Is Tom Crean On The Hot Seat At Indiana?

Andy Lyons

Two factions of Hoosier Nation have been in a war of words all offseason. Where do things now stand?

The most popular water cooler discussion this offseason has been how long Hoosier fans believe Tom Crean is going to last at Indiana. More specifically - if the Hoosiers miss the tournament this year, will he still be coaching in Bloomington come next season? This is certainly an interesting conversation and one which I have briefly discussed earlier this offseason when describing the importance of next year to the Hoosier program.

There are clearly two factions of the fan base here - one which believes Crean will lose his job if the NCAA Tournament is not reached this year , and one which believes Crean saved the program from permanent collapse and therefore deserves much more time. Both arguments have their merits and I will go into each below. One thing should be made clear though, and this is where I likely differ from most writers / fans out there - this decision will NOT be left up to Fred Glass.  In my view, not many coaching decisions at any school in any major sport are purely left up to the athletic director. It is the fans that will make the decision that forces the athletic department's hands. When there is a threat of decreased ticket and merchandise sales due to a downtrodden view of the program - that is what is going to make the decision. Money drives everything - and if you don't believe that, you are completely naïve. So Crean's future, in my opinion, depends on which one of these factions is in control at the end of the upcoming season. Right now, I believe it is as close to 50/50 as it has been during any point in his tenure.

This heated debate is already playing a role in recruiting. The Hoosiers have been viewed as a heavy favorite for the third Gordon brother - Eron Gordon (who many believe will end up as the best of the three brothers). However, he was recently quoted by The Courier-Journal in Louisville as saying: "The coaching situation might change. ... It all just depends on the coaching situation and who's coming back and who's leaving. It all just depends on that." If you are a Hoosier fan - this is the last thing you wanted to hear. The first of the Gordon brothers, Eric, originally committed to Illinois due to the uncertainly of the Hoosier coaching situation. He would eventually end up at IU after a coaching change was made, but it goes to show what could potentially happen here with Eron. And who else is having these same thoughts right now? You better believe opposing coaches are pointing these issues out to every recruit they know are considering Indiana. This is just pure speculation on my part, but this may be the reason you see so many players high on Indiana after they visit only to go cold after two or three weeks. The latest of these is Austin Conway who seemed ready to commit after his visit last month and many thought it would happen in the weeks following the visit. However, it hasn't happened and he seems a little colder on the Hoosiers now. Are opposing coaches getting in his ear about the coaching situation at Indiana?

So with that background, let's take a look at the opinions and merits of the two factions of Hoosier Nation.

Anti-Crean Faction

To be fair, this faction has, for the most part, only shown up on message board sites to date. If you log on to any of the million Hoosier message board sites, all you will see these days is "Fire Tom Crean" posts.  However, I believe this faction has driven quite a bit further into Hoosier Nation than the message boards. There were several instances down the stretch last year when the crowd was caught audibly booing Coach Crean. The most significant of these situations was around his substitution strategy against Michigan (which IU actually ended up winning).  Then there was the Penn State debacle where the Hoosiers lost a 12 point lead in the last four minutes. It was situations like these that remind me so much of the end of the Mike Davis era where the coach and players would get booed off of the court after losses.

So how did we get into this position in the first place where this faction of fans even has room to operate? I believe it all starts with the results so far in the Crean era:

Indiana Hoosiers Under Tom Crean:

Season

Overall

Conference

Standing

Postseason

2008-09

6-25

1-17

11th

None

2009-10

10-21

4-14

9th

None

2010-11

12-20

3-15

11th

None

2011-12

27-9

11-7

5th

NCAA Sweet 16

2012-13

29-7

14-4

1st

NCAA Sweet 16

2013-14

17-15

7-11

9th

None

It is hard to put any stock in the first three seasons and even fans in this faction would admit this. The fourth season was a huge success and this was by far the height of Tom Crean's popularity in Bloomington. This led to a contract extension until 2020 with a significant buy-out clause. Then came 2012-2013, and this is where I believe the underlying of this fan faction really grew its roots.

Yes, the Hoosiers won the B1G Championship outright and most programs would be thrilled with that and may have given their coaches extensions based on that. However, when you look at the talent on that team, it is inexplicable to this faction of fans how Indiana doesn't at least get to the Final Four. They had the #2 and #4 NBA Draft picks along with a host of other very talented players. The loss to Syracuse was the beginning of this faction in so many ways. How many times in 2013-2014 did you hear your fellow fans bellowing about Tom Crean's strategy against the zone defense? That was all driven from that Syracuse game where Indiana looked like they didn't even expect zone coming in. Now it is almost an inside joke among all Hoosiers fans - "I wonder if Crean has figured out the zone yet?"

All you will see these days are "Fire Tom Crean" posts. However, I believe this faction has driven quite a bit further into Hoosier Nation than the message boards.

There have always been questions about Crean's in-game coaching ability, even at Marquette, and the zone issue sure didn't help those concerns. In addition to his X's and O's, fans in this faction also are infatuated, in a bad way, with Crean's substitution strategy which was the main reason behind the extremely audible booing against Michigan. At times, he seems determined to play everyone on the team rather than continually going with this best players. These items were prevalent in the first few seasons under Crean, but a lot of those issues were brushed off at the time due to an evident lack of talent. However, I think the fans in this faction after seeing the same things occur with talented players have started to wonder if this is how it is going to be for good? And a lot of them aren't ok with that which is in essence of how this faction has formed.

The Hoosiers did nothing to help remove this mounting pressure on Coach Crean in the 2013-2014 season. Another ballyhooed recruiting class came in, led by Noah Vonleh, but the team was a huge disappointment at 17-15 and missed all postseason tournaments after finishing 9th in the B1G. Then the rumor mill started churning - Mike Woodson was coming to Indiana after the Hoosiers bought out Tom Crean. This type of rumor, while rightly brushed off by Fred Glass and company, is what leads me to believe this faction of fans is gaining strength and gaining it in a hurry.

Pro-Crean Faction

This part of the fan base looks at what Coach Crean entered with, which was absolutely nothing besides a couple of walk-on players, and now sees where the program is compared to that. Yes, the results of the past season were disappointing and the finish to the prior season was also extremely disappointing, but the Hoosier program may not even be in a position to be disappointed if Coach Crean had turned down the job. Would Indiana have recovered to even an average program this quickly with another coach at the helm? That probably depends on the coach, but this faction of the base believes no other big name would have possibly wanted to touch this job which was viewed as a cancer back in 2008 post Sampson. And I think that is a very legitimate point. I also don't believe any other marquee coach would have wanted anything to do with this job. The Hoosiers would have gone with a young and upcoming coach which may have worked out..... or may not have worked out.

Given what Crean had to sacrifice career-wise his first few seasons at Indiana, this part of the fan base would like to see him given a little more time. Many coaches have struggled in their first few years at a new program. Remember that Coach K was 38-47 in his first three years at Duke and there was serious consideration to fire him at the time. What if they would have done that? How different would college basketball be today? If you don't factor in the first three years of Crean's tenure (clearly unusual circumstances), he is 73-31 in his first three years with one conference title and two Sweet Sixteen appearances. How do you fire someone with that kind of resume? Yes, this is Indiana, - where only National Titles matter - but based on the combined results of the last three years, it is at least building in that direction, isn't it?

In addition, members of this faction will point to Crean's recruiting abilities. He has consistently pulled in top recruiting classes during his time at Indiana. Not every coach has that ability. Recruiting is the lifeblood of success in college basketball. You can talk all you want about coaching ability, etc. but you need talent to win consistently. The members of the Anti-Crean part of the base would point to Brad Stevens at Butler to counter this argument, and that may be true - but in the grand scheme, you don't see many Butler runs over the course of history. And Butler does have a couple guys playing in the NBA right now - so you could argue they also had plenty of talent.

One other interesting point this faction of fans always brings up - who exactly would come to Indiana right now if Crean was fired? The Anti-Crean group's only answer is Brad Stevens. In my opinion, Indiana would need to wait until 2016 or 2017 to have any hope of landing Stevens as he is not going to leave the Celtics after only 2 seasons. It just isn't going to happen. And that is exactly the point that the Pro-Crean group is making. If you fire someone who is 73-31 with a conference title and two Sweet Sixteen appearances after he brought the program back from shambles, what big name coach is going to want to touch this job?

The concern for this faction of the base is in the apparent building of strength from the Anti-Crean group. And how many fans currently on board with Crean will still be on board if the Hoosiers miss the tournament again in 2014-2015?

Financial Overview

I mentioned above that these decisions are always based on money. So let's take a look at the reported buyouts for Coach Crean should the fans push Fred Glass to that decision:

2014

14,000,000

2015

12,000,000

2016

7,500,000

2017

4,000,000

2018

1,000,000

2019

1,000,000

2020

1,000,000

Obviously, Crean is not going to get let go in 2014, so pay attention to the 2015 through 2020 numbers. Clearly, it would be a major financial commitment to let go of Crean after this upcoming season. The Hoosiers did just get a $40 million donation this past year, but would anyone really step forward with $12 million just to fire a coach? Based on the numbers above, it would seem more likely a move could be made in the 2016 or 2017 seasons if the Hoosiers continue to struggle over the next couple seasons. However, it wouldn't be the first time that Indiana has bit the bullet on a coaching buyout only to pay it off for several years following the firing. So if Glass has enough pressure applied to him by the fans - it is possible he would pull the trigger regardless.

So is Crean on the hot seat?

I think this depends on your interpretation of the hot seat. There is no doubt in either of these factions' minds that he is feeling the growing pressure. That is there and it is real. So yes - he is feeling the heat. But is he realistically going to be fired after this season if the Hoosiers miss the NCAA Tournament? Based solely on what we know at this point in time - probably not. However, I do think if the season goes really badly or has several more instances of X and O ineptitude, that could change. In my view, Crean is walking on very thin ice right now and he needs to avoid the major gaffes that could turn more of the "Pro Creans" to "Anti Creans" as I don't believe the scale needs to tip much further for Coach Crean to be in real trouble in Bloomington.

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