The hot seat at Indiana can turn pretty quickly from cream to crimson.
Six years ago, Tom Crean inherited a basketball program that most coaches wouldn’t have touched. It returned only two players -- who averaged a combined 1.6 points per game the year before -- and rolled out a roster that featured walk-ons, JUCO transfers and, yes, baseball players.
It took Crean four years and a lot of sleepless nights, but he brought Indiana back into the national spotlight. The Hoosiers reached No. 1 in the AP poll. They made back-to-back Sweet 16 appearances. They produced NBA lottery talent. And they won a Big Ten regular-season title.
Crean didn't hang a sixth national championship banner in Assembly Hall, but he did restore the pride in the program.
Fourteen years ago, Mike Davis inherited a basketball program that would have made most coaches quit the business. Bob Knight had led Indiana for 29 years and the town of Bloomington was thrown into chaos after he was fired for violating the school’s zero tolerance policy. Players wanted to transfer. Students protested. You want to be the guy who replaces The General? Yeah, good luck with that.
Davis accepted the daunting challenge -- after fellow assistant John Treloar turned it down – and guided the Hoosiers to an NCAA tournament appearance in his first season amid crushing scrutiny. In his next season, Indiana put together one of the most memorable runs in the program’s storied history, unseating No. 1 seed Duke in the Sweet 16 and making it to the title game before falling to Maryland.
Davis didn't hang a sixth banner in Assembly Hall, but he had kept the pride in the program.
Crean and Davis paths’ run parallel, but they’ll intersect Monday night when Davis and his current team, Texas Southern, come to Assembly Hall for a non-conference matchup against the Hoosiers. It'll be Davis' first time coaching in Bloomington since his final IU game in 2006. It's tough to imagine that he wants to return to the campus he was once chased away from, yet that's exactly how he feels.
"I know it might surprise some people, but I've always wanted to go back," says Davis, who also spent six years coaching at Alabama-Birmingham. "That was the most incredible run and experience that's ever happened to me and my family.
His third season following the Final Four run didn't go as well. Key players graduated or moved on to the NBA, and IU suffered its first losing season in 35 years. Davis already faced impossible levels of scrutiny when he was winning, and when the team's fortunes turned, so too did his.
"It was a great pressure," says Davis. "But that goes with the territory. It's a part of where you're at. Kentucky, UCLA, Kansas, Indiana…it's expected at those schools. Nothing was unfair to me. I was given a great opportunity and had some of the fondest memories I've ever had.”
Entering his sixth season at Indiana, Davis knew too much damage had been done to salvage his job. The fan base had turned on him after another disappointing season and there was no going back. They never fully embraced him in the first place -- because he played at Alabama he wasn’t an “Indiana” guy, he had “betrayed” Knight by taking the job -- but now their feelings were venomous. In the middle of the Big Ten season, Davis announced he would step down at the end of the year. He felt like his presence was ripping the program apart. He guided the Hoosiers to a 19-12 record and the second round of the NCAA tourney -- but that wasn't enough to appease IU's demanding fan base and administration.
Tom Crean is now entering his seventh season at Indiana (101-97). Will he face the same fate as Davis? The fan base is upset with its coach once again after five Hoosier players in the last 12 months have been cited for alcohol or failed drug tests. The latest off-the-court misstep almost cost sophomore Devin Davis his life -- he was struck by a car driven by teammate Emmitt Holt. Gregg Doyel of the Indianapolis Star recently wrote that Indiana’s ongoing basketball problems are “an epidemic” and said Crean’s departure is all-but inevitable at this point. Has Crean reached the point of no return?
Crean’s Q-rating isn’t helped by the fact that the Hoosiers went 17-15 last year and face a similar fate this season after losing key players to the NBA and graduation. He had a disgruntled fan -- and ex-student manager of his -- call in on his weekly radio show and ask him why he deserves to keep his job.
One day, you’re the program’s savior. The next, you’re the one ruining it.
It’d be easy for Davis to hold a grudge against Indiana, but IU’s former head coach does the opposite: he holds them in the highest regard.
"My mom passed away a few years ago and Indiana gave her some of the best memories of her life. When we played in the Final Four, my family, my friends, my hometown, they all celebrated the entire run with us. I have nothing but appreciation for that opportunity. The reason I wanted to go back and play at Indiana is because I want my oldest son (Mike Jr.), who is on [my] coaching staff, to be able to say he coached here with me. And I have a younger son (Antoine) who is going to be a high-level player, and I want him to have a chance to see a game at Indiana and maybe get recruited by them one day.”
Davis says he still follows the Hoosiers closely, watching games and keeping tabs on the team. Indiana is clearly still a big part of his life and he talks about the program with a hint of ownership, like any fan would. Unlike his predecessor, who went years without even publicly saying the name of the school that fired him, Davis openly discusses the Hoosiers. You aren’t bringing up some deep, dark memory by asking him about his time at Indiana. He’s glad to chat IU.
He can relate to the pressure Crean is facing, and he sounds a bit like IU’s current coach when he talks about how Indiana’s players need to conduct themselves in a certain manner off the floor.
"The kids have to understand that there are a lot of people who came before them and did it with class, and they have to understand where they are,” Davis says. "When you sign up and go to Indiana, that's a big commitment. You're not just playing for yourself and your family. You're playing for the program and all the people who came before you. You have to conduct yourself in certain ways because (Indiana) is one of the best to ever do it.”
Davis is optimistic the Hoosiers are headed for a bounce-back season, but not everyone is as sure. While IU’s backcourt is one of the best in the Big Ten with junior Yogi Ferrell and freshman James Blackmon Jr., the rest of its roster is littered with question marks and unproven underclassmen. A $14 million buyout serves as a safety net for Crean this season -- Davis’ was just $800,000 in 2006 -- but another disappointing season makes no scenario out of the realm of possibility.
For all of the flaws in Davis and Crean that fans obsess over, they’re two coaches who care deeply about Indiana. Davis still loves IU even though its fans demanded he leave town. Crean loves the Hoosiers so much that he left a perennial powerhouse at Marquette to come to a program in tatters.
Both respect IU’s tradition: Bob Knight, the five banners, the candy-striped pants and the fans that treat each game like the Final Four. Both are outsiders who have tried desperately to fit in at Indiana. Both continue to live in Knight’s shadow and both desperately, desperately want to succeed.
But things don’t always work out. Head coaches are tossed aside, new ones come in and the cycle repeats.
Left in the wake are coaches like Davis. He coached at UAB for six seasons before becoming Texas Southern’s head coach two years ago. He says he’ll always remember coaching in the “big time” at Indiana. He’ll always remember coaching in the final game of the college basketball season. He was there.
“I remember the tough times, “ Davis said, “but I also remember the great times.”
It’s important to keep a level head when your job is more volatile than Bob Knight’s mood.
When Crean accepted the job at Indiana six years ago, he repeatedly used two words to sum up his decision. No matter the question, he could turn to these two words to explain his reasoning. Why’d you leave Marquette? It’s Indiana. Why come to a school facing so many NCAA allegations? It’s Indiana. Why take a job most coaches would have been scared to? It’s Indiana.
Those same two words apply now. Why was Davis chased out of town after keeping IU’s pride intact and making runs in the NCAA tourney? Why is Crean facing the same pressure after resurrecting the Hoosiers from the depths of hell?