Tom Crean’s intensity has received notice of late, but those who know him say it’s been evident since he was in high school. (Dale G. Young/Detroit News)
Shortly after a regional final victory over Charlevoix High in 1987, Benzie Central's Todd Kulawiak had 20-year-old Tom Crean right in his face. "As he's talking 100 miles an hour, I actually broke a sweat after the game talking to him because he was so intense," Kulawiak said. "He got so excited about the game that he forgot to introduce himself. Then he said, 'Hey, I'm Tom Crean. I'm an assistant coach at Alma College and liked what I saw.
"At that point, I knew Alma was going to be on one of my top schools to go to."
Crean's "professional misunderstanding" with Michigan assistant Jeff Meyer after Indiana's victory last weekend may have been brash, but to those who know him, it was another sign of the passion that allowed Crean to climb the college basketball coaching ranks so quickly and make a lasting impact on the players and coaches with whom he's worked.
That same intensity Crean, a Mount Pleasant native, let slip in Ann Arbor is what helped him develop an immediate friendship with Michigan State coach Tom Izzo while both were working the summer camp circuit in the late 1980s.
Then-Spartans coach Jud Heathcote preferred to hire graduate assistants who had played college basketball, but before the 1989-90 season, Izzo convinced him to take a chance on Crean.
"I told Jud this guy is a filmaholic, he's great, he's going to study film, he's going to help us recruit," said Izzo, who recalls Crean paying for recruiting trips around the state on his own dime while at Alma, a school 20 miles south of Mount Pleasant with an enrollment of about 1,400. "I just gained so much respect."
Now that Crean has completed the turnaround at Indiana, taking a program hampered by NCAA violations to its first outright Big Ten title since 1993, Izzo said he'd love to see his Spartans meet Crean's Hoosiers deep in the NCAA Tournament.
In a way, it'd be just like Crean's brothers-in-law John and Jim Harbaugh meeting in the Super Bowl.
"I like what John Harbaugh said: 'The only thing that would be worse than losing to Jim in the Super Bowl would be not having him here,'" Izzo said. "If we both get to the Final Four and one beats the other, what a great way to lose."
Former Mount Pleasant coach Denny Kuiper first met Crean when he was a counselor at Crean's junior high, and the two formed an instant bond because of Crean's love of basketball.
When Crean moved on to high school, he played for Kuiper's team, but spent most of the time on the bench.
"I think Tom would be the first to admit he loved basketball, but he just wasn't naturally gifted," Kuiper said. "It was a sign of maturity that he understood his limitations as a player, but he understood that he could stay involved in the game by doing other things."
Among those other things were traveling around Michigan to watch games and attending several summer basketball camps. Crean would work camps for free to take advantage of networking opportunities, said friend Chip Pisoni, whose time at Mount Pleasant High overlapped with Crean's.
When Crean took the job, he was 19 and attending Central Michigan.
"I don't know if he ever went to class," Kuiper said. "He did, but that's all he did. He took classes at Central Michigan, he helped me and then the last two years he helped at Alma, too."
Kuiper, a semi-retired sports counselor, coached high school basketball for more than two decades. He taught Crean to look at road blocks as mere speed bumps.
"I think the positivity he had and believing things could happen helped him a lot, and the players bought in," Kuiper said. "He taught me to dream a little bit bigger."
Eager to learn
When Crean was still in high school, he used to attend Central Michigan practices and caught the eye of assistant Dr. Ralph Pim.
"He was one of those young people that you would see and he was quiet, but then afterwards he would stay around and he would ask questions," Pim said. "You could see he had a tremendous passion for learning about the game of basketball."
Pim became coach at Alma in summer of 1986 and thought of Crean when he wanted to add a third assistant.
"I just couldn't get over how much energy he had, so much positive energy," Pim said. "Every time I would see him, he just was energized in a positive fashion as far as people, players."
And although Crean was the same age as the players, he gained their respect.
"It just didn't take long to realize that he's here to help us and he does have enough knowledge to help us," said Dale Vos, a former Alma center and coach at St. Clair Community College the past 22 years.
In January, Alma honored the teams that Crean and Pim coached, and although Crean couldn't attend the ceremony, he sent a heartfelt video message.
"Coach Pim that gave me an opportunity that I frankly wasn't probably ready for, but he gave me an opportunity and he gave confidence," Crean said in the video. "I'm a better man for it. I'm a better parent for it. Everything that we gained at Alma College has made us better. I wouldn't trade those three years of being in your lives for anything."
Led by All-American Steve Smith, the Spartans were Big Ten champions in Crean's first season as a graduate assistant, but lost in the Sweet 16.
Crean spent that year living in Haslett with Izzo and assistant Jimmy Boylan, now coach of the Milwaukee Bucks. The year living together only strengthened the bond between Izzo and Crean, even though his passion for coaching didn't extend to cleaning.
"He wasn't very good at taking care of his room," Izzo said. "I don't think he ever unpacked his box in his room. The clothes that he brought, he just kind of lived in. That's because he was always working."
Crean left East Lansing for an assistant job at Western Kentucky, and made a brief stop at Pittsburgh. When Izzo took over at Michigan State in 1995, Crean was the first person Izzo he called.
"I thought I was a pretty good recruiter, and I thought he was a great recruiter. His relentlessness staying on top of it was something I picked up from him even when he was young," Izzo said.
During Crean's final two seasons at Michigan State, the Spartans went to the Sweet 16 and Final Four. Crean left Michigan State after the 1998-99 season to take the top spot at Marquette.
While he was at Marquette, Crean's team reached the 2003 Final Four behind Dwyane Wade, and in the process, turned the Golden Eagles into a top-tier program in the Big East.
So it was no surprise when the Hoosiers came knocking in 2008.
"The story of Tom Crean is just the American dream," Pisoni said. "If you truly want something in life and you work hard enough ... and you truly believe you can accomplish that, you can do it."
And after five seasons, Crean's Hoosiers are one of the favorites to win the national title.
"I'll never be able to thank him enough for what he helped me build here and what he's done for me, my family and for the university," Izzo said. "I'm proud that he's part of my tree and how he's doing."