Tom Crean was fired from his position as Indiana’s head basketball coach at almost the exact moment the first game of the 2017 NCAA tournament tipped off. It was a perfectly executed news dump on the school’s part and, given that Crean is the most memeable coach in social media history, was the gentlest possible way his ouster could have been handled, by allowing him to sneak out the back door while the internet collectively focused on the start of the tourney. And that’s important to note, because while Indiana fans (myself included) have slung vitriol in Crean’s direction for years, the relationship between Crean and the athletic department has always been one of mutual admiration and respect.
This was evident when Indiana athletic director Fred Glass signed Crean to a lengthy contract extension in November 2012 on the heels of his first winning season and first Sweet 16 berth after four years in Bloomington. It was evident when Glass publicly backed Crean in March 2015, just days after the 10th-seeded Hoosiers lost a first-round NCAA tournament game to Wichita State to close out a campaign in which they dropped five of their final six. And now it’s clear in the way Crean has talked about his time at Indiana and his support of Hoosiers athletics since he was let go. Firing Crean does not seem to be a decision that Indiana necessarily wanted to make. It was, however, one the school needed to make.
Crean inherited a program that was such as disaster in the wake of former head coach Kelvin Sampson’s recruiting scandal that Dan Dakich actually came in to coach the team for seven games in 2008. Sampson’s resignation that February prompted a player revolt and the threat of a boycott, which in turn caused Dakich to dismiss a couple of guys. In the end, Eric Gordon left for the NBA, D.J. White and Lance Stemler graduated, a boatload of others (most notably Jordan Crawford) transferred, and Crean was left with one returning scholarship player — former walk-on Kyle Taber, who scored a total of 28 points in 2007–08 — and an allotment of only 10 scholarships to work with as a result of various NCAA penalties. In no uncertain terms, Indiana was a toxic job at the time that nobody could have been blamed for wanting to avoid. Crean willingly risked his career and took it on the chin with a 28–66 record in his first three seasons before putting the Hoosiers back on the map, first with the Christian Watford buzzer-beater to upset no. 1 Kentucky in December 2011, then with two outright Big Ten titles in 2012–13 and 2015–16. In the end, it was only enough to get him fired.
Crean probably deserved better than what Indiana fans ultimately gave him. But Indiana fans deserved better than what Crean gave them, too, and that’s what makes his legacy at the school so complicated. To an outsider, Indiana is a college basketball dinosaur supported by a delusional fan base hell-bent on returning to glory days that have long since passed. And that’s accurate to a certain extent, as the Hoosiers haven’t won a national title since 1987 and have been to only two Final Fours in the last 30 years. But unlike several other programs past their heyday, Indiana has resources that have never gone away. The Hoosiers still have an enormous and rabid fan base, a spot in one of college athletics’ richest conferences, an iconic arena, an absurd recruiting budget, and a gold mine of local talent to funnel to Bloomington. The way Indiana fans see it, the problem isn’t that an unruly fan base starved for success has perpetuated unrealistic expectations that every coach since Bob Knight has struggled to meet. It’s that the fan base is so starved for success because the coaches after Knight have all struggled.
This line of thinking is what led to Crean’s demise. Two Big Ten titles and three Sweet 16 appearances in a five-year span may be cause for celebration on other campuses, but only one thing has mattered to Indiana fans for 30 years running: winning national championships. Crean never came close to winning one — not even in 2012–13, when he had the top-ranked team in the AP poll for 10 weeks. Meanwhile, the goodwill that Crean had accrued in the Bloomington community with his generosity and kindness could take him only so far, especially once his players started dominating headlines for all the wrong reasons and his habit of purposely generating roster turnover rubbed diehards the wrong way. Over the last three years, the whispers about whether Crean was the man for the job gradually transformed into screams. The 2016–17 season — one that saw the Hoosiers ranked as high as no. 3 in the AP poll before injuries wrecked the roster and they finished 18–16 with a first-round NIT exit — finally took the Crean era at Indiana to the point of no return. He wasn’t just failing to meet the Hoosiers’ lofty standards; he was failing with a team that, fair or not, many fans of the school didn’t view as Hoosier-like.
When talking about the perceived delusion in the Indiana fan base, it’s often said that Hoosiers fans are desperate to find the next Bob Knight, and that deviating from the way Knight did things is a surefire way for a coach to lose public support. This isn’t exactly true given that most rational minds seem to agree that Knight’s coaching style wouldn’t fly in the modern era, not to mention the fact that Knight has done all he can to tarnish his legacy since he was fired in 2000. But there is truth to the idea that Indiana fans still hold sacred many of the values that Knight exalted in his 29 years in Bloomington, namely pursuing and obtaining a degree, avoiding trouble off the court, and putting forth maximum effort and discipline in all endeavors.
Most crucial of all, though, is taking pride in being a Hoosier. And I don’t just mean “Hoosier” in reference to the nickname of Indiana University athletics. I also mean as a nod to the moniker given to residents of the state as a whole. Because while plenty of college basketball programs represent their communities, the Indiana basketball team is the flagship institution in the most basketball-crazed state in the country, and being a member of that team carries an enormous responsibility that cannot be marginalized. It’s similar to playing football for the University of Texas, another program that’s recently seemed to lose its way.
Look, I get how ridiculous the mythos of basketball in Indiana must seem from an outsider’s point of view. We Hoosiers like to pretend we invented the sport, and that Indiana is the only place on earth where you can find basketball being played “the right way.” But perception can sometimes become reality, and if Indiana fans think that their program is unique, that matters, especially to those associated with it. This is why the ultimate sin for a player or coach at Indiana isn’t to lose too much (although I wouldn’t recommend doing that) — it’s to treat their position as though they’re part of Generic College Basketball Program With a Lot of History instead of appreciating everything for which the Hoosiers stand.
This was perhaps Crean’s fatal flaw. He never really exuded the Indiana vibe. He was a good coach who was occasionally a very good coach, but he was never a great coach and, more importantly, he was never an Indiana coach. When a culture is as deeply rooted as Indiana’s is, fit is crucial, and Crean — like Charlie Strong at Texas football, or Rich Rodriguez during his short-lived tenure at Michigan — was seen as an outsider who didn’t truly belong. Crean tried his best, yet for reasons spanning from his mannerisms to his coaching philosophy to his recruiting strategy to his demeanor, he was never fully embraced. Perhaps this is why a significant number of Hoosiers fans wanted an “Indiana guy” like UCLA coach Steve Alford, who was born in Franklin, Indiana, raised in New Castle, and emerged as the captain and best player for the 1987 national champion Hoosiers, to take over. The most important thing, they said, was to reestablish Indiana’s culture, and the wins would surely follow.
Nine days after firing Crean, Indiana named his successor. It wasn’t Alford, nor was it a native of the state. But the new coach of the Hoosiers is very much an Indiana guy.
Archie Miller was introduced as Indiana University’s 29th head basketball coach on Monday at Assembly Hall, and he wasted no time going after the hearts of Hoosiers fans. Not long after he approached the lectern, he offered the following: “The reason I’m here — and I really believe this — is the state of Indiana. The state of Indiana, in many ways, is me. It’s how I grew up.”
Miller was actually born and raised just outside Pittsburgh (a city that’s basically the Midwest, even if it isn’t technically considered as such), in a basketball family, and comes from a Dayton program that went 139–68 under him dating back to 2011. And while you should take my evaluation with a grain of salt (full disclosure: Miller was an assistant coach at Ohio State from 2007–09, when I was a player on the team), his message Monday seemed to resonate with me in a way Crean’s, for whatever reason, never could. He stressed the importance of graduating his players (to be fair, Crean’s teams were excellent in the classroom); he talked about the value of hard work and toughness; and he emphasized how developing relationships with his players is his top priority.
Miller essentially checked every box that an Indiana fan would want, to the point that it felt like he met with a bunch of fans before his press conference and asked what they thought were the most important characteristics of the program. And yeah, I know his job here was akin to that of a politician and that he didn’t say anything particularly original. It’s not like he was going to say that hard work is overrated, toughness is dumb, and he’ll never give a damn about his players. But even if you felt his entire message was rah-rah hokey bullshit, I can assure you that rah-rah hokey bullshit is exactly what Indiana fans love the most. It feeds into our perception of what Indiana basketball really is: a team full of underdogs working together to beat a vastly more talented opponent who doesn’t want it as much. Later in his press conference, Miller further pushed the Hoosiers ethos.
“I think it’s kind of simple: I’m just like everyone here,” Miller said. “I want everybody to have that feel as we keep moving forward, that someone really respects the way that the state operates, that the kids in this state, the high school coaches, the families … they all grow up wanting to be here. And for me, I hope to be able to represent it in a big way.”
Miller has coached in nearby Ohio or Kentucky for eight of the 14 years that he’s been in the business, and has a long history of recruiting Indiana that should only get stronger. He said “the term that we’ll use [when it comes to recruiting] is called ‘inside-out.’ We have to start inside this state of Indiana and we have to start moving outside very slowly, because the footprint is there.” It’s a subtle thing, but the way he talks about Indiana — the state, not the university — is a massive deal, and he knows it will win fans over.
It also helps that Miller utilizes an up-tempo, transition-focused motion offense and a disciplined packline defense, both of which should provide the right combination of entertainment and structure that Indiana fans love to see out of their teams. And if all that somehow isn’t enough for Hoosiers fans, I have a feeling the stories about his relationships with his players will be. Because I can personally attest to this: Miller demands a ton out of his guys and isn’t afraid to drop the disciplinarian hammer, but he does it in a way that lets players know he has their best interests in mind. Toeing the line between pushing a team and just being a sadistic asshole on a power trip can be difficult for some coaches, but Miller has it down to a science.
The head coach of the Hoosiers is a representative of the entire state and its basketball aura, and that’s something Miller seems to grasp better than any Indiana coach who has come along since Knight. More specifically, Miller’s values appear to align with what’ve traditionally been the tenets of Indiana University basketball: selflessness, ball movement, defensive intensity, and high graduation rates. Whether all of this will translate into winning is what matters most, as doing things “the right way” will stop meaning as much if the losses pile up. For many in the area, though, the Hoosiers’ pursuit of a sixth national title is a religion. Miller, if nothing else, is ready to preach.