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  • Though disappointed with Indiana's decision to fire him, Tom Crean says he's not bitter and is fully focused on what his future could hold.
By Pete Thamel
March 21, 2017

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — The night before Indiana announced the firing of Tom Crean, the coach watched cut ups of the Hoosiers’ NIT loss to Georgia Tech at his kitchen table. Around 11:30 p.m Crean got a text message from his agent: “Are you up?” The Wednesday night text marked the beginning of the end of Crean’s nine-year tenure at Indiana.

The next morning, Crean got a text message from athletic director Fred Glass to meet with him, which Crean inferred was to receive news of his dismissal. He declined. “At this point, I knew what was coming,” he said, “and wasn’t going to do that.”

Crean, his wife Joani, their three children and his longtime right-hand man Jayd Grossman had already planned an impromptu spring break trip to Florida and were scheduled to leave that morning. As the plane sped down the runway, Crean delivered them the news that he wouldn’t return as Indiana’s basketball coach. “We didn’t fail,” he recalls telling them. “We didn’t lose this job because we lost. We didn’t lose this job for bad things. We’re not letting this define us.”

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Four days after his dismissal, Tom Crean is sitting on a couch in his living room and is locked in on the future. He vowed to be better—not bitter—after his nine-year tenure at Indiana. He revived the program from the depths of NCAA sanctions under Kelvin Sampson, won two outright Big Ten titles in the past five years and reached three of Round of 16 appearances since 2012. That wasn’t enough for Glass, who set an unusually high bar for Crean’s successor: “Win multiple Big Ten championships, regularly go deep in the NCAA tournament, and win our next national championship—and more after that.”

Since Crean got the news, he’s been flooded with text messages and phone calls from former players, coaching colleagues and friends. The advice that resonated most came from a coaching friend: “You have to get over the feelings of failure and betrayal as quick as possible.” Crean said he's on his way: “I didn’t have any real fear of getting over failure. So obviously you have to get yourself and family over the other one. We’re well on the way.”

The signs around the Crean house on Monday morning pointed toward moving on. A pile of Indiana University T-shirts and sweatshirts sit near the front door, ready to be donated to a church. The white boxes from Crean’s office at Indiana are stacked in the garage, ready for their next destination. The family to-do list includes buying a car this week, as the dealer car needs to be returned.

Crean showed no outward signs of self-pity on Monday. The most emotion showed may have come from a hug from his cleaning lady. For nearly three hours, he leaned forward on his couch and enthusiastically answered questions about the future. He displayed such energy that at one point his wife, Joani, observed that he must have gone to Starbucks that morning. He had. “I love Indiana,” he said. “I loved it here. That’s not going to change. You can’t go loving something every day for nine years and then suddenly hate it.”

He added later: “I hope Indiana wins that national championship. And another one. I really do.”

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Crean’s general tenor could be summarized as disappointed by the decision but at peace with his work in his nine seasons with the Hoosiers (166–135). He graduated every player, recruited five McDonald’s All-Americans and, since the three initial rebuilding seasons, averaged 23 wins per year and reached the NCAA tournament in four of six seasons. (Indiana went 28–66 his first three years after he took over a decimated roster.)

Crean admits that in hindsight there’s plenty he’d have done differently, as he pointed out how the lack of graduate transfers on the market slowed his rebuilding process. Crean said he’d have made different recruiting and staffing decisions and also would have done small things like give free coaches clinics as soon as he’d arrived. But in terms of regrets, he said he has none: “Not at all. I wanted to win a national championship here as bad as any fan, former player or student could have ever possibly imagined.”

Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Crean also made it clear that he wants to coach again. And soon. He said he’d prefer to be on the sideline next season. He’d like a job where it’s possible to win a national title but made it clear that he’d study all the opportunities carefully.

“The only thing worse than having this happen is to go somewhere we’re not aligned properly,” he said of the program and administration. “A good job, a great job, those all come down to the alignment. Resources are important. Facilities are important. Tradition is important. Fan bases are important. Where can you recruit is important. But alignment is key. That, for me, is what you’re looking for.”

Crean declined to delve into his feelings on the administration at Indiana. He hasn’t met with or spoken to Glass since the decision was made. But Crean used the word alignment nine different times during the interview when talking about the future, essentially alluding to what was missing without saying it.

Crean said his 17-year-old son, Riley, wondered Sunday afternoon if the news had really hit his father yet. Crean was scheduled to meet with his team on Tuesday or Wednesday, and he admitted that would be hard. (The players had been gone on spring break.) He said the most difficult part came with individually texting the 15 members of his team on Thursday. He refused to address the news by group text but knew he couldn’t get through 15 phone calls. “This will probably hit me more,” he said. “It hit me doing the texting. I don’t have my team anymore. I have my team. I have my family. But it’s different. I want to get back to the court.”

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Moving on comes with complications. His daughter, Megan, graduates from Indiana this spring. Riley is committed to play baseball there, and Crean said he appreciated the Indiana baseball coaches texting Riley on Thursday and calling him over the weekend from Hawaii. “They’ve reiterated that they want him to be there,” Crean said. (He also mentioned that Northwestern coach Chris Collins sent Riley a powerful text about his dad, former NBA coach Doug Collins, getting fired by the Bulls in 1989 while Chris Collins was in high school. “Going through that helped prepare him and make him the man he is now and the position that he is in now,” Crean said the text read. “That. Is. Strong.”)

What’s important for Crean now is to find the best situation for his coaching career and his family. With Riley off to college, a move would mean a change of schools for the youngest, 11-year old Ainsley. Crean said it’s undetermined what he’d do next year if he didn’t coach. He thrived as a blunt NBA draft analyst for Yahoo on The Vertical’s draft show last year, but Crean says he hasn’t thought far ahead enough if spending a year in the media is a realistic option.

For now, he’s concerned with making sure his family is O.K. Crean mentioned speaking to his three coaching in-laws—Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, Ravens coach John Harbaugh and long-time college coach Jack Harbaugh—all in a row on Friday. “That was powerful,” he said. “Those guys have always uplifted me in a huge way. Even though that’s NFL or college [football], you can always identify with them. Certainly, there was more and more identity with what Jim dealt with in San Francisco.”

As the interview ended, Crean pondered the possibility of the next few months. Joani teased him about cutting out his Diet Coke habit. He wondered if he should get an office to go study film, eager to dive into the next challenge. “You just learn real quick to put your focus on your family and your coaches," he said. "We’re going to get through it. We’re never going to look at failure being a part of this decision.”

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