March 17, 2017 3:22 AM
Crean dismissal marks end of era
CHRIS GOFF | The Journal Gazette
It was December 2011, on a storybook night at Assembly Hall, where Tom Crean stood somewhere on the floor, lost in a sea of liberated, euphoric humanity.
Crean had spent hours that day holed away in preparation, going over Indiana’s game plan, trying to figure out how to beat a top-ranked Kentucky team led by future NBA superstar Anthony Davis, trying to figure out how to tap into the promise of Indiana’s suddenly talent-rich roster.
Times had been rough for the Hoosiers in recent seasons, but Crean, who had been hired to rescue them from the toxic wreckage left in the wake of predecessor Kelvin Sampson, was hopeful he was the coach that would give this basketball-crazed state a championship and restore honor to Bloomington’s once-proud program.
“Our fans deserve to storm the court,” Crean said at the time. “They deserve to stand on chairs and tables and be excited.”
After Christian Watford’s heroics, fans wore T-shirts announcing IU was “back.”
But it didn’t stay long enough or go far enough.
During a whirlwind Thursday that will no doubt be remembered as a turning point in IU history, athletic director Fred Glass fired Crean after nine seasons. The move signaled the start of another overhaul just as when Crean replaced Sampson in ‘08.
“We can’t overstate what a big deal this hire is,” Glass said during an afternoon news conference. “Looking forward, we could be a powerhouse to be reckoned with, with the right leadership.”
Crean’s firing caught several former players, some fans and many national observers by surprise. The news broke at 12:16 p.m. – just as the first round of the NCAA tournament was beginning – when IU issued a written statement from Glass.
But others had seen the writing on the wall for some time – including, perhaps, Crean himself, who last week denied reported interest in the job at Missouri that ultimately went to Cuonzo Martin.
Glass had remained mum as the underperforming Hoosiers entered a tailspin in January and February, leaving many to wonder if Crean would take the fall. Injury-riddled Indiana was perhaps college basketball’s biggest disappointment this season, finishing at 18-16 after a first-round loss Tuesday night in the NIT.
Pressure on Crean initially began to mount in 2013, when Indiana earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tourney but stumbled in the Sweet 16, far short of hanging the program’s first national championship banner since 1987.
Then the Hoosiers slid backward the next year with a 17-15 record that wasn’t even enough to make the NIT. They were a first-round NCAA knockout in 2015, and when topped off by the just-completed 2016-17 season, three of the last four fell beneath IU’s lofty standards.
Crean led the Hoosiers to outright regular-season Big Ten titles in both 2013 and 2016 – the only Big Ten coach to win multiple outright conference titles since 2008 – and led IU to the Sweet 16 three times but never to an Elite Eight.
For years, a segment of fans had been calling for Crean’s job. On Thursday, for better or worse, their wishes were granted.
“I didn’t think Glass would do it,” said longtime IU fan Tim Weaver, a 52-year-old former Fort Wayne resident who now lives in Las Vegas. “I was surprised. Put it this way: I’m in a wheelchair, and I almost got up and danced.”
Glass said he decided Wednesday night to let Crean go and broke the news to Crean in person Thursday morning. Since players had gone their separate ways with the school on spring break, Glass reached out to them through email and text messages.
A $4 million buyout owed Crean will be paid in full but not all at once.
Crean, 50, finished his Indiana tenure with a 166-135 record, which would have been much better if not for losing 66 games his first three seasons when sanctions and roster turnover resulting from the Sampson era led to a serious talent void.
Glass said he views those initial three seasons as some of Crean's best work "holding it together with spit and chewing gum and duct tape."
Crean enjoyed the fourth-longest coaching stint and third-most wins in program history. But, like every Hoosiers coach since Bob Knight, Crean leaves without being ever universally appreciated or embraced.
"Tom is an outstanding teacher, workaholic," Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. "He'll land on his feet."
It's hardly the exit many envisioned years ago.
The Hoosiers plucked Crean away from Marquette before the 2008-09 season and hoped his knack for player development and track record of consistent success over nine years in the Big East would be the perfect antidote for a struggling program.
In many ways, it was. Crean instantly took control of a troubled locker room, marked by floundering academics and disciplinary issues, with a requirement to work hard in the classroom at all times and to represent Indiana with respect.
When Crean took over, the Hoosiers faced the loss of two scholarships due to an Academic Progress Rate of 866. The Hoosiers later ran off five straight single-year perfect APR scores of 1,000 under Crean.
Following an uncharacteristic spate of off-court turmoil from 2014 to 2015, all alcohol-related incidents or reported drug suspensions, Crean had the team write handwritten letters of apology to former IU coaches, players and managers. Crean continually mentioned how his staff wanted to get to know a player’s family just as much as they did the recruit himself, to judge what kind of character he possessed.
Glass lauded much of that, and Crean never committed any known NCAA violations. The athletic director said running a squeaky-clean operation will remain a mandate.
"Our No. 1 priority is to play by the rules," Glass said. "To me, IU ties (in a candidate) is a double-check plus. Being from the state of Indiana is a double-check plus."
Glass said school president Michael McRobbie and the Board of Trustees have given Glass full authority to choose, although Glass said he would seek input from former IU players and even local AAU and high school coaches.
Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo, who became top-five NBA draft picks under Crean’s tutelage, supported him publicly long after they left Bloomington.
“Coach Crean, that staff, I still talk to them,” Zeller said Wednesday. “They’ll get it back rolling if they get another chance.”
By midday Thursday, the world learned Crean wouldn’t get that chance, and IU launched a search that Glass promised would spare no expense.