the Irish. That’s a fact. But I digress.
The Big Ten’s expansion was done primarily for football, with basketball going along for the ride. And oh what a ride it is.
Flush with the kind of cash colleges could only dream about two decades ago, Big Ten schools will be able to offer huge coaching contracts. Yes, bigger than they are today. And contract buyout clauses will be a drop in the bucket.
If Butler Athletic Director Barry Collier thinks he has basketball coach Brad Stevens locked up long term, he’s kidding himself. The truth is with the kind of cash the Big Ten schools are going to bring in, they could buy and sell any Horizon League athletic department five times over.
So back to the dominoes. MSU basketball coach Tom Izzo is about to depart for Cleveland to coach the NBA’s Cavaliers for $6 million annually.
IU Coach Tom Crean is on MSU’s short list. That’s no secret. Yes, Crean makes $2 million annually at IU. But he has a big problem. Actually two of them.
First, he, like most coaches, has a big ego, and so likes to win. That’s no big deal though. In fact, some would say that’s a necessary trait to make it in this business.
But his second problem is the big one. He hasn’t earned the trust of Indiana high school coaches and other Hoosierland hoops movers and shakers, and so he can’t recruit the state. That’s the same problem that eventually led to Mike Davis’ demise in Bloomington.
Crean’s not stupid, and he’s been at IU long enough to have a handle on this. As a former MSU assistant and Izzo disciple, Crean has instant credibility in Michigan. Throw in the Harbaughs’ connections in that state, and it starts to look like a pretty good fit.
So when MSU calls Crean next week, expect him to pick up the phone.
IU Athletic Director Fred Glass is no fool either. That's why if and when Crean bolts for East Lansing, Brad Stevens or his agent is the first person Glass calls. Glass is smart enough to know by now that IU should have at least interviewed Stevens two years ago when it hired Crean. For the record, Glass was not AD when Crean was hired. But he has told me many times that he thinks Crean is doing a fine job.
Still, Glass is also smart enough to know Stevens has no problems recruiting the state of Indiana—and apparently has contacts in a few other states to boot. What I like most about Glass is that he doesn’t come from academia, instead hailing from the for-profit sector, where cash is king.
Glass is already calculating the tens of millions of dollars that will be raining out of the Big Ten Network and the new and improved football set-up. He knows well, that the tiny six- or low seven-figure buyout clause in Stevens’ contract is no big deal at all. He also knows what an impact a flourishing hoops program and a beloved coach can have on IU alumni donations.
Stevens is going to take Glass’ call for a couple of reasons. First of all, Stevens, a DePauw graduate, is Hoosier-born. What kid growing up in this state didn’t dream of being a part of IU's program at one time or another. Even Purdue Coach Matt Painter admits to dreaming about being part of the Cream and Crimson.
Second, Stevens himself is no fool. And he has advisers, including those at IMG, that are plenty smart too. You know, Hinkle Fieldhouse is very nice, very quaint. But most of today’s players won’t play there. And they won’t sign up to work out in facilities that pale in comparison to the palaces the Big Ten is building and will build.
Stevens knows this. And his advisors know if he’s going to maximize his career opportunities, he needs to succeed in a super power conference. There is soon to be no conference more powerful that the Big Ten. The Big Ten will be the kind of place where legacies are maximized. And Crean isn't the only one with an ego. Such things matter to big-time coaches. And if Stevens proved anything last year, it's that he is a big-time coach.
Remember, this isn't March. The calendar reads mid-June, and Midnight Madness will be here before you know it. Nothing is a sure thing until Izzo makes his decision, which I expect he will by Wednesday. If Izzo jumps, the scramble will begin, and the rest of this could unfold by the time this country starts shooting off bottle rockets.
Think this all sounds far-fetched? Well consider the following.
It started with a TV network. It blossomed into a super conference primarily for football—that eventually will have 16 or 18 teams, that will pour silly amounts of money on the conference's teams, making anything seem possible.
LeBron James got mad and decided not to take a shot during one game in the Eastern Conference playoffs, and his Cavaliers got bounced by the aging Celtics. Cavs Coach Mike Brown got fired. Izzo got a call, and amazingly jumped on a plane to Cleveland Thursday for an up-close visit.
Boom! Boom! Boom!
I can hear the dominoes tumbling from Chicago to Cleveland, East Lansing to Bloomington, all the way to the Dawg Pound.
And suddenly Hoosiers hoops was reborn, or re-made—or at least stood on its ear.