The first game of the 2017 NCAA tournament tipped off at 12:15 p.m. ET Thursday. Indiana announced it had fired head men’s basketball coach Tom Crean exactly one minute later. We should salute this. Perhaps it was a news dump, an attempt to bury the end of Crean’s nine-year tenure beneath the bustle of the most eagerly awaited moment of the college basketball season. Perhaps it was the opposite, an attempt to divert attention from an event that doesn’t feature the Hoosiers. Perhaps the university’s administrators just needed to finish filling out their brackets before making the call.
The school was able to break this news right when the NCAA tournament began because, well, Crean’s team wasn’t able to make the NCAA tournament. Indiana launched into the top three of the AP poll and knocked off Kansas and North Carolina early in the 2016–17 campaign. But after a knee injury sidelined projected first-round NBA draft pick OG Anunoby in January, the Hoosiers plummeted to a sub-.500 Big Ten finish. Indiana’s 18–16 record and first-round NIT exit were just the latest in a list of disappointments under Crean. He never made an Elite Eight — and Indiana fans dream of national titles. He wasn’t widely liked from the get-go. Some of those feelings lingered because he hasn’t achieved his ultimate goals at the school, and some of them remained because he acts (and makes impressions that are) really weird — in a way that doesn’t inspire confidence.
On the other hand, Crean did some impressive things at Indiana. The Hoosiers won the Big Ten in 2012–13 and again just last year. No, they never made the Elite Eight under Crean, but they got to the Sweet 16 three times in the last six years (2012, 2013, 2016) after the program had made it to the Sweet 16 just once in the previous 17 seasons. (Bob Knight didn’t reach that stage in his last six years as Indiana’s coach.) Crean took over at a time when the Hoosiers were wrecked by NCAA sanctions stemming from violations committed by his predecessor, Kelvin Sampson. That missing the NCAA tournament feels like a failure is a testament to the work Crean has done after the dark days (a 6–25 record in 2008–09) of his early tenure.
It is disappointing that one of the most storied programs in college basketball hasn’t won a national championship in 30 years. It’s also strange that its fan base hasn’t recalibrated its expectations.
There’s a possibility that firing Crean is the move that vaults Indiana into the basketball stratosphere. His crowning achievement as a coach was making the 2003 Final Four at Marquette with Dwyane Wade. There’s no evidence he could achieve similar success without a player of that caliber — and he didn’t show an ability to recruit similar talent to Bloomington. (The best player Indiana has had under Crean is … Victor Oladipo? Cody Zeller?)
But his firing could also be the move that ensures that the Hoosiers will stay somewhat irrelevant. Even when Crean succeeded, fans hated him. Maybe that was a Crean problem; maybe it was an Indiana problem. Every Indiana coach is weighed against Knight — and fans remember only the incredible things Knight did, glossing over his many failures and the fact that he’s in the bottom 10 percent of all humans on the planet.
Perhaps there’s a reason Indiana fired its coach in the middle of a college basketball holiday. Most coaches it could conceivably hire are busy this weekend, and rumors will fly any time a mid-major team upsets a higher seed. Perhaps those coaches won’t have time to ponder how Indiana fans are celebrating the canning of a coach who accomplished more in the last six years than Indiana’s previous three coaches did in two decades.