I don’t think Tom Crean set out to become a facial contortionist, but it probably hasn’t helped his cause. It can be hard to take someone seriously when he is mugging like Jerry Lewis on national television, as the Indiana coach often does during basketball games, just as it can be hard to argue for the intellectual gravitas of a man when he is constantly being transmuted into an outlandish Internet meme.
None of this really the fault of Crean, whose Hoosiers, after a monumental win over Kentucky to make the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet Sixteen, will face top-seeded North Carolina on Friday night. He just happens to be a wildly intense dude who wears his emotions the way Max Patkin once did, and who also happened to take on a job where the historical expectations exceeded the modern reality. When Crean took the Indiana job in 2008, the program was in shambles, the victim of a series of recruiting violations committed by former coach Kelvin Sampson; the day after his first press conference, the school’s academic adviser told Crean that there were 19 “F” grades among the 14 players on his roster. Pile that on top of the demographic shifts that had (and often still have) people wondering whether Indiana can compete consistently at a national level in modern college basketball, and you had the makings of an arduous reclamation job.
The Hoosiers went 6-25 that first season, and they had two more losing seasons before Crean won 20 games two straight years and twice led the Hoosiers to the Sweet Sixteen. But even that was not enough; even then, there was a sense among the fanbase that Crean didn’t really know what he was doing, that he did not have control over the program the way Bob Knight once did. The Hoosiers finished 8th and 7th in the Big Ten in 2013-14 and 2014-15, respectively, and things began to fall apart once more. A car crash involving a pair of players who had been drinking, another pair of players suspended for failed drug tests: All of it reinforced the notion that Crean did not possess the gravitas to coach at Indiana, that he would never be taken seriously enough either on or off the court.
“It’s only a matter of time, now,” wrote Gregg Doyel, the Indianapolis Star‘s endlessly combative sports columnist, in November of 2014. “Tom Crean cannot coach the Indiana basketball team much longer. When would be too long? The Hoosiers’ first exhibition is Thursday night. That would be too long.”
But Indiana’s athletic director, Fred Glass, stuck with Crean, anyway. And after a disastrous 20-point loss to Duke in early December that knocked Indiana clear out of the Top 25, Crean began to turn things around. The Hoosiers began to figure out how to actually play defense, and they won 14 of their next 15 games, and they wound up winning the Big Ten regular season title. And in the process, Crean appears to have won over at least some of his harshest critics: Doyel has written extensively about how Crean has mellowed this year, and not pushed his players so hard, ceded some power to both his assistant coaches and to senior guard Yogi Ferrell.
“He’s not the same coach he used to be,” Doyel wrote in January. “Crean has stopped pushing so hard.”
He is still capable of making those wild contortionist faces, of course; he is still the most colorfully entertaining sideline presence in America, because you can’t expect Tom Crean to let go entirely. But perhaps this is a situation in which both sides of the equation – both the fans and the coach – required a certain amount of perspective: A recognition that Indiana can still have years like this, and still make runs like this, just maybe not every year. And an acceptance that this is OK, so long as Crean can continue to maintain the integrity of a program that had lost its way when he arrived.
That might mean that Hoosiers don’t beat North Carolina, which is arguably the most talented team in this entire tournament. But it means, at the very least, that Crean deserves to stick around, that he is not merely an overzealous dude with a clown’s rubbery face. He might also have known what he was doing all along.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games, now out in paperback. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb