• What does a veteran coach do when he loses a job? If you’re the endlessly curious Tom Crean, you set out on a year-long journey to learn from the best minds in sports.
By Tom Crean with Jon Wertheim
February 21, 2018

When he joined the unemployed last March—fired after nine seasons as Indiana’s basketball coach—Tom Crean was 50 years old and at a crossroads: still young and eager to work but wary of jumping into a new job too quickly; curious about other career options but anxious about being away from the bench for too long. Crean’s firing was achingly familiar to many middle-aged managers, but he did have more advantages than most. For one, he was uncommonly well-compensated, the beneficiary of a $4 million buyout from IU. Then, he was also well-connected; you can scarcely read about Crean without the obligatory reference to his brothers-in-law, football coaches John and Jim Harbaugh. Plus, Crean is an incurable extrovert, a collector of relationships inside and outside sports.

Crean does not lead a sedentary life (witness his sideline demeanor) or an unexamined one, noting and underlining resonant passages in the books he devours. After a few days of idle time—and plotting a move from central Indiana to central Florida, so his 17-year-old son, Riley, could play baseball at IMG Academy—he grew restless. So he asked himself a series of questions. What was his own role in what had become a toxic work environment in Bloomington? Had he been too stubborn? Not stubborn enough? Did he delegate too much? Or had he micromanaged? What would he do differently next time?

On the second Sunday of his unemployment Crean attended a 76ers practice. Freed of responsibility, he could look and listen and watch how others performed in his line of work. “Something clicked,” as he put it, and this led to his embarking on...well, what exactly? Maybe a cross between a gap year and a traveling sports professional development seminar. As Crean puts it, “I want to become a better leader, a better manager, a better coach, a better man—by watching the best.” Here’s what he learned.

Have you ever heard the expression “No man ever steps in the same river twice; for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man”? It’s especially so when you have a year off, when you have familiar experiences, but in a different capacity. For the last 30 years I have led countless basketball practices and team meetings. When you go to them just as a learner and observer, it’s totally different.

Backstory: When I arrived in Indiana in 2008, Jim O’Brien was the coach of the Pacers. He’d been a college coach and we’d always hit it off. He’s now an assistant with the 76ers. We spoke in the days after I got fired, and I mentioned that I’d love to see the Sixers practice. Then I looked on the schedule and realized they were on their way to Indiana. When I asked if I could attend, Jim texted me that Brett Brown, the head coach, was inviting me for the whole day.

For the 76ers, this was the 73rd game of a rebuilding season. They were 27–45, long eliminated from the postseason. It was a Sunday night tip-off in the middle of a nine-day road trip. In other words, precisely the kind of game that requires energy from everyone on the team.

And you never would have known that.

At 7:30 a.m., the coaches met in Brown’s suite at the Conrad Hotel. The level of detail was staggering. So was the level of organization. They started with the injury report before moving on to the Pacers’ depth chart. Three video monitors showed all that information and then displayed the practice plan. Everyone in the room could see the monitors and could add, delete or fix anything. One immediate lesson: Take advantage of technology.

There were 11 people in the room. If you had walked in there as a stranger, you would know that Brown was in charge. But it was a democracy. Brett didn’t look at O’Brien—who has incredible experience—any differently from his video coordinators and a scouting intern in his 20s. When everyone feels empowered to speak you send a message: There are no weak links on this staff.

After the meeting, the coaches joined the players in one of the hotel’s conference rooms for a team breakfast. I noticed that the meals were personalized for each guy. It was a little detail but again, it contributed to the culture. Nobody in that room was feeling that the team was playing out the string.

Brown started quizzing the players. Rookie point guard Ben Simmons—the No. 1 pick who hadn’t played at all because of a broken right foot—had to go to the board to draw up a late-game free throw play. He got to pick one teammate to help him. If they got it right, the coaches had to do push-ups; if they got it wrong, the players did them. Great interaction. Again, here’s a 20-year-old who’s not even dressing, but he is engaged. (And Simmons got the question right.)

This reinforced to me that player development is not just what you do with guys on the court. It’s also the time that you put into the video, the planning, the strengths and weaknesses that you constantly attend to. There’s so much that goes on that the players don’t see but, in time, they come to appreciate.

The Sixers lost the game that night, but you felt they were playing for something: to get better. The coaches had created an energy that said, Our record, our results—none of that matters now. But we are committed to the process of what it takes to win. We expect you to be, too.

The best place to be in sports? Winning and improving. There’s no better feeling. But when you’re not winning and you’re preaching improvement, it’s really, really hard to hold guys together. The coaches did that. Brown knew he wasn’t winning the championship that night in Indianapolis. But he acted as if he was preparing to.

