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Indiana’s Coaching Dilemma

I’ve never had a lot of love for Tom Crean. The way he stalks around on the sideline during games always seemed like an affectation, like he wanted to deflect attention away from his players and toward himself (as if college basketball coaches weren’t already getting enough attention). Crean has never been a brilliant in-game strategist, and aside from having Dwyane Wade fall into his lap at Marquette, his resume is pretty thin in terms of accomplishment.  Plus, he’s Jim Harbaugh’s brother-in-law. 

I’ve always been of the opinion, in both sports and business, that an owner has the right to choose who he hires and how long to keep them.  After all, the boss will sink or swim based on the people working for him, and if he has recognized that he could get better results by making a change, he owes it to himself — as well as fans/stockholders and whoever else has a stake in the enterprise — to make the move. But something stinks at Indiana. Whoever replaces Crean will be the fifth coach since Bobby Knight was dismissed in 2000, which is a lot for what is supposedly one of the elite programs in the country. We all know how awkward the dismissal of Knight was, when the administration decided that it was no longer OK for him to be a jerk because his team finished fourth in the conference. They followed that up by hounding Mike Davis out of town after a 19-12 season, four years removed from a Big Ten title and a spot in the national final, replacing him with the walking definition of corruption in Kelvin Sampson. Sampson (surprise) got the school on probation and left a dumpster fire of a program for his successor, which turned out to be Crean when bigger names shied away. 

This is also, by the way, the school that just dismissed the only football coach in the last quarter century to play in back-to-back bowl games, then put out a not-so-subtle leak that he may have been guilty of player abuse, then, after a search that lasted about twenty minutes, promoted his defensive coordinator, as though whatever abuse was happening occurred on his day off.  

So there’s something wrong with the decision-making at IU. Hiring Kelvin Sampson looked like a mistake on day one, like when Julia Roberts married Lyle Lovett, and Sampson didn’t last much longer than Lyle did.  They gave Crean an eight-year contract extension in 2012, at a point when nobody was knocking the door down to steal him away.  Since they did that, he has won two Big Ten titles, made the Sweet 16 three times, and graduated over 90 percent of his players. His team had a rash of drinking issues a couple of years ago, but they appear to have cleaned it up. What were they expecting when they extended his contract? This year was a mess, with a team that started the season ranked in the top ten losing in the first round of the NIT. But college basketball is a volatile sport, with yearly roster turnover, and sometimes rosters just don’t click, unless you’re Duke or Kentucky or Kansas, in which case you can just replace one McDonald’s All-American with another.  For everyone else, there are lean years. You don’t fire a coach because of one lean year unless you feel he’s just not the right guy. If that’s the case, why commit to such a long extension?  

The folks who run this program are obviously hoping that Steve Alford will come back home and lead them back to their glory years. Alford, incidentally, was facing the firing squad at UCLA after a 15-17 season in 2016 before he stumbled onto Lonzo Ball, so he is certainly not immune to whatever afflicted Crean this year.  Now that he has tapped into the Ball family pipeline for the next few years, why would Alford subject himself to the type of pressure he would face at Indiana? If he’s doing it out of loyalty, he should ask himself if that loyalty will go both ways.

For that matter, why would anyone want this job?   People are assuming that if Alford isn’t available that Gregg Marshall or Archie Miller or Chris Mack will leap at this job, but they already make good money, expect to go to the tournament every year, and have the unwavering support of their bosses, which no Indiana coach has had since Knight stopped winning conference titles in the early 90s. It’s not as though Indiana is the only opening. Washington, California, LSU, and Illinois all stand ready to throw money at someone, and if you win two conference titles at one of those places, they’ll build a statue of you. Is there really enough tradition at Indiana to overcome what appears to be a dysfunctional environment? Who they get to fill this opening will go a long way toward answering that question.

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