ON THIS DAY: Three Years Ago Today, Indiana Fired Tom Crean

Tom Brew

First in a daily series

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — The 2016-17 Indiana basketball season had started with such promise. Coming off a Big Ten championship and a third Sweet Sixteen appearance in five years, Tom Crean's No. 11-ranked Hoosiers beat No. 3  Kansas 103-99 in overtime in the season opener, making 15 three-pointers in the process.

A week later, it was the Hoosiers who were ranked No. 3 in the country, even receiving two first-place votes. Indiana would win eight of its first nine games, including beating No. 3 North Carolina in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. The one loss, however, was an embarrassment, losing to Fort Wayne on  the road in late November.

Things fell apart after that 8-1 start though, and the Hoosiers went 10-14 the rest of the way. They were awful in Big Ten play, going 7-11, and failed to the make the NCAA tournament. 

After an uninspired first-round loss to Georgia Tech, Indiana athletic director Fred Glass fired Crean, demanding more from the leader of such an iconic program such as this one.

Crean got a text message from 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 and his family were leaving on an impromptu vacation that morning, and he told his family then what had transpired.  “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.”

Crean spent nine years at Indiana, getting hired from Marquette to clean up the mess left by Kelvin Sampson. It was a disaster, a situation so bad that once he realized that there would literally be no players left, Crean had wondered if he made a mistake in taking the job. 

It was a complete and total rebuild, and the first three years were the worst stretch in Indiana basketball history, with records of 6-25, 10-21 and 12-20. In Big Ten play, he was just 8-46, also the worst stretch in school history.

But Crean vowed to fix everything, and he did. He was a tireless recruiter from the beginning, and got five McDonald's All-Americans to come to Indiana. He beat No. 1 Kentucky with the Christian Watford shot, had a No. 1-ranked team in 2013, won two Big Ten titles (2013, 2016) and averaged 23 wins a year those last six years.

How 2013 ended really hurt Crean, with the embarrassing loss to Syracuse in the Sweet Sixteen. The 2014 and 2015 seasons were uncomfortable, and the 2016 Big Ten title was something of a surpise.

It coated over some emerging recruiting problems, and when the 2017 season imploded, it was time for a change.

 “I love Indiana,” Crean told Sports Illustrated few days after the firing. “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.”

Crean was a hard man to figure for the majority of the IU fan base. There was major appreciation for sticking with it through the problems caused by Sampson that bordered on a death penalty. There were a lot of great recruiting gets early — Cody Zeller and Yogi Ferrell most notably — and huge praise for developing talent, mostly with 3-stars Victor Oladipo and Will Sheehey, who became fan favorites.

There was a lot of clamoring for Crean to be fired during that third year. I was the assistant sports editor of the Indianapolis Star at the time, and I wrote an opinion piece one Sunday addressing all that vitriol. I said at the time that you couldn't talk about firing him until AFTER the fifth year, because he needed that much time to fix things.

He did. A few months after year five, there was Cody Zeller on the cover of Sports Illustrated, and Indiana was preseason No. 1.

Screenshot 2020-03-16 14.54.24
Indiana's Cody Zeller graced the cover of Sports Illustrated after Indiana was picked No. 1 in the preseason of the 2012-2=13 season.

But there were too many losses along the way where Crean's in-game coaching ability was questioned, and there were some NCAA tournament wins — he was 6-4 in NCAA games during those last six years — but that wasn't enough. (For comparative purposes, the legendary Bob Knight was 4-7 in NCAA tournament games during his last seven years at Indiana.)

Crean would go on to be hired by Georgia, where he's just 27-37 in his first two years. He was replaced at Indiana by Archie Miller, who has yet to make an NCAA tournament appearance, though he probably would have this year.

EDITOR'S NOTE: With all Indiana sports in shutdown mode because of the coronavirus pandemic, we will be rolling out a couple of new things for you to read and ON THIS DAY is one of them. 

Our timing is good, because there are great NCAA tournament memories through the years on just about every day. I'm really looking forward to reliving them all. We'll pick the best one every day, on into April for sure. Please share with your friends. — TOM BREW, Sports Illustrated Indiana.