The first time I met Tom Crean was in 2008 at halfcourt of Assembly Hall. I was a reporter for Indiana's student newspaper and conducting our first one-on-one with IU's new head coach. The interview wasn’t being filmed, but Crean insisted on doing it at center court, seated in folding chairs three feet apart and facing one another. If it was possible to have an intimate moment in an empty 17,222-seat arena, this was it.
Alas, my icebreaker didn’t go very well. Here’s Crean, the newly-minted coach of the Hoosiers, staring me down while wearing a bright red sweater. In Assembly Hall. On the court The General made famous. You can guess where my head went.
Me: “So, I see you’re wearing a red sweater, is that a little nod to Bobby Knight?”
Crean: “No! Don’t write that. Don’t put that in your story. This is not a Bobby Knight sweater.”
This was my first impression of Tom Crean. A man bursting with passion but combusting with self-doubt. A man who could walk into Assembly Hall wearing a red sweater and get mad at you for drawing a Bob Knight comparison.
This was a battle Crean fought long and hard during his tenure at IU, which ended on Thursday when the school announced he’d been fired after nine seasons in Bloomington. Crean desperately wanted to be accepted by IU’s fan base—but he wanted even more to control the narrative. He bickered with the media and fans alike, discrediting their perspectives and swearing by his methods.
Crean came to Indiana by way of Marquette, an important distinction to IU’s fan base. He was not a Hoosier, at heart, they said. After Knight’s infamous dismissal, the Hoosiers tabbed Mike Davis to take over the program. He led IU to the Final Four in 2002 but was never embraced due to the fact that he was, well, not Bob Knight. Then came Kelvin Sampson, another “outsider” who eventually brought the program to its knees one illegal text message at a time. After him (and a brief cameo by Dan Dakich) came Crean, yet another “non-Hoosier” trying to restore pride in a once-proud program. IU hadn’t won a national championship since 1987, but you could have sworn a sixth banner didn’t matter if it didn’t come from a life-long Hoosier. They’d rather lose with Steve Alford than win with Crean.
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When Crean was hired, he used two words to answer pretty much every question he was asked. Why did you accept the job? “It’s Indiana.” Why did you leave Marquette? “It’s Indiana.” Why is Indiana so great? “It’s Indiana.” How will you recruit with so many sanctions tying your hands? “It’s Indiana.” How are you feeling today? “It’s Indiana.”
It was cute at first, but it eventually reeked of a man desperately trying to act like he belonged. Crean wanted nothing more than to be accepted by IU’s fan base, but it didn’t matter how many wins or recruits he piled up—something was always off. When the wins weren’t so plentiful, things would turn ugly fast. And nothing was uglier than the way IU’s season ended.
The news of Crean’s dismissal on Thursday wasn’t shocking, although the timing certainly was. IU Athletics announced the move just minutes before the start of the first round of the NCAA tournament. No matter what the tourney holds, it’s unlikely to match the madness of this.
Crean had been on IU’s hot seat for years despite delivering relatively respectable results. He reached the Sweet 16 three times, won two Big Ten titles and sent plenty of Hoosiers to the NBA, but he never earned the trust of the fans. No matter how many times he raved about IU’s proud history, it always came off as phony.
Crean didn’t do himself any favors in the media, or on the sidelines. He played more defense in press conferences than his team did in games. His in-game facial expressions have been made into bronze busts in the Meme Hall of Fame. And over the years his passion turned into frustrated urgency, desperate to silence his critics and prove he belonged at the helm of Indiana.
People will pile on Crean in the coming days. The truth is, Crean is not a bad coach. He’s a great recruiter and regarded as a smart offensive mind by his peers.
But his time at IU had run out. Crean had nine years to turn the Hoosiers around. Instead, he turned them about 45 degrees. The fan base turned on him years ago and it was only a matter of time until the athletic department did the same. When the Hoosiers started off the year with wins over Kansas and North Carolina, the Hoosier faithful started dreaming of a return to the Final Four. A few days later, when IU lost to IUPFW, they started dreaming of a return to the Final Four under a new coach.
Crean was good at Indiana, but he wasn’t good enough. Bob Knight might be viewed as a monster in 49 states, but he’s still the ideal in Hoosier country. IU’s program is no longer one of the best in the nation, but it doesn’t belong at the bottom of the Big Ten either. Crean knew that from the beginning.