One of the lessons I’ve always tried to pass on to my players: Get the most out of your day. Look at successful people and notice how they spend their time. Jim Caldwell, who until Jan. 1 was the Detroit Lions’ coach, is always listening to a book, usually at double speed. By the end of the year he’ll have “read” 100 books. I know another coach who saves all of his calls for his treadmill time. Whenever I made a recruiting trip at Indiana, I would try to piggyback it with something else. Visit a historical site or speak to an alumni group, so it was two-for-the-price-of-one.

In mid-April, I had a business meeting in L.A., which is also where my daughter, Megan, lives. While I was there, I visited the Chargers’ offices, thanks to an invitation from GM Tom Telesco, a friend I met when I was at IU and he was working for the Colts. The NFL draft was a few weeks away, so I got to see a war room in action.

In college sports you recruit talent much the same way you do in the corporate world. You try to find the people not only with the best skill sets, but also with ones that fit your needs and your culture. You then try to explain why the opportunity you’re presenting is better than the competing offers. But I’ve always been interested in the way things are done in pro sports, especially with the draft. You don’t necessarily have time to build relationships or go through a recruiting process. You’re on the clock and—boom!—you have to make a hiring decision that could impact your team for years.

I visited the Chargers on a day they were assessing defensive prospects. There were probably eight people in the room, and I was struck immediately by the way they listened. How many times have you been in a meeting and when colleagues speak, people are staring vacantly or noodling on their phones? This was a total show of respect for everyone’s research and insight. For that room, an informed opinion was the price of admission.

I was also impressed by the level of intel, and the mix of research and intuition. There’s no denying the importance of raw information; the Chargers had reams of data on dozens, if not hundreds, of prospects. But the people in the room also had subjective opinions. So-and-so is a quiet kid. So-and-so comes from a small town but should be fine in Los Angeles. The position coaches would talk football and what they saw on film; then the player-personnel folks would talk about the kid as a person. We often pit analytics against gut feelings. But it’s not an either/or. The best decisions have research to back them up, but also incorporate emotion and judgment.

It turned out that the Chargers didn’t select a defensive player until the fourth round. It didn’t matter. They were prepared.

When I coached at Marquette, from 1999 to 2008, I had an assistant whose brother worked for the St. Louis Cardinals. During an offseason I had read a book by George Will, Men at Work, which has a big section on Tony La Russa. I said, “I have to meet this guy.” When the Cardinals came to Milwaukee, I arranged for us to get dinner after the game. We probably spoke until 4:30 in the morning. And a friendship grew from there.

Sometimes we’ll talk about everything from teams to rescue dogs to history. Sometimes we’ll watch sports. Sitting next to Tony La Russa at a baseball game is an experience everyone should have. (Keep this between us, but one time I actually sat in the corner of the dugout.)

One lesson I’ve learned from Tony: A player should never have a void, because if he does, it’s going to get filled up quickly. You got to make sure you’re the one filling it as a coach. What do I mean by that? When players are upset or unhappy or lonely, they want someone to address that feeling. If the coach doesn’t do that, someone or something could do it in the wrong way. I asked Tony how he managed this. His response: “I personalize the message.”

Before going to sleep each night he would go over his roster, take notes and decide which player he needed to talk to the next day. So inevitably, he would end up spending quality time with a few guys each week. As a leader, you don’t necessarily want to keep having deep conversations with people every day. But you need to stay connected. What happens when players are unhappy or avoiding the leaders or, you suspect, talking about them behind the scenes? Tony would say, “I’ve been getting all your messages.” That was how he confronted the guy he knew he was talking out of school.

Tony also has great reverence for other coaches in other sports. He and Bill Belichick have a long relationship. When Tony was with the Diamondbacks and the NFL meetings were held in Arizona, Bill would stop by, see the facilities and give an impromptu speech to the team. Now, Tony and I decided it was our time to reciprocate to see how the Patriots operate.

In mid-August the Patriots and the Texans held a joint training camp at The Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va. I met Tony in Chicago and we flew together then had a late dinner. Bill invited us to the team meeting the following morning at 7:30.

We arrived early. Bill, not surprisingly, was already there, and he gave us a tour of the facility. The locker room consisted of a carpeted area enclosed by curtains. Each guy had a chair—I mean just a folding chair—that served as his locker. There wasn’t even a nail, much less a full stall. Tom Brady had the same chair the rookies had. Obviously, spartan surroundings like that send a message. We’re here to work; we’re not here for a spa day.

