BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — A new Indiana basketball season is just around the corner and, like always, everyone is undefeated this time of year. But as new coach Mike Woodson and his 13 players met with the media on Monday, one thing became very clear.
The Indiana basketball you've know that past few years? It's all gone now, wrapped up in a ball and tossed in trash. It probably took a few tries to make it, all things considered after watching four years of the Archie Miller, but it's over now.
The Mike Woodson era is here and everyone is thrilled about that. And who's most thrilled? That just might be Mike Woodson himself.
It's good — really, really good — to be home.
"Everything has been so positive (about being back in Bloomington), but I wouldn't expect anything differently,'' Woodson said. "Man, listen, my life has been spent here. You guys seem to think that I've been away for 40 years. Quietly, I've been here every year. You guys just didn't know it.
"My walk of life around town, my wife's walk around town, it's all been great, man. I mean, people are excited. I'm excited. I came back here for one reason and one reason only — to put this team back on top. I know there's a lot of work that's got to be done. I'm not new to this. But I feel good about where I am and where I sit today. Bloomington and the people around town has had a lot to do with that.''
Woodson first came to Bloomington in 1976 as a shy, quiet kid from Indiana. He left in 1980 as one of the most beloved — and successful — Hoosiers ever, leaving as the school's second all-time leading scorer. Forty-two years later, he's still No. 5 on that list, and he's still one of Bob Knight's all-time favorite players.
He's spent the past 40 years in the NBA, first as a player for a decade-plus, and then as a coach at multiple stops, including twice as a head coach in Atlanta and New York. He's been a well respected basketball coach the whole time.
And when Indiana athletic director Scott Dolson decided last spring that "it was time to fix Indiana basketball,'' the former student manager under Knight knew it was important to return basketball to its roots, and that meant bringing home someone like Woodson to reunite the fan base.
There is a history here, a legacy here. Woodson knows that all too well. Sadly, most of his players don't. Now, ever so slowly, he's trying to change that.
He says he doesn't regale his players with Bob Knight stories, mostly because he doesn't have to.
"It comes up off and on, but I tell you what comes up more than anything. It's the banners that hang in both arenas, practice arena and here right next door (inside Assembly Hall). That's what comes up,'' Woodson said. "Every time we step out on the floor, before we break huddle, I tell team. 'look at those Big Ten titles, look at the national titles.' There's history here, man. We're not here just to play, man.
"To me, there's always been a lot at stake here, even when I played here. Yes, that's Coach Knight hanging in the rafters; that's all they need to know. I've got to push them in that direction to make sure that they understand we're playing to win a Big Ten and a national title, nothing else, man. It's no good thinking any other way.''
Woodson's been sliding on Indiana basketball gear since the end of March, and he's truly honored and humbled to be the head coach of his alma mater. He said it really sunk in for the first time a month ago in French Lick, Ind., during an Indiana basketball family reunion that attracted about 150 former players — and his mentor, Bob Knight.
"It kind of really touched home, man, being there with everyone,'' Woodson said. "After sitting up here (at the podium) and accepting the job and going through a few months of work on the job, it just hadn't set in. But when all the players came back, it kind of touched home.
"A lot of those guys have paved the way for this program way before I was even thought of. Some of the younger guys after me probably looked at me as a guy who paved the way for them. It was one big family reunion.''
Woodson said seeing Knight — and then listening to him talk to the group briefly — really drove home that point that now he is the face of Indiana basketball.
And he's totally fine with that.
"To see everybody back and see the main man who made it all happen sit there and then get up and speak that night, it was perfect,'' Woodson said. "Those kind of settings, we can't stop. That's just the beginning of who I am and what I'm about because I think ex-players have to be a part of this ride as well because they were a big part of it when they played here. That can't ever stop.''
And make no mistake about it. This is Mike Woodson's program now. Every player, to a man, talked about how great it was to be playing for Woodson. They love his free-flowing offense and his new defensive schemes. They love that he truly wants to make them better players, and that he will push them hard to get better.
How refreshing is that?
He pushes everybody, and all in the right direction. That includes his ''all-star'' coaching staff. Woodson knows what he wants, and everyone is working toward the same goals. The success he's had in the NBA isn't a negative in his book when he matriculates to the college level.
He's going to do what he knows.
"I can't change, man. I mean, the only thing that changes is the name on the uniforms,'' Woodson said. "I just feel like all players want to be coached. You've got to be able to touch them and pat them, but you've got to be able to challenge them and push them, too.
"Especially young players. I've learned that from the time I coached in Atlanta. Young players, they truly think they play hard. To me there's one level (of effort), and then there's another level. When you get to that peak where you playing hard all the time, things come easy for you from a basketball standpoint. That's the beauty of coaching in terms of trying to get players at that level because when you do, you win. That's normally what happens. It's that simple''
What Woodson likes so far is that he has a great group of kids who genuinely like each other. There are seven holdovers and six newcomers, including freshmen and transfers. They all get along, and there are no cliques like there were the past couple of years. Several players, including star forward Trayce Jackson-Davis, even said so.
It's a brand new day.
"There hasn't been any surprises. I've got a good group of guys that we've assembled,'' Woodson said. "The nice surprise is that everybody seems to like one another, and everybody comes to work. It makes working — coming to work for me —a treat.
"To me, coaching is coaching, man. We've just got to get players to buy in, work their asses off, and do what's asked of them. This group, they've done that.''