EVANSVILLE, Ind. — Tom Crean blitzed into practice at Assembly Hall, legs pumping, head down in that no-nonsense way that he has, abandoning his coffee cup on an unfolded bleacher.
Not an hour later, he grabbed a Diet Coke out of a small cooler on the scorer’s table. Before he could pop the top something caught his eye in a drill. He left the soda there, unopened. A full 37 minutes later he returned to it, finally taking one big gulp.
Later that same night, Crean stood at a podium to address a group of Indiana alumni in Evansville. A plastic cup, maybe three-quarters full of Diet Coke, was stationed near his feet, with two more cans of the soft drink positioned at the edge of the stage, one flanked at an angle to his left, another to his right.
Not four feet away, on a table where Crean later would sign autographs, yet another unopened can awaited him.
“They just kept bringing them up,” Crean said. “I literally only drank one of them.”
And that is Tom Crean in a nutshell. The man moves with a frenetic energy that begs a caffeinated engine, yet he doesn’t even pause long enough to take a swig. Seven years ago, when he arrived to stalk the Indiana sidelines, that perpetual motion was the jolt the Hoosiers needed. Mired in an NCAA investigation from the Kelvin Sampson era, one that eventually would lead to hefty sanctions, and embarrassed by the shame of it all, Indiana needed to be reinvigorated and reborn. Crean, hot off a successful run at Marquette, was just the man to do it.
But just as a rug can get worn out by too much pacing, a man can wear out his welcome. That which once seemed so endearing can become downright annoying over time, the positive interpretation of high energy giving way to the more negative connotation of panic.
As the Hoosiers open their season on Nov. 13 at home against Eastern Illinois, this is, at the least, a season on the precipice for Crean. Indiana has but two Sweet 16 appearances under his watch. Worse still, the players have denigrated the program’s name with off-court arrests and embarrassments. Fans are weary of too little in the way of results and too much in the way of the police blotter. As Crean’s buyout inches toward manageable — it drops from $7.5 million to $4 million on July 1, 2016 — the calls for change grow louder as the possibility grows more financially feasible.
That elephant sat prominently in the middle of the Old National Bank atrium when Crean recently arrived to speak to the Evansville alumni group.
“We get anxious, Coach,” university board of trustees member Pat Shoulders said as he introduced Crean to the crowd of maybe 150. “Anxious to the point that we want to put up that sixth [national championship] banner and to the point that we’re not very patient.”
Shoulders went on to laud Crean’s numbers — the 23 wins per season he’s averaged, the perfect APR score — and to add that he knew the Hoosiers had the right guy for the job.
The message, albeit subtle, was there.
The Hoosiers are anxious and impatient.
But then again, so, too, is Tom Crean.
As he sat for breakfast along the San Antonio Riverwalk at the 2008 Final Four, Tom Crean admittedly was worried about the still undisclosed NCAA sanctions but jazzed about taking over such a storied program. Despite the size of the NCAA hammer about to drop, Indiana still managed to lure him away from Marquette. Crean is a basketball junkie, the sort for whom the attraction of tradition at a place like Indiana is not lost.
As a former assistant under Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, he knew what he was getting from the competitive Big Ten. He knew, quite well, the rebuild would take time. Still, the promise was more than intriguing; it was tantalizing. Indiana is the kind of place where a man can achieve greatness and hang banners — that’s plural — in the rafters. That he could be that man understandably motivated Crean.
All these years later he still craves the same thing.
“Nobody is more anxious and in a hurry than myself to hang that banner,” Crean tells the Evansville crowd when he takes the podium.
It’s a message he has preached since he arrived. But now, it’s wearing thin. The post-NCAA sanction grace period is over, replaced instead by what many deem an incomplete 2013 season. That’s when the Hoosiers, with Cody Zeller and a No. 1 NCAA tournament seed, looked like they had no idea Syracuse played a zone. The Hoosiers stumbled to a Sweet 16 loss.
Since then the news has been on a continuous run of bad, from Yogi Ferrell‘s and Stanford Robinson‘s arrests for minor consumption in April 2014 to Thomas Bryant‘s and Emmitt Holt’s similar charges this August. Fans questioned whether Crean had control of his team and, more, whether he was too soft to lead. This, remember, is a place built on the backbone of Bobby Knight discipline, a place where second and third chances aren’t necessarily part of the penal fabric.
But Crean, who dismissed Devin Davis, Hanner Mosquera-Perea and Holt only after multiple mistakes, resolutely stands by his decisions.
“I’m not into making an example of somebody,” he said. “I didn’t get into coaching for that. Running, the bench, that’s where you make an example of somebody. People think toughness is putting the hammer down right away. That’s easy. Trying to work through things, help them grow up, that’s hard.”
That all sounds good, but it also rings a bit hollow for a fan base that is accustomed to not just winning big, but winning without the whiff of embarrassment. That Crean has failed on both counts has only ratcheted up the temperature on his seat.
How hot is it right now? Well, there is a website — tomcreanbuyout.com — that features a to-the-second countdown for when Crean’s buyout drops to $4 million. It also includes a PDF of Crean’s contract and a clickable link next to Crean’s current record at Indiana (121-111) that leads to the Wikipedia page for Brad Stevens.
One Indianapolis Star columnist wrote a year ago this month that Crean had to go immediately. An altogether different columnist from the same newspaper wrote in March that his days were numbered.
The second-guessing, the rumors, Crean insists he doesn’t let any of it trouble him, and that he is approaching this season exactly as he has every one before it. But he is a voracious reader and doesn’t try to pretend that he is unaware of the noise. He simply doesn’t dwell on it.
“Anybody that doesn’t deal with negativity at some level, some time or another, isn’t really doing their best to lead,” he says. “Everyone has their moments. I do, too, but I get more determined. I’m driven internally. I don’t try to be very reflective of the past or project into the future. I’m very clear on what needs to be done, what we want to do.”
All of that bravado aside, Crean did take an interesting little detour before the season, one that perhaps let on that he is not immune to the noise. During fall break, the Hoosiers traveled to Washington, D.C. They spent time at the Naval Academy and connected with Crean’s brother-in-law, Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh, and his football team. Maybe the most fascinating part of the trip was the least obvious stop. Crean invited Johns Hopkins lacrosse coach Dave Pietramala to speak to his team.
Basketball and lacrosse are surprisingly similar in terms of X’s and O’s. Pietramala has spoken to hoops teams before. But Crean said candidly he had no idea how connected the two sports were when he scheduled time with Pietramala. His mission was entirely different.
“I wanted him to talk to us about the responsibility of living up to a level of greatness day after day and how hard it is,” Crean said.
The Bluejays are a blue blood of lacrosse, much like the Hoosiers are in hoops. Johns Hopkins has won nine national championships, competed in 44 final fours. While lacrosse does not engender the same attention as basketball, Johns Hopkins’ players are every bit as responsible for living up to their program’s image as Indiana’s.
The frank-talking Pietramala pulled no punches when he spoke to the Hoosiers. He told the players that they, like all the other 17-to-22-year-olds who have come before them, are the worst decision-makers in the world, but could not afford to be. It’s not an original message, he knows, but one he wanted to repeat.
“We’re ultimately responsible for them, so you have to hope that your message has been shared enough,” Pietramala said. “You want to scare them a little bit so when they’re thinking about things, they’re thinking about you and what you said but also that your leaders are repeating the message — that’s not how we do things here, that’s not what Indiana basketball is about.”
The No. 15 team in the country is currently spending a good 20 minutes on passing drills. Not passing in action, but straight-up youth-league passing. Stand across from your partner and send a bounce pass. Now take a step backward and do it again. Progress to overhead passes and baseball passes and chest passes.
And Crean is stalking through the lines as if the Hoosiers are working on their motion offense, shouting, “Snap the pass. Snap. Snap. Snap.” At one point he even stops the drill, threatening the Hoosiers with a run if they don’t execute their passes with more precision.
“We’re not doing a drill,” he yells. “We’re building ourselves.”
And then it makes sense. This isn’t entirely about chest passes. It is, in the sense that Crean believes in an old Pete Carril adage — the quality of the pass leads to the quality of the shot, the Princeton coach used to preach — but it goes way deeper than that.
It’s about accountability.
Crean says later “everything matters,” but by everything he doesn’t just mean everything on the court. He means everything.
“They are responsible to each other,” he says. “Their decisions and choices affect each other and impact a lot of other people. They don’t realize that when they first come in.”
And so Crean works as much on how they treat one another as how they play with one another. Indiana practices must rank in the top five among the chirpiest. The chatter is constant, hard clapping before, during and after drills combining with shouts of encouragement and direction to make it sound like some sort of basketball Babel. Is it forced, more coach directed than player felt? Possibly, but the hope is that the scales will tilt the other way over time, that what is first forced later becomes innately felt.
“It surprised me at first, how detailed everything is,” junior Collin Hartman said. “The details that Coach looked at, nobody really does things like that, but we play through those fundamentals.”
This team has the chance to be good, very good. Ferrell and James Blackmon Jr. make for a dynamic backcourt; the freakishly athletic Troy Williams could be in for a big year; and the freshman Bryant, rated 20th in the ESPN 100, has the promise of a big frontcourt presence. There are deficiencies — the defense remains a bit suspect, the frontcourt depth leaves little room for error or injury — but certainly Indiana has reason to be bullish on big expectations this season.
And there is no better balm than winning.
“Winning is easy, but winning a lot is not easy,” Pietramala said. “Winning one championship is easier than winning the next one and the one after that. Fans are finicky in this what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world we live in, but winning always helps.”
Mechanical trouble turned what should have been a quick post-practice flight from Bloomington to Evansville into a two-hour sprint down I-69. Plenty of coaches might have scrapped the shindig altogether. In-season booster functions aren’t always popular to a coach, especially one with a recruiting trip the next day already on the schedule. Crean would have been in his rights to cancel.
But Crean has a populace in need of placating, and so, at the end of a long day of practice, and with a two-hour ride back to Bloomington still stretching out ahead of him, he took to the podium.
He offered some chalk talk, breaking down film right down to the ball screens for a good 30 minutes. Elsewhere that might be a good time for a nap. But this is Indiana, and fans are as intelligent as they are invested. They listened intently, and when he opened it up for questions, they had pointed queries. How is Blackmon Jr.’s knee? Is Bryant recovering from a sore foot?
A few people questioned Crean’s substitution patterns, wondering why he didn’t stay with a hot hand longer than he often does. For the most part, though, this was friendly fire.
Only one question skirted around the off-court issues that have plagued the Hoosiers. A high school coach/dad asked if he should be worried about the trend of bad behavior in college basketball, referencing both Indiana’s issues and Louisville’s recent and ongoing scandal.
“Most people that make mistakes don’t think about what they’re doing to their teammates, to their families, they just do what they do and make choices,” Crean said in response to the question. “We have to make sure we educated them. You’ve got to try and get inside kids’ heads. You can’t be with them all of the time, but you have to get it so that their teammates are thinking with them and for them.”
After that the folks hosting the event, wary of the evening growing longer, signaled that they were ready to end things. Crean declined. Two more hands were raised in the crowd, and so he answered both questions before sidling over to the table to sign autographs and pose for pictures. He never sat down, just stood crouched over the posters and balls that people pressed into his hands until the line that wrapped around the room dwindled away.
Then he answered a few questions for the local media and finally headed out to his car.
Ahead of him lay 122 miles of almost empty road and a season to pour all of his frenzied energy into restoring the faith of the faithful.
Behind him lingered a few temporarily sated alumni and a can of unopened Diet Coke.