I would describe a Bill Belichick meeting as both everything you would imagine and something beyond your imagination. This one lasted 40 minutes, and it was pure football. It could be reduced to this: Training camp is essential—the way we work now impacts whether we win or lose later.

You don’t miss the message when Bill Belichick is talking. That doesn’t mean everybody hears it the same way, but he makes his points. And he is a master of economizing words, so that they all matter.

Matt Patricia, the defensive coordinator, is writing the whole time. I’m taking notes, too, but occasionally I look around. Tom Brady is in the second row. The man is 40. And for the entire time, he never took his eyes off Bill Belichick.

After the meeting, I left with the team and went to the makeshift practice field. I fixated on Brady. This is going to sound like a sports cliché, but that doesn’t make it less true: Everything Brady does, he does with purpose. Whether it was the bag drills, the footwork drills, the dropping back, throwing to one receiver, uncovered… it never looked to me like a warmup. This is in keeping with what I’ve noticed from all the great ones I’ve watched over time: They don’t waste any reps.

When you run a workout as a coach, it’s a lot like running an office meeting. You want to be sure there’s structure, that time is well-spent, that there’s a sense of shared purpose. There’s so much going on, you don’t always have the luxury of focusing on one player or appreciating what’s in front of you. In mid-September, I was back in Los Angeles, spending time with Dwyane Wade, whom I coached at Marquette and have been close with ever since. Even in his mid-30s, even coming off a frustrating season of injury, Dwyane is, at least in my (admittedly biased) eyes, one of the truly elite basketball players. And on this night, he asked me to watch him work out with his soon-to-be teammate and friend.

So there I am at an Equinox gym off Sepulveda Boulevard, not far from the airport, watching Dwyane and LeBron James go through their preseason routine. Too often we overlook how much time and effort athletes spend on their bodies—their strength and their flexibility. The best of the best go through their workouts with the mentality, I don’t ever want to lose my position at the top.

When I was a graduate assistant at Michigan State, in 1989–90, Magic Johnson was in his heyday with the Lakers. He came back to campus and played with the team. Every day he wanted to work on a different part of his game. One day would be post moves. The next he would shoot with range. When it was time to win, he’d put the hammer down, but he wasn’t competing against the players on the floor. He was competing against a concept: What do I have to do, to remain Magic Johnson?

I was reminded of this watching Dwyane and LeBron. While people at the gym were trying to take photos, nothing distracted them from their work. Everything was so precise—their technique, their breathing, their timing. This was a next level workout. Each had his personal trainer with him, and both took direction—and correction—from their guy. At the same time, there was a sense of joy. There were smiles. They were having fun.

The next two mornings, LeBron worked out on his own but Dwyane was joined at one of those sessions by three young NBA players who were in L.A. over the summer: Thomas Bryant (whom I coached at Indiana), D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle. Imagine you’re these kids. You’re there at the invitation of one the best ever. He’s won NBA titles and is a sure Hall of Famer. And he’s working with purpose, practicing on his footwork and building separation from the defense. The message is that the great ones never think they’re beyond improvement. It was another reminder that, in any organization, the leaders set the culture.

I spent three days in August in Las Vegas at a camp run by Tim Grgurich. I want to be careful not to say too much here. Gurg, as he is known, is a cult figure in basketball, a real guru, revered by coaches and players. But he’s an intensely private person. This camp attracts some of the best and biggest names in the league, 90 coaches and 90 players. But it’s closed to media.

It’s also closed to college coaches so, in the past, I had never been able to attend. This time, Gurg invited me as a guest. I left more convinced than ever that:

a) It’s a magical time.

b) These are three of the most important days of the basketball season.

c) Gurg might be unknown to most basketball fans, but he deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. That’s how deeply he has influenced the sport.

Players who come in after summer league and figure they’ll go through the motions are in for a surprise. They endure NBA-style workouts, and the games are definitely not pickup games. Mostly, there are situation drills. Down three with two seconds left. One-point game and no timeouts. On the free throw line with no time remaining and a chance to tie. You name it, it’s covered. The idea: Prepare for different circumstances while remaining flexible. Because that’s how it’s going to be in the NBA.

And while the players work out, coaches are going through stations, too. One is run by former NBA refs Joey Crawford and Bennett Salvatore and deals with officiating; another is about strategy at the end of a half; a third is geared at managing timeouts.

How intense? On the first day of camp, the players were stretching. Gurg didn’t like the energy he was seeing. (Or not seeing.) So he singled out one player, Frank Mason III. Gurg is 75. Frank Mason had just finished at Kansas, he’s the reigning Player of the Year and was drafted by the Kings. Yet Gurg gets on him for his lack of leadership, really putting him on the spot.

