Crean has become the man IU can’t afford to lose

Indiana University Athletic Director Fred Glass didn’t hire men’s basketball coach Tom Crean. But he’s sure bent on keeping Crean in Bloomington for a long time.

Last week, Glass announced that Crean’s contract is being extended two years—through 2020. An extension always amounts to a pay raise.

The contract hasn’t been released publicly because it hasn’t yet been finalized. This much we know: Crean’s salary increased about $600,000 annually to $3.16 million.

Crean, who formerly coached at Marquette, was already among the top-10 paid college coaches nationally. Now he’s No. 4 behind Kentucky’s John Callipari ($4 million), Michigan State’s Tom Izzo ($3.5 million) and Florida’s Billy Donovan ($3.5 million).

Crean now makes $600,000-plus more a year than Ohio State’s Thad Matta and more than $700,000 above Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski.

So why would Glass give Crean such a raise?

There are some obvious arguments. One is that he deserves it. Crean has taken the Hoosiers from a six-win dumpster fire season to a No. 1 national ranking in four years.

He’s also a recruiting machine and has a good chance of keeping the successful run going. Today, the building blocks of another stellar recruiting class are expected to commit to IU.

You could certainly argue that a high-flying men’s basketball program is good marketing for the university. Though with enrollment as high as it is, I’m not sure what you have to gain there. Maybe you could argue that a higher profile helps recruit top professors. It certainly helps with alumni donations. More on that in a moment.

And yes, putting a higher price tag and exit clauses in your coach’s contract wards off suitors. Though I’m not sure the market for a $2.5 million-a-year coach is much bigger than that for a $3.16 million-a-year coach. And if a school is willing to spend $3 million a year for a coach, it probably isn’t going to have much problem coming up with whatever buyout clause you put in its way. With NBA coaches salaries going south, not north, there’s less chance a professional team will steal IU’s coach.

The biggest reason to retain Crean probably has as much to do with coaxing more money out of donors as piling up victories on the court.

As good a coach as Crean is, he might be even better at alumni and public relations. He’s a front man like IU has never had before. He has the appeal of Bob Knight without the baggage. He’s even doing Subway sandwich shop commercials, and that might be just the beginning of the big-time endorsements for the affable Crean. Some would argue that type of exposure sure couldn’t hurt IU.

He’s turned into the guy that Glass and IU simply can’t afford to lose. Especially now.

Remember this: IU last year generated nearly $20 million in hoops revenue, about one-third of the athletic department’s total. Of hundreds of Division I programs, fewer than 10 rely as heavily on men’s basketball for income.

And there’s the 41-year-old Assembly Hall. Despite Glass’ trepidation on embarking on such a capital campaign, he knows it’s going to have to be done sooner rather than later.

The capital campaign to replace Assembly Hall is going to need to start by the end of Crean’s current contract.

Glass told IBJ last year that replacing Assembly Hall “would be the mother of all capital projects.” Sports business experts said it will take about $200 million to replace the 17,400-seat facility, one of the worst in the nation in which to watch a college basketball game.

A new venue would likely add at least 3,000 in capacity along with alumni-friendly club seating and sponsor-appeasing luxury suites.

Down would come Assembly Hall, which has neither the modern amenities of facilities like the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville nor the charm of Cameron Indoor Stadium or Hinkle Fieldhouse. And up would go the basketball team’s revenue-generating power by an easy 10 percent.

Crean has already lifted a program crippled by NCAA sanctions out of the ashes and into a stratosphere no one thought he’d manage this soon.

Glass now has to hope Crean can do the same for the athletic department’s next capital campaign. He’s doing everything he can—and maybe more than he needs to—financially to make sure Crean will be in Bloomington long enough to get it done.

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