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Maybe it Wasn't Tom Crean After All

Indiana University Purdue University Fort Wayne, otherwise known as IPFW, did it again. The little mid-major Mastodons beat the mighty Indiana University Hoosiers Men’s Basketball Team on December 18. This not-supposed-to happen loss came almost 13 months to the day after the last time it happened. In 2016, it was a surprise, 71-68 stunner in Fort Wayne. This year was probably more shocking because it was in IU’s historic Assembly Hall and it wasn’t even close, with IPFW blowing out the Hoosiers, 92-72. Ouch. How are these two, early season losses a symbol of a larger set of issues at IU?

Indiana University, as a Blue Blood basketball program, has been floundering for a long time. The Bob Knight coaching hangover arguably started five years before the legendary coach was relieved of his duties in 2000. Knight’s team won its third National Championship under his leadership in 1987 and maintained a competitive presence until around 1993, grabbing two Big Ten titles and a Final Four appearance between 1991 and 1993. After that, the performance of the IU men tapered off significantly until Knight’s dismissal.

Then a revolving door of four different head coaches in the next 17 years began, with Knight assistant Mike Davis, Kelvin Sampson, Tom Crean, and now former Dayton Flyers skipper, Archie Miller. Five coaches if you count Dan Dakich finishing the season after Sampson’s February 2008 resignation. Not being Knight was really Mike Davis’ biggest defect; not surprising for the replacement of an icon. Kelvin Sampson took what was a prideful, squeaky-clean basketball program and turned it into a Rick Pitino-esque, violation fest, filled with recruiting scandals and alleged team drug use, which led to a five-year ban of Sampson from coaching. Then Crean came in and took over a decimated basketball program, but never really gelled with the Indiana faithful. There were questionable in-game coaching decisions, some too-frank post game press conferences, and, even after Knight’s tenure, Crean possessed a sometimes strange, sometimes annoying, sometimes prickly style that seemed to get under the skin of a lot of people. He is, after all, married into the Harbaugh football coaching family, so maybe all of that should have been expected.

It was a difficult eight-year run for Tom Crean, to be sure. The November 22, 2016 loss to IPFW was, arguably, the nail in his coffin at IU, even though Crean wasn’t officially let-go until March 2017. At the time of the IPFW loss, Indiana was ranked number five and the Fort Wayne game was booked as a typical, early season warm-up game for a big time basketball program. But there was something weird about the game from the start.

Large programs, like Indiana, booking gimme-games on the road is almost unheard of. These sort of David vs. Goliath matchups on David’s turf can turn into a trap game in a New York minute. That is exactly what happened with the IU game in 2016, with IPFW going shot-for-shot with Indiana. Fort Wayne hung around the whole game and Indiana simply couldn’t put any distance between the diminutive Mastodon’s and the relative five-spot powerhouse. There was speculation that the athletic department at Indiana booked this game in IPFW’s gym on purpose, so a possible loss would seal Crean’s fate at IU. While conspiracy theories like that are enough to make most people roll their eyes, with the long strange trip that ensued after Bob Knight got canned, nothing is surprising.

While it doesn’t make Indiana fans feel any better, the recent repeat loss to IPFW has to vindicate Crean, at least a little bit. Like Crean, Archie Miller has an excellent coaching background, developing Dayton teams that grew to be a consistent threat each year to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. Crean had similar success at Marquette University prior to coming to IU. And getting beat by an inferior opponent is certainly not unheard of by any means. Just ask North Carolina how their recent Dean Dome match-up with Wofford worked out for them. But two years in a row? Perhaps IPFW just has Indiana’s number. Wouldn’t be the first time that happened either.

The real metaphor of the IU losses to IPFW seem to come in the form of a question. When will Indiana recover from Knight’s departure over 17 years ago? Adolf Rupp coached at Kentucky from 1930-1972 and by 1978 UK had already hung another championship banner in their rafters. Dean Smith retired from the UNC Tar Heels program in 1997 after 36 years. After a couple of coaching hiccups, Smith protégé Roy Williams has cut down the final nets three times in 14 years, once more than Smith in half the time. So, can Indiana truly be considered a Blue Blood program anymore? Was IU Knight’s team and no one else’s? Will the IU faithful EVER truly get behind another head coach whose name isn’t Robert Montgomery Knight? What if Knight finally set his bitterness toward IU aside and re-engaged with the school, would that be enough to exorcise the demons and restore order to Indiana basketball? While that latter will probably never happen, these are all interesting questions. Some will be answered once Archie Miller, arguably the coach with the best chance for success post-Knight, can get his program, his guys, and his philosophies in place. Time will tell.

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