He didn’t do it to embarrass Mason. He did it to make a point. And he didn’t pick Mason at random; he knew he had thick skin. He also knew that Mason was headed to a team where his leadership skills would be important.

Leaders—including coaches—don’t always think this through. When you make an example out of someone or something, you need to be judicious. Pick someone who can handle it, someone who will benefit from the lesson. This was perfect.

It’s hard to set the tone for a hundred players, but Gurg did just that.

Jim and John Harbaugh are my brothers-in-law. They made history when they coached against each other in Super Bowl XLVII. Nineteen years before that I married their sister, Joani, so it’s three coaches around the Thanksgiving table.

It’s been a real blessing. I’ve learned so much from them. They share a lot of the same philosophies but also have different strengths. One example: Jim is a peerless motivator who can make you believe you’re tougher and better than perhaps you are. John will mold you into a great teammate who has respect for both sides of the ball and sees how it all matters to winning.

In July, I went to Ann Arbor to observe a Michigan football practice. Jim is a competitive guy—I probably didn’t need to tell you that—and this is reflected in his practices. Players compete against others at their position, against their unit. There’s even competition among coaches. Jim and his defensive coordinator, Don Brown, will go at it in practice the same way the players will. Jim’s philosophy: When your team competes against a high level of intensity day in and day out, they won’t feel like they’re getting measured against the best on Saturday.

Any leader will tell you: That mentality is not always easy to achieve. Jim calls it “healthy friction.” Egos can get bruised. Loyalties can be tested. Frustration can seep in. It can be disconcerting to compete against someone one day and alongside him the next. But Michigan players become accustomed to competitive practices. They learn to manage their feelings. They learn that there can be tension within a team. They learn that teammates and units can bond and grow through competition and conflict. And that this culture benefits everyone.

In the fall I decided to mix up my “seeking tour” with some television work. Before I thought about coaching, I considered going into television or radio. I wrote for my elementary school newspaper. At Mount Pleasant (Mich.) High, I had my own TV sports show. I interviewed Roy Kramer when he was the coach at Central Michigan. When the ESPN opportunity came along—both to work games and to be in the studio in Bristol, Conn.—I jumped at it.

I’m still learning, of course, which means asking a lot of questions. Everyone has been great, but here are a few memorable tips I’ve gotten from people at ESPN who have made this jump.

Jon Gruden (who left last month to coach the Raiders): “This is my chance to be like a caretaker in football. I feel it’s my responsibility to bring that to life every chance I get. Do the same with college basketball.”

Dan Dakich: “On the air, talk like you’re talking to your team.”

Fran Fraschilla: “Focus on the economy of your words. If you work at it, you can say a lot of what you think in a third of the time you use now.”

Hubie Brown told me that for many years he had asked for a critique from somebody who was not associated with the networks, so he could speak honestly and openly. Hubie wanted to keep getting better, and he recognized that sometimes that means hearing hard truths.

Everyone says this but it’s true: Television is harder than you think. But there are also so many similarities to sports. Everyone has a role. Chemistry is essential. Sometimes you take the shot, sometimes you hold back. You prepare but there’s also improvisation. It’s also live, with no do-overs. But unlike a game, there’s no scoreboard or stat sheet that tells you if you won or lost, shot well or poorly. Still, I think most people have a good idea how they performed.

What’s next for me after this time of exploration? Who knows? I started this year with no goal other than to learn as much from as many people as I could, to go behind the scenes to see how organizations operate and leaders lead. At times it’s

been humbling. I’ve seen strong management and thought about situations I could have handled better. It’s also been validating—Hey, we did that, too or That’s how I handled a similar challenge. But when you have a growth mind-set, you want to get better, you want to add some skills and processes, you want to incorporate new ideas—and not be afraid to delete old ideas that may no longer be effective.

If I return to coaching next season, I’ll be more aware that hard work doesn’t have to be drudgery. From LeBron James and Tom Brady working out, to Jim Harbaugh meeting with his coordinators, I was reminded that long hours can co-exist with joy. I’m going to be much better at remembering that the best meetings and the best culture make clear that everyone’s opinion matters. I’ll be more economical in my words. (A lesson you may not think I’ve learned, if you’ve read down this far.)

Maybe most of all, I’m not going to discount being there. It’s instructive to talk to people and to read books and to watch from afar. But it doesn’t replicate being there—in the room, behind the scenes, in live situations in real time.

It’s not just what you see and hear, it’s what you feel.

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