Support System: Tom Crean may have fallen out of favor at Indiana, but his coaching family will be there to pick him up

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Friday March 17th, 2017

Word spread quickly on Thursday that Tom got fired. To you, he is Tom Crean, basketball coach: fired from Indiana after nine years. He is a name, a coaching record, a caricature, a nickname, a salary, funny line on Twitter or at the office. His family does not see him that way, of course. And so, while the rest of the country debated the merits of Crean’s two outright Big Ten titles and two missed NCAA tournaments in the last five years, John Harbaugh thought about a car ride.

It was Feb. 28. John, Crean’s brother-in-law and the coach of the Baltimore Ravens, was in Indiana for the NFL Combine. He watched Indiana lose to Purdue in West Lafayette, and then Tom drove John back to Indianapolis.

They talked about what went wrong in the Purdue game, and what Crean could do to fix it, but then the conversation turned to Crean’s future at Indiana: Specifically, whether he had one. Indiana and athletic director Fred Glass had said many of the right things. But Crean wasn’t convinced.

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 “He was just going through what he was going through— the administration over the years, the toll it takes on you,” John said Thursday. “This has not been the last four or five days. It’s been the last four, five, six years.

“He just didn’t want to be surprised. He knew in his heart that he couldn’t trust them … up to the end, they led him to believe he was going to be there. He wanted to believe it. He wanted to stay and fight through the inevitable ups and downs.”

As a coach, John understood his brother-in-law was in the middle of a season, and “all you’re trying to do is win the next game.” But as a coach, he also knew what he had seen for the last few years.

And so, when Tom Crean got fired Thursday from what should have been his dream job, John Harbaugh texted him:

“This will be the best day of your career.”

* * *
Indiana had the right to fire Tom Crean. He made millions of dollars, and Indiana will pay him millions more for going away. This is life in coaching, something this family knows well. John’s brother Jim built Stanford football into a Pac-12 power, led the 49ers to the Super Bowl and has quickly restored Michigan to national prominence. The Harbaughs’ father, Jack, was a longtime coach who won the I-AA national title at Western Kentucky.

Jack remembers walking into a meeting at Western Michigan in 1986 and being told by the athletic director that the school was going in another direction. (Jack has turned it into a quip: “I said, ‘Which direction are we going in?’ He said, ‘Well, we’re going in this direction. You’re going in that one.’”) And of course, 49ers owner Jed York and general manager Trent Baalke undermined Jim Harbaugh for months before firing him near the end of the 2014 season.

So they all understand that coaches get fired. And still, they are miffed—not by Crean’s firing, but by everything that led up to it. They are biased, of course. But they are also well-informed. For the last few years, they saw a coach who was running uphill, at a university that seemed to look for reasons to be disappointed by him.

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If you know anybody who has been fired, or if you have been fired yourself, then maybe you know: Worrying about getting fired can be even worse than the actual firing. It’s exhausting. And Crean has coached with an axe hanging above his head for several years.

John, who was an assistant football coach at Indiana in the ’90s, says, “They haven’t supported a coach at Indiana since Branch McCracken.”

McCracken retired as Indiana’s basketball coach in 1965. That’s a funny line, but John wasn’t joking. And he isn’t really wrong.

Jim Harbaugh looks at Crean’s Indiana tenure and says, “much like my situation in San Francisco, the people that are doing the micromanaging … when it comes to building a ball team, what they know could not blow up a small balloon. In my case, an owner and a general manager. In his case, an administration. They are so similar in that way. And he still wins two Big Ten championships outright.”

And back to John: “In the end, it was the lack of support that basically takes its toll the most. You want to feel like you’re part of a team and you’re doing it together. It’s about knowledge, loyalty and leadership. This is the merry-go-round that Indiana athletics has been on forever.”

Junfu Han/The Ann Arbor News via AP

The word “support” is used in many ways in college sports. To Fred Glass’s credit, he did not leak mysterious “other reasons” for firing Crean. He acknowledged Crean followed rules, prioritized academics and rebuilt the program from the ashes of the Kelvin Sampson disaster.

But Glass’s comment this week that he had to either extend Crean’s contract or fire him is disingenuous. He could have extended him last year after Indiana won the Big Ten title, which is standard practice in the industry. And last week, Glass declined to host an NIT game against Georgia Tech because of optics; Indiana was on spring break, and Glass didn’t want a half-full Assembly Hall on TV. Whatever happened to, you know, giving your team its best chance to win the game?

Says Jim Harbaugh: “Assembly Hall, that’s an inanimate object. The people are the ones you’re not supporting.”

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And John: “Your building is more important than your people? The seats? The floor? The wall? The ceiling? The banners? That’s more important than the people? That’s Indiana right there. What do you think you’re going to get from a bunch of 20-year-olds [after that]?”

Again: This is not a reaction to a firing. The family has been upset for years. They love Tom because he is family, but they respect his work because they are great coaches themselves.

Jim has always asked Tom to talk to his teams, going back to Jim’s days at the University of San Diego, and he says when he asks players, years later, to name the best speakers Jim brought in, “Tom is always in the top two.” Both Harbaughs call Crean regularly to ask for his opinions on dealing with players. Jim Harbaugh even darted into the Indiana locker room at halftime of a game at Michigan last year just to hear Crean talk. And the Harbaughs got the distinct sense that while they saw a coach they admired, Indiana looked for flaws.

I called Glass to give him a chance to respond; so far, he has not. There was not one big lurking issue that undermined Crean. It was just the daily sense that some pushed while others pulled. Said John Harbaugh: “That’s what makes the difference in winning and losing. It’s always: Fire the coach, move on to the next guy and everybody is happy for a while. But this university, it runs deeper than that.”

* * *
Crean will tell you he could handle the stress. And it’s true: he did handle it. But coaching basketball at a place like Indiana brings a different kind of stress, the kind that one man can’t contain. Tom and Joani have three children. Two years ago, as their son, Riley, checked into a high school playoff basketball game, the crowd chanted, “Tom Crean sucks!”

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That wasn’t the whole Indiana fan base. But Crean had taken the program out of the rubble of Kelvin Sampson’s regime and returned it to prominence: an outright Big Ten title, a No. 1 NCAA tournament seed, a Sweet 16 bid, and Indiana fans were uttering the three words that fans all over the country utter: Do better now.

Shortly after those fans told Riley Crean that his father sucked, Indiana entered the Big Ten tournament needing a win over Northwestern to seal an NCAA bid. John, Jim, Jack and his wife Jackie watched the game on TV in Jim’s office in Ann Arbor. The Hoosiers built a big lead. They were clearly going to win. But whenever Northwestern even threatened to cut Indiana’s second-half lead to single digits, Jack and Jackie walked out of the room. They couldn’t watch.

AP Photo/Darron Cummings

Indiana won that game by 15, made the NCAA tournament and won the Big Ten outright the next year. But there was a creeping sense that nothing Crean did would be good enough.

“Even when they had successful seasons they really weren’t celebrating that,” John says. “It was what they should have been doing better.”

Look around the Big Ten. Tom Izzo and his athletic director, Mark Hollis, are extremely close. Purdue stuck by Matt Painter unequivocally when he went 13–23 in the Big Ten over a two-year span. Jim Harbaugh knows that his current athletic director, Warde Manuel, enters every meeting wanting to say yes.

John Harbaugh says, “You don’t blame the [Indiana] fan base. It’s the leadership. Do they come out, united?  It’s too hard. You’ve gotta have everybody pulling the oars together. I know these are clichés, but that’s the way it works. Indiana has never figured it out.

“Tom is strong. He wasn’t beat down or anything. But after a while, when it’s just you and your coaches every day at a university like that, you just … what can you do? Where can you turn?”

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Sure, Tom could handle the stress. But could he handle seeing his family try to handle it?

“These last three or four years, I watched ... you could see it in his face,” Jack says. “You could see it in Joani. You could see it in the kids a little bit. It was beginning to really wear. I know how stressful it is now, but there are better times ahead … three, four, five, six months from now, I feel it strongly: They’re going to be in a better place.”

* * *

There was a lot of talk in the last few weeks about Crean and other jobs. Missouri. North Carolina State. Now Washington is open, and maybe he will end up there. But his family sees him as something other than a piece on the sport’s chessboard, ready to hop to the next space.

Crean did not just coach nine seasons at Indiana. He and Joani raised their family in Bloomington. Their daughter Megan chose to go to Indiana and Riley committed to Indiana for baseball. Say what you want about Crean’s coaching, but his commitment is always complete. Even if you think firing the coach was justified, at least take a moment and consider the man.

 “This whole family has poured everything into this town,” John said.  “At some point in time you feel like, does anybody appreciate any of it? That’s what leaves you feeling kind of empty. But they’re strong people. They’ll do great wherever they go.”

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You hear a lot about how coaching destroys families: the hours, the moves, the travel. Coaching helps hold this one together. After Jack retired, he and Jackie moved to Milwaukee, where they lived a few minutes away from the Creans when Tom was coaching at Marquette. Now Jack and Jackie live next door to Jim and his family in Ann Arbor.

Sports are not just their passion or their jobs; it’s how they connect. Coaches understand what coaches need to hear, and when they need to hear it. Maybe the people at Indiana just don’t define “support” the way this family does. When John’s Ravens beat Jim’s 49ers in the Super Bowl, the brothers always knew they would be best friends again, and Tom Crean knew exactly how he was leaving the stadium: on the 49ers’ bus.

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