Indiana Digs Into Its Past in Search of Return to Glory With Mike Woodson Hire

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There was an echo issue on the Indiana University Zoom call Monday that introduced Mike Woodson as the school’s new men's basketball coach, and boy was that ever a metaphor.

The echoes of the Bob Knight Era continue to reverberate in Bloomington—to the point that the school appointed a 63-year-old former Knight player with no college coaching experience to drag the program out of its doldrums. Time is a flat circle at Indiana, where fixating on the past is now seen as the gateway to the future.

How’s this for an echo chamber: A former basketball manager under Knight hires a former Knight player, with considerable urging from another former Knight player. One of the first people athletic director Scott Dolson (head manager of the 1988 IU team) thanked Monday was Quinn Bucker (point guard on the undefeated ’76 team). A person familiar with the inner workings at Indiana, who predicted several hours before the news broke that Woodson would get the job, described Buckner as “a bulldozer” in the process.

The strong-willed Buckner has bulldozed his way to a lot of success in life. Perhaps he will bulldoze a path back to greatness for his alma mater. We’ll see.

Monday, the path beat back ceaselessly into the past. There were salutations for former players, former coaches—even a former sports writer, Bob Hammel, who was best friends with Knight. Woodson said he is “going to bridge the gap between old and new,” but the vibe on the first day was more nostalgic than cutting edge.

Knight was fired 21 years ago, but the full reconciliation of that unceremonious ending remained elusive for a long time. To the simmering angst of his fans, Knight’s successors were a list of men from outside The General’s candy-striped army: Mike Davis was the ostracized interim who got the job full-time and carried a heavy burden; Kelvin Sampson was the winning scofflaw run out by NCAA violations; Tom Crean came from Marquette and tried to play nice with the Knight faction; Archie Miller was the up-and-comer who never arrived.

For understandable reasons, Indiana resisted plucking fruit from the Knight coaching tree—for all the glory, there was ample attendant toxicity and bitterness. Now, perhaps out of other attractive options, Dolson has acquiesced to the old-school alums. If a classy and respected former Knight guy like Mike Woodson can’t lead to the incessantly mentioned “healing” of the fan base, it’s not going to happen.

Still, healing and winning are two different things. Eventually, the latter is all that matters. It’s easy to be happy for Woodson, yet it’s hard to foresee this being a quick pivot to renewed prominence.

Woodson was an NBA coach for 25 years, nine of them as a head coach, so he knows the game at the highest level. He’s taken teams to the playoffs and was on the staff with Larry Brown when the Detroit Pistons won the 2004 NBA championship. He should more than hold his own in terms of X's and O's.

Can Mike Woodson resurrect Indiana basketball?

But the job is so much more than that, especially today. Recruiting, retaining and developing players is Job One. (And player retention begins immediately, with half the Hoosiers' roster in the transfer portal.) Navigating the shifting recruiting terrain is vital. So is relating to teenagers, which is different from coaching professional adults.

(Woodson at one point Monday said he is a guy who “will push and grab,” and let’s just hope that’s a figure of speech and not a literal coaching style. Neil Reed was grabbed once, by the throat, and that was the beginning of the end for Knight.)

Woodson can learn all the intricacies and arcana of college coaching, of course, but this isn’t an on-the-job-training kind of place. He was given a reported six-year contract, an indication of some institutional patience, but Indiana fans aren’t into slow builds—and they will make themselves heard. Creeping progress is what got Archie Miller fired after four years.

To help expedite the process for Woodson, Indiana created an administrative position for former Ohio State coach Thad Matta. Dolson stressed Woodson is “100% the head coach,” but he also introduced Matta and mentioned a “partnership” between the two.

It sounds a bit like the 53-year-old Matta will be conducting a crash course on the inner workings of the college game. Which is fine, except Matta himself has been out of the sport for four years and was replaced at Ohio State because of diminishing returns on the recruiting trail. The rest of the basketball staff is going to need some people fully up to speed on the current landscape.

Indiana seems to be ripping a page from the Michigan playbook with this coupling, pairing a popular alum with an NBA background with a veteran former college head coach. The Hoosiers are hoping Woodson and Matta go together like Juwan Howard and Phil Martelli have. But these are hardly cookie-cutter situations: Howard is younger and was well-attuned to the AAU scene via his sons; he was on the circuit often in the summers before getting the Michigan job. 

If you want comparisons, the list of pro-to-college coaching hires has far more disappointments than successes. Outside of four great nights in Madison Square Garden earlier this month, Patrick Ewing is not tearing it up at Georgetown. Jerry Stackhouse is 6–28 in SEC games at Vanderbilt. Perhaps those situations will improve, but many others did not. Avery Johnson didn’t last at Alabama. Mark Price, Chris Mullin, Mike Dunleavy, Eddie Jordan—the list is considerable. 

The great advantage Woodson has is the perpetual pipeline of in-state talent. Indiana will put out quality players forever—not just five-star guys, but a second and third tier that can help win Big Ten championships and compete for national championships. He’s not Scott Frost at Nebraska, trying to summon past greatness without a current recruiting stronghold of any kind.

Miller won some important local recruiting battles, landing Romeo Langford and Trayce Jackson-Davis. He did nothing with them. Crean got Cody Zeller and won the Big Ten title, but couldn’t capitalize in the NCAA tournament. Sampson got Eric Gordon, but the program imploded due to NCAA scandal.

All Mike Woodson has to do is win like his old coach and follow the rules like his old coach. Indiana stepped back into its own echo chamber Monday and it felt good, but we’ll see how well nostalgia translates to 2021 and beyond.

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