DES MOINES, Iowa — Among the myriad compelling storylines unfolding here this week will be that of Tom Crean and the paradox he finds himself in: One of the finer basketball coaches in the country, having over the past decade done one of the finer jobs, could very well wake up Sunday to find his seat very, very hot.
The reasons for this are varied but connected. There is the Catch-22 that comes with coaching at Indiana or any of the nation’s other blue-blood college programs. The fact he is, if we’re being honest, not wildly well-liked within and without his fan base. And the brutal draw the Hoosiers pulled and that will unfold in the coming days.
“There has been no time to really think much about — they’re all aware of who is in the bracket,” Crean said Wednesday. “Our coaches will work ahead. I haven’t and we certainly haven’t done any preparation for another game inside of the preparation that we have done to this.”
Crean himself is a bit of a contradiction, a paradox. He’s a hard-ass with a strong intellectual streak; a guy who took Marquette to a Final Four but in eight seasons hasn’t yet been able to get Indiana past the Sweet 16; a guy adept enough at politics that one criticism thrown his way is that he’s too political, while still being someone who often begs the question: Why is he so unpopular?
What’s not a mystery is the plight and the pull of programs like that of Indiana. There are few other places in college basketball — Kansas, Kentucky, UCLA, North Carolina, Duke — where the only thing stronger than the irresistible siren song of the job are the crushing expectations and unreasonable fan bases ready to drown you at the first hint of weakness.
All of which is why Crean might be the most unpopular coach in college basketball relative to one of its most impressive accomplishments, and why a coach worthy of celebration could find himself on the pyre of fans’ thoughts within the week.
It’s easy to forget just how daunting the dilemma Indiana found itself in when Crean arrived in 2008, just how deep the depths of the problems he had to fix when he left Marquette to take over for Kelvin Sampson.
That first year? They won six games. Ten the next. Twelve the year after that. From day one, players fled, a rot to the core of the program waited, and one of the great turnarounds we’ve seen began.
All of this will surely be forgotten if Indiana loses this week. Which they very well might. Chattanooga is no pushover for a No. 12 seed. And if even Crean’s Hoosiers win Thursday in Iowa, they’ll move on to Saturday against a Kentucky team that has the talent, and perhaps momentum, to find themselves playing in Houston in April.
Crean’s job has never been safe. It never is, not at one of those elite programs. Just ask Steve Alford. He has made two Sweet 16s at UCLA and has a top-five recruiting class coming in next year, but the banner flying over Westwood this week demanding he be fired was far from the reaction of a minority voice.
And Crean, along with the institutional expectations, has a personality and history that doesn’t create a lot of cushion for bad days or tough draws. The prestigious and excellent local columnist in Indiana, Gregg Doyel, called for Crean’s job last year when controversy and off-court issues inundated the team. Fans were ready to fire him earlier this season en masse after his team was smoked by Duke. He can be abrasive, arrogant, off-putting — more a football coach in demeanor and approach than a basketball coach. That’s an issue in a sport that functions better for coaches who soak in the spotlight and lubricate troubles with a warm charm toward would-be adversaries and critics.
Crean is a great coach. He is a Coach of the Year candidate. And, with a team that spreads the floor, is capable of shooting the lights out, at times can generate a fierce and unstoppable offense and lately has emerged with at least a capable defense, these Hoosiers can meet the high expectations he faces.
But he’s also the coach at Indiana, coaching Thursday for a shot at a dangerous and trending Kentucky team, and still the man with the baggage that comes with both his personality and the job that now defines him.
The future could be so bright. Or it could be the wreckage of a bracket full of equally challenging and demanding programs.
Either way, the week that might define Tom Crean at Indiana — fair or otherwise — is about to begin.