Indiana fires coach Tom Crean after 9 seasons
Bloomington, Ind. — Tom Crean put Indiana basketball back in the national conversation.
As it turned out, it was too much talk and not enough results. Not for the Hoosiers.
Nine years after taking over a team mired in turmoil following an NCAA scandal, Crean was fired Thursday after missing the NCAA Tournament for the fifth time in his tenure. The 50-year-old coach had three years remaining on his contract, and the move comes a little more than three months before his buyout would have dropped from $4 million to $1 million.
But with so much angst among fans, athletic director Fred Glass couldn’t wait that long.
“Tom Crean brought us through one of the most challenging periods in IU basketball history, led his players to many successes in the classroom and on the court and represented our university with class and integrity,” Glass said. “While winning two outright Big Ten titles in five years and being named Big Ten coach of the year, Tom worked tirelessly to develop great young men and successful teams. However, ultimately, we seek more consistent, high levels of success, and we will not shy away from our expectations.”
Crean, a Central Michigan graduate and former Michigan State assistant coach, finished his career at Indiana with a record of 166-135, tenure plagued by inconsistency.
Despite winning the two conference titles and being ranked No. 1 for most of the 2012-13 season, his teams never advanced beyond the Sweet 16. And this season, one year after a surprising Big Ten title run, the Hoosiers again fell flat.
They entered the season with three legitimate pro prospects, were considered one of the Big Ten’s preseason favorites and rose as high as No. 3 in November when they upset Kansas and North Carolina. But when Nebraska ended the Hoosiers’ 26-game home-court winning streak in late December, the season unraveled quickly.
The Hoosiers (18-16) lost their best defender, OG Anunoby, to a season-ending knee injury and their top scorer, James Blackmon Jr., for three games with a leg injury.
Fans weren’t just upset with the mounting losses — a 30-point blowout at Michigan, a double-digit defeat at Northwestern, on a put-back at Minnesota in the closing seconds, a season sweep by rival Purdue and a loss in the NIT to Georgia Tech.
They viewed it as an extension of a long-running narrative that Crean could only take the Hoosiers so far.
“We were winning those games a year ago with an experienced group,” Crean said after February’s 75-74 loss at Minnesota. “We had a chance to be that team at the beginning of the year with everything if you stay injury free and we didn’t.”
There were other issues, too.
In a state rife with basketball talent, Crean struggled to get some of Indiana’s most talented players.
Crean won some in-state battles, getting 2009 Mr. Basketball Award winner Jordan Hulls and 2011 Mr. Basketball Cody Zeller, who formed the nucleus of Crean’s first conference championship team. He also got point guard Kevin “Yogi” Ferrell, a four-year starter who became the school’s career leader in assists.
But four of the last five Mr. Basketballs — Gary Harris (Michigan State), Zak Irvin (Michigan), Trey Lyles and Kyle Guy — attended college out of state. The lone exception, 2015 winner Caleb Swanigan, wound up at Purdue.
So Crean went outside the state’s borders to get lottery picks Victor Oladipo and Noah Vonleh and NBA hopefuls Thomas Bryant and Anunoby.
That didn’t play well in the state, nor did a series of embarrassing problems off the court.
The worst event occurred on Halloween 2014 when freshman forward Emmitt Holt hit sophomore teammate Devin Davis with a car, leaving Davis with a brain injury. The police report said alcohol was a factor.
Davis was booted off the team the following spring after he was cited for possession of marijuana. Holt was kicked off the team the following August after being arrested for illegal possession of alcohol.
Eventually, Indiana University President Michael McRobbie spoke up, too.
“I want to see the world-class accomplishments of our faculty and students celebrated, as well as the accomplishments of our student-athletes,” McRobbie said at a coaches meeting in August 2014. “What I do not want to see is any more stories of repeated student misbehavior. They embarrass the university, they embarrass all of you in athletics and they are a complete distraction from our primary role as an educational institution. This misbehavior simply has to stop.”
Crean’s tenure wasn’t all bad.
Four seasons after inheriting a team with only two returning scholarship players in April 2008, Christian Watford hit a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to upset then No. 1 Kentucky in December 2011 — one of the most iconic moments in Indiana basketball history. Four months later, the Hoosiers were beaten in the Sweet 16 by the same Wildcats.
The next season, Indiana opened the season at No. 1 and but again lost in the regional semifinals, to Syracuse.
One of his biggest supporters, Zeller, never wavered in his support for Crean. But Zeller also understood the stakes.
“I think that’s the beauty of Indiana fans,” Zeller said Wednesday night, following a game against the NBA’s Indiana Pacers. “I think they expect good basketball. You know what you sign up for if you’re a player or coaching going there.”
But just when it looked like the Hoosiers were going to be on top of the world, they missed the postseason in 2014, lost to Wichita State in the first round of the 2015 NCAA Tourney, were knocked out again by eventual national runner-up North Carolina in the 2016 tourney and this year missed the tourney again.
That was enough for Glass.
“Tom is a good man and a good coach and we owe him a great debt of gratitude for his many positive contributions to Indiana basketball,” Glass said. “We wish him well.”
Crean, a Central Michigan graduate, had two stints at Michigan State, serving as a graduate assistant in 1989-90, and then as an assistant coach from 1995-99. Crean also is the the brother-in-law of Michigan head football coach Jim Harbaugh.