BLOOMINGTON, Indiana – Tom Crean put Indiana basketball back in the national conversation.
As it turned out, there was too much talk and not enough wins. 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 the general public, athletic director Fred Glass couldn’t afford to give Crean another chance.
“The expectations for IU basketball are to perennially contend and win multiple Big Ten championships, regularly go deep into the NCAA Tournament and win our next national championship and more after that,” Glass said. “We will look to identify and recruit a coach who can help us meet these expectations.”
Glass will immediately begin looking for a successor and will not form a search committee.
Kentucky’s John Calipari called the firing “disappointing.” Louisville’s Rick Pitino called Crean an “outstanding teacher, coach, workaholic” who would land on his feet. Crean did not immediately respond to a text message left by a news agency.
The biggest problem: Inconsistency.
Despite going 166-135, winning the two conference titles and last year’s Big Ten coach of the year award, his teams never advanced beyond the Sweet 16. And after last season’s surprising Big Ten title run, the Hoosiers again fell flat.
They began the season as one of the Big Ten favorites and were ranked as high as No. 3 in November after upsets of Kansas and North Carolina. But when Nebraska ended the Hoosiers’ 26-game home-court winning streak in December, the season unraveled.
Indiana lost its best defender, OG Anunoby, with a season-ending knee injury and their top scorer, James Blackmon Jr., for three games with a leg injury. They ended up a pedestrian 18-16.
Fans weren’t just upset with the mounting losses; they viewed it as an extension of a long-running narrative that Crean could only take the Hoosiers so far.
Glass praised Crean for digging the Hoosiers out from an NCAA recruiting scandal that left the team with only two returning scholarship players in 2008-09. Four seasons later, Christian Watford’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer upset then No. 1 Kentucky and put Indiana back on the national map. They wound up getting knocked out of the regional semifinals by Kentucky.
Indiana opened 2012-13 at No. 1 and but lost for the second straight year in the regional semifinals, this time to Syracuse. After that, angry fans never really seemed to forgive Crean for the early elimination.
One of his biggest supporters, Cody Zeller, always backed Crean — even though he knew the stakes were high.
“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 coach going there.”
Winning wasn’t the only problem.
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 Zeller, the 2011 Mr. Basketball winner, 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 assists leader.
But four of the last five Mr. Basketballs — Gary Harris, Zak Irvin, Trey Lyles and Kyle Guy — attended college out of state. The lone exception was 2015 winner Caleb Swanigan who plays for Purdue.
So Crean started mining talent from other states. That didn’t play well in Indiana, nor did a series of embarrassing off-the-court problems.
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 but said Davis jumped in front of the car.
Davis was booted off the team the next spring after being cited for marijuana possession. Holt was kicked off the team the following August after being arrested for illegal possession of alcohol.
Eventually, Indiana President Michael McRobbie chimed in.
“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.”
Had Crean piled up more wins, he could have survived.
But after missing the postseason in 2014, losing to Wichita State in the first round of the 2015 NCAA Tourney, getting knocked out again by eventual national runner-up North Carolina in last year’s NCAA Tourney and missing this year’s 68-team field, Glass figured time to find a coach who could win more.
“Ultimately, we seek more consistent, high levels of success, and we will not shy away from our expectations,” Glass said.