The impression of Indiana Hoosiers basketball coach Tom Crean is that of one who brought a traditional power back to life after it had been down and restored it to, if not greatness, at least respectability. I disagree with that view and believe that Crean should be coaching for his job as Big Ten play gets set to open up this week.
Let’s put Crean’s tenure in Bloomington in context. He took over after the program prior to the 2009 season, after it had been put on NCAA probation for three years. Crean’s first three seasons were miserable, with a record of 8-46 in conference games. In the first year, his roster had nine freshman and two sophomores. It’s that which gives rise to the media impression of “starting at rock bottom.”
In 2012, things began to turn for the better, and Indiana had a pretty good year, getting back to the NCAA Tournament after a fifth-place finish in the Big Ten. One year later, Crean hit the jackpot with Victor Oladipo and Cody Zeller. Indiana went 14-4 in the Big Ten, won the outright conference title for the first time since 1993 and was a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, before falling in the Sweet 16.
Last year was a step back, finishing 7-9 in league games, barely over .500 overall and out of the NCAAs. This year is still up in the air—there have been some nice wins over Butler and Pitt, an aggravating loss to Georgetown, an inexplicable upset at the hands of Eastern Washington and a very understandable defeat to Louisville.
Now let’s review what basketball life in Bloomington was in the years immediately before Crean’s arrival. Mike Davis, the successor to Bob Knight, was universally panned by most observers, myself included. In his final year of 2006, his team went 9-7 in the Big Ten and reached the NCAA Tournament. Davis resigned under pressure and Kelvin Sampson was hired.
Sampson made the NCAA Tournament in both 2007 and 2007, and averaged 12 Big Ten wins per year, even though one of those seasons was still just a 16-game league schedule, before the conference expanded to 18. But Sampson violated NCAA rules regarding how many phone calls can be made to recruits. He was fired and the program got the aforementioned probation.
One thing we have to note about the probation though, is that it was toothless. There was no loss of scholarships. There was no ban from postseason play. There was no loss of TV exposure. It was nothing more than saying “Behave yourself for three years.” When Crean was hired, he decided to clean house, and bring in his own recruits, resulting in the young roster.
There are undoubtedly a lot of different views regarding Tom Crean, but to borrow the words of Kevin Bacon in A Few Good Men, these are the facts of the case. And they are not in dispute.
Now I want you to consider this entire context, of Crean’s entire track record and where the program was when he was hired. How does taking over a program that went to the NCAA Tournament three straight years constitute taking something over that’s at rock bottom? If Crean wanted to clean house and bring his own kids in that’s his prerogative. But why does he get extra credit for it? Indiana bottomed out, because Crean felt it was best for the long haul.
Has it been? Crean has only won 12 conference games in a season in the big year of 2013. I use 12 as a benchmark since it represents winning two-thirds of your games and seems to be what a program with national aspirations should aspire to (and in truth, I think that’s pretty a minimal baseline). Even if you make the extraordinarily generous concession of throwing out his first three years, and only use 2012-14, he’s still only averaging 10.6 league wins per year. In other words, he’s barely over .500 amongst his peers at one of the Big Ten’s most tradition-laden programs.
Whether or not you think that’s good enough will, in large part depend on your view of what Indiana is in the broader scheme of college basketball. I spent three years in school there and was a big Bob Knight fan. Though I’m not an alum nor a part of the fan base, I still think of Indiana as a place that should aspire to be in the national elite. Much like Penn State football, they might not always be there, but the natural recruiting base in an ideal state is always there.
Even if you disagree with that, can you disagree that Indiana should certainly aspire to match or exceed what Wisconsin does in basketball? Even if national championships don’t come, is it unreasonable to think that one should make the NCAA Tournament every year, rather than two out of six, as Crean has done? Or even two of three, as he’s currently done? I don’t think so.
I’m not suggesting that Tom Crean is some awful coach, and Indiana would certainly need to have a backup plan in place. That backup plan should be a coach who’s not only a slam dunk hire, but is immediately perceived as such by outsiders. Let’s use Brad Stevens, formerly of Butler and currently with the Boston Celtics, as an example. If Indiana can get him—or someone of similar cache—they simply have to do it. If they can’t, then bite the bullet and live with Crean’s mediocrity until the right coach comes along.
But let’s not be in denial anymore about what Tom Crean is. He’s a mediocre coach who recruits just well enough to have the occasional good year. At a lot of places that can be good enough. Indiana shouldn’t be one of them.
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