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June 20, 2008
Crean staying upbeat despite obstacles at IU
» MORE: Skwara: Coaches who have thrived in tough spots
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – Tom Crean says he'll be right back.
Indiana's new basketball coach has hit the "IGNORE" button on his cell phone three times during the last 19 minutes, but as he springs from his leather chair and heads toward the office door, it's obvious that this call from recruit Emmanuel Negedu is one Crean needs to take.
"Uh-oh," Crean says as he answers the phone. "You don't have bad news for me, do you?"
The always-upbeat Crean has never been the type to expect the worst. But he's certainly learned how to handle it during his first two months at Indiana, where the Hoosiers program has been decimated in the wake of alleged recruiting improprieties by former coach Kelvin Sampson.
Player transfers and dismissals, recruiting restrictions and image hits. Crean has dealt with it all since leaving Marquette for Indiana. Somehow, he's managed to keep his smile.
On Tuesday, moments after Negedu informed him he'd be signing with Tennessee, Crean re-entered his office with the same burst of energy with which he left.
"Believe me," Crean says as he straightens pictures on his wall, "this isn't the worst thing that's happened to us in the last two months. We've dealt with more adverse things than this. We'll move on."
The question is, "How?"
Or rather, "How quickly?"
Indiana's 2008-09 roster features just two returning players from last year's squad – and they averaged a combined 0.8 points. The Hoosiers' six signees all have solid reputations, but you won't find their names at the top of any Top 100 lists.
Toss in the recruiting restrictions and NCAA sanctions that will be levied later this summer, and the future of Indiana basketball – or at least the immediate future – appears anything but rosy.
"The opportunity to play a lot of minutes here over the next few years is enormous," Crean says. "It's like you're at this jewelry store, and you've been looking at this diamond for a long time, but you were never able to afford it. Then, you walk in one day, and that sucker is 80 percent off.
"Grab the opportunity now, because it's not going to be like this for long."
Even though he's mired in one of the most difficult situations in recent college basketball memory, Crean continues to exude confidence. His attitude has been infectious in Bloomington, where Hoosiers fans appear willing to be patient with their new coach.
Former Indiana star Kent Benson turned in his season tickets during the Sampson fiasco last season. But he'll be back at Assembly Hall come November as one of Crean's biggest supporters.
"I'm as excited about the direction of the program as I've ever been," Benson says. "After all of these years and after the bundles of mistakes that Indiana has made, they finally got it right by hiring Tom Crean.
"He's the epitome of what every college basketball coach should be."
A WAY WITH WORDS
The policemen arrived well after dark, and they were searching for Tom Crean.
Crean wasn't in trouble, mind you. The authorities just wanted him to talk to a teenage boy who was living in one of his mother's foster care homes. The boy had become unruly, and Crean, the cops knew, had a way with words.
"The boy was really upset and flailing his arms everywhere," says Crean's mother, Marjorie. "He looked like he was ready to get pretty violent. But Tom just walked up and talked to him real calmly, and it was over.
"The officer came up to me and said, 'Wow, how did he learn to deal to people like that?'"
Crean was 14 at the time.
By then Crean had already become well-accustomed to interacting with folks from different walks of life.
Along with a baby-sitting service, Marjorie ran three foster care homes in Mount Pleasant, Mich. Some housed adults with special needs. Other times Crean was exposed to children who had been abused or abandoned.
"It was nothing for the cops to show up about 11 or 12 at night with someone new that needed a home," Crean says. "Sometimes we'd have nine or 10 people staying with us at once. Lots of grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup."
Decades later, it's clear the experiences Crean had as a child aided in the development of his No. 1 trait as a coach.
As good as he is on the court, Crean's personality and charisma off of it are what distinguish him from his peers.
He blossomed into a master recruiter as an assistant at Michigan State before landing the head job at Marquette, where Crean helped the Golden Eagles rise to national prominence by cultivating a family atmosphere that clearly paid dividends on the court.
Crean says 80 percent of the members on his 2003 Final Four team came from single-parent homes. Ask him to name his biggest highlight at Marquette, and he'll tell you about the player who re-established contact with his father after five years.
"I've always been attracted to players who have had to overcome odds and doubts," Crean says. "Dwyane Wade was like that. His old e-mail address was email@example.com.
"People with a chip on their shoulder always perform better. I like guys that do well at a time when so many others think they're going to fail."
Considering the situation at Indiana, Crean may as well have been describing himself.
FOR THE LONG HAUL
Earlier this week, Crean pulled up to his new home with a carload full of Indiana gear for the movers who'd carted his things from Milwaukee to Bloomington. His son, Riley, has already joined a baseball team, and there might be a pool on the way for daughters Megan and Ainsley, who are swimmers.
"That's still under discussion," chuckled Crean's wife, Joani.
The bottom line: Crean is here for the long haul, as evidenced by his eight-year contract.
"I think fans know they've got to be patient with him and give him time," Benson says. "This whole program has been absolutely destroyed over the past two years. The university even considering interviewing Sampson – let alone hiring him – has been an absolute disgrace to the whole basketball program and to the university. But what's important now is that they've made a correction in spite of the stupidity that was involved."
Indeed, anyone who follows college basketball can see that Indiana's situation isn't one that can be quickly fixed. But even Crean didn't realize how bad things were until he officially began his new job in Bloomington.
When Crean arrived in April he discovered the current players were failing a combined 19 classes.
"We worked and got that number down to 11," Crean says, "and nine of those 11 F's were unsalvageable."
Even worse was the overall lack of discipline that was rampant throughout the program. Players weren't showing up on time for meetings, and there were off-court issues that Crean declined to discuss because of student privacy laws.
"There was a tremendous amount of dysfunction here," Crean says. "There were young men in this program that had had too many excuses made for them over a period of time. They had a sense of entitlement. They believed they were more of a victim than what they really were.
"We need team-builders in this program – not team wreckers."
Crean was quick to take action. Junior Jamarcus Ellis and sophomore Armon Bassett had been suspended by interim coach Dan Dakich, and Crean did not allow them to return. Then he dismissed forwards DeAndre Thomas and Brandon McGee.
Crean had hoped to retain guard Jordan Crawford but, once school was out, Crean lost contact with Crawford for a month and was informed last week by Crawford's parents that he wouldn't be returning.
The low point came when police were summoned after center Eli Holman threw a potted plant across the lobby of the Hoosiers basketball offices. Holman had become agitated following a meeting with Crean during which he requested his release.
Holman eventually transferred to Detroit, which, curiously, is coached by former Indiana assistant Ray McCallum.
"There have been different forces working against this program," Crean says. "Hopefully that's just about over. Hopefully the voices that were out there are just about gone.
"It didn't work out here for some, so they tried to make sure it didn't work for anybody. You hate to get blindsided like that. You try to put up every antenna that you can to make sure it doesn't happen. We've been able to recover. We got hit in the head by a two-by-four. We got dazed, but now we're back on our feet and ready to push on through."
If only it were that easy.
Along with having a team with virtually no experience, Crean is somewhat handcuffed when it comes to recruiting. He's allowed only seven "evaluation days" this summer, and most of the recruits who want to check out Bloomington must do so on unofficial visits.
"The Indiana name is so strong," Crean says. "People know we can't bring them in on officials, but most of them have no problem coming up here on their own. And kids have been good about calling us back since we can't call them."
Crean is hoping the Midwest and East Coast recruiting ties he developed at Marquette and Michigan State will pay off at Indiana. Now more than ever, he says he's being cautious that a recruit's reputation off the court matches the one on it.
"We're doing our research and trying not to rush," Crean says. "The timeline is something we can't even think about. I'm in a situation right now where I've GOT to have another player or two for next year. At the same time, I've got to temper that with the thought of, 'It's got to be the right one.' There's no way we can bat a thousand in this. I never have and I don't know many who have."
Before they ever get better, things could get even worse.
Crean was on hand in Seattle last week when Indiana and Sampson presented their case to the NCAA. Crean knows that additional penalties could be forthcoming, but he says worrying about further sanctions would take up too much of his time.
"There aren't a lot of people in our profession who are making sympathy calls or sending get-well cards," Crean says. "People have a fascination with watching what Indiana is going through – especially our competitors. I'm fine with that. It fuels the fire for future success.
"There have been days here when my stomach ached and my head hurt. But you know what? I got up the next day and I was ready to roll."
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
Sometimes it's Tony LaRussa. Other days it may be Doc Rivers, John Calipari or Tom Izzo. Crean has plenty of mentors in the coaching profession – but perhaps none are as close as his own family members.
Crean's brothers-in-law are both head football coaches: John Harbaugh is with the Baltimore Ravens; Jim Harbaugh coaches at Stanford.
"I think he talks to my brothers more than I do," Joani says. "They're always bouncing ideas off of each other. How to conduct meetings, how to motivate players … that kind of stuff. It's a perfect situation for everyone."
No word on what kind of advice Crean's relatives have provided since he took over at Indiana. Then again, Crean seems to be doing just fine on his own.
Whether he's eating a steak at Janko's Little Zagreb or grabbing a late-night roast beef sandwich at Arby's, Crean is constantly bombarded by well-wishers who seem ready to look toward the future instead of dwelling on the past.
"Some of them are very blunt," Crean says. "They're angry about what's happened, and I can understand the disgust of the fans.
"The good thing is that there's a genuine thrill about Indiana basketball right now. In a way we're starting from scratch, but when it comes to tradition, we're starting right from the top. When you're counting the number of programs in the country that have our kind of tradition, you don't have to use your second hand.
"We haven't walked in here or out of here one day feeling like we're going to fail."
Jason King is a college football and basketball writer for Yahoo! Sports. Send Jason a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.