On Monday, Ryan over at Inside the Hall encapsulated the Hoosier bashing that permeated the sports blogosphere that day. He cites FOMSF Josh Q. Public’s article about Indiana basketball, as well as the initial Deadspin take on the issue from Rick Chandler. As you can see in the comments section of the Josh Q. Public post, I took exception to points being made by both.
Anyone who knows me knows that I am like a papa bear protecting his cub when people pile on Indiana basketball. I realize that a certain amount of piling on is warranted right now given the way our administration has allowed the IU basketball program to sink to the depths it has fallen to this season. But when you start unnecessarily disparaging Bloomington, or making claims that IU basketball is finished as a national powerhouse, I feel the need to stand up and lend some perspective.
The greatest memories of my childhood involve going to IU games at Assembly Hall with my dad, and then heading right out to the driveway afterwards to pretend that I was Calbert Cheaney or Damon Bailey or Brian Evans. You mess with IU basketball and you’re messing with me. As Colin Cowherd likes to say, “fan is short for fanatic.” Well, that is definitely true in this case.
Rick Chandler, mentioned above, posted about Indiana basketball again yesterday. It took the form of a response to the criticism that he received in many corners of the sports blogosphere. And while I did enjoy the post for reasons I will get to in a second, I wholeheartedly disagree with the following assertion that Rick made in his original post and reiterated yesterday:
Oh, Bloomington will still be a great basketball town, but what I mean by basketball backwater is that the Hoosiers will always take a back seat to Duke and North Carolina and UCLA and even Wake Forest and UConn. They’re no longer special. Email me the next time Indiana reaches the Elite Eight. I’ll be waiting.
He frames this point with a terrifically entertaining anecdote of himself as a young reporter getting a surprising 20-minute interview with Bob Knight. He also describes what must have been a surreal scene in Bedford watching Damon Bailey play in high school. While I obviously do not endorse his pessimistic view of the future of IU basketball, I highly recommend reading the post for an entertaining journey back to, admittedly, the old glory days of IU basketball and Coach Knight.
After reading the article, I decided that if Coach Knight had seen enough of the young Rick Chandler to grant him an interview that surprised everyone Rick told the story to later, I could at least offer up the respect of considering his arguments. Maybe he is onto something, and Indiana basketball as I once knew it is like a dinosaur: legendary and powerful in its day, and still worthy of remembering and appreciating with both fondness and awe; but extinct and no longer relevant for contemporary purposes.
I fully realize that I am supremely biased when it comes to IU basketball. I feel like I can rationally analyze the team’s performance and not make predictions or statements that are too outlandish and blinded by fanaticism, but I know that what I consider to be objectivity can sometimes be imbued with the conflict between head and heart that all die-hard fans experience.
So after reading Rick’s article yesterday I decided that for once I would make my best effort to analyze the current state of IU basketball solely with my head, while fully knowing that it would be impossible to totally remove my heart from the proceedings.
Let’s get a few things out of the way that are and have been well established:
- Indiana basketball still has amazing fan support. I moved from Indianapolis to Dallas last April, so I have to watch IU from afar this year, but the crowds at Assembly Hall have been outstanding this season. I knew that IU fans would rally around this year’s team if they played hard and showed heart. They have.
- Tom Crean is the right man to get IU basketball headed in the right direction. When a program has sunk to the depressing depths that IU currently wallows in, you need a coach who is pathologically optimistic and positive, almost bordering on irrationality. Tom Crean’s boundless energy and enthusiasm, and his belief in IU basketball, are exactly what we needed in the aftermatch of the coach who will not be named.
- You can still recruit to Indiana. Considering his late start, I think Tom Crean did an amazing job of bringing in the freshman class that he did this year. Nick Williams was the Player of the Year in Alabama last year, and came with Crean to IU after committing to Marquette. Sure, he mainly followed the man that recruited him, but the idea of playing for a program as historically prestigious as Indiana had to have a little something to do with it. Even Verdell Jones, while not a superstar by any means, was a top-150 recruit who decided to come to Bloomington late in the recruiting season. And we know about Indiana’s outstanding recruiting class coming next year, led by Christian Watford and Maurice Creek. Any rating service you find has it rated in the top-10. And this is a brand new coach recruiting to a school mired in recruiting violations, probation, and very little tournament success since 2002. The Indiana brand must not be completely dead yet.
All of this being said, I am not foolish enough to think that Indiana is still currently on the same level as UCLA, North Carolina, or even Duke, which itself has played below its previously established standards in recent seasons. Even in the Big Ten, Michigan State is now the alpha dog. While teams like Purdue, Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Illinois have joined Indiana in a rotating wheel of top-level Big Ten competitiveness this decade, Michigan State is always at or near the top.
But we all know that Indiana basketball once was among the elite of the elite. Between 1975 and 1987, Indiana won three national championships, made eight Sweet 16s, had two undefeated regular seasons, and won six Big Ten titles. Expand that to 1993, the last truly great Indiana team, and there were twelve Sweet 16 appearances, seven Elite 8 appearances, and nine Big Ten titles.
Since 1993? The Hoosiers had a magical run to the National Championship game in 2002, and “only” missed the NCAA tournament twice, but only got to the Sweet 16 one other time (1994) and tied for a Big Ten championship in 2002. That’s it. Considering the greatness that IU fans had become accustomed to, the last 15 and now going on 16 years have been pretty down.
So what basis, if any, is there for IU fans to say that Rick Chandler or any number of other non-believers is wrong to say that Indiana basketball as we once knew it is essentially dead? Is there another college basketball program out there that fell on comparably hard times but was rejuvenated?
Let’s consider UCLA as an example. We know about their greatness under John Wooden, but the last season of Steve Lavin’s tenure and the first season of Ben Howland’s tenure produced a record of 29-36. Over the last three seasons, UCLA has been rejuvenated and reached the Final Four every time. But between 1993 and 2002, the Bruins won a National Title, and played in six Sweet 16s. So while they had a momentary blip of failure, there was not such a systematic and consistent decline as we have experienced in Bloomington. Plus, I don’t think even Rick Chandler would consider UCLA’s campus to be “backwater”, thus rendering UCLA moot for purposes of this comparison.
Kentucky is a proud basketball powerhouse that has fallen on more modest times recently, finishing the last three seasons unranked. But before that Kentucky finished #1, #2, and #7 from 2003-2005. There is not really a comparison to be made here, as Kentucky is currently mediocre but certainly not at the depths of Indiana.
Admittedly, I have not dug as far as I could, but I do not have a perfect college basketball comparison to make that suggests Indiana can reclaim its pre-1994 stature among the elite. Perhaps this absence of a direct comparitive college basketball argument to Rick Chandler’s article can be seen as implicit acknowledgment of the validity of his point; but I ask you to hold on for just a minute. While there is a not an obviously perfect basketball comparison to make (at least that I can find), there could be a pretty solid comparison to make from the world of college football.
The program I will reference and explore is Oklahoma. Let’s do some quick analysis:
- Oklahoma has 7
- Indiana has 5
- Both schools are among the top 5 in history in their respective collegiate sports’ record books.
- Oklahoma has 42
- Indiana has 20
- Oklahoma is first in Big 12 history, Indiana is second only to Purdue’s 21 in Big Ten history.
- Oklahoma has 791 all-time wins, good for #8 in college football history. The Sooners have won approximately 72.8% of their games.
- Entering this season, Indiana had 1,635 all-time wins, good for 10th all-time heading into this season. (They are 11th now, with Notre Dame vaulting over the Hoosiers). Indiana has won 64.8% of its games.
- Bud Wilkinson followed up a very good coach in Bennie Owen and established Oklahoma as a true national power with 145 wins and 3 National Titles between 1947 and 1963. Barry Switzer continued the tradition with 157 wins and 3 more National Titles between 1973 and 1988.
- Branch McCracken followed up a very good coach in Everett Dean and established Indiana as a true national power 364 victories and 2 National Titles between 1938 and 1965. Bob Knight continued the tradition with 661 wins and and 3 National Titles between 1971 and 2000.
Just looking at these raw numbers, there is certainly a comparison to be made. Yes, Oklahoma has the advantage in each category, other than the striking similarities in coaching history, and if you were comparing Oklahoma football to Indiana basketball, the edge would be to Oklahoma; but that is not the goal here. The goal is to establish the comparison of a national powerhouse, located in a so-called “backwater” college town, that has experienced great success, then fell on hard times, but the resurrected itself back to national prominence.
Consider the performance of Oklahoma in the aftermath of the controversial final few years of Barry Switzer’s tenure. Gary Gibbs took over and won 65% of his games, going to 3 bowl games over half a decade. Howard Schnellenberger coached one disastrous season in which he went 5-5-1. Then John Blake coached the team for two years, going 12-22 and Oklahoma fell off the national radar. Then the Sooners hired Bob Stoops away from Florida, everyone hailed him as the perfect fit for Oklahoma, and the program did a complete 180. Stoops has won 82% of his games, brought another National Title to Norman, and has Oklahoma among the nation’s elite again.
Now consider the performance of Indiana in the aftermath of the controversial final few years of Bob Knight’s tenure. Mike Davis took over and won 59% of his games, reaching four NCAA tournaments and had the one magical run to the title game during his half decade. Then the lying snake who shall not be named coached the team to a 43-15 record over two seasons, but was fired in the middle of last season, after which Dan Dakich coached the team to a disastrous 3-4 finish. Now Tom Crean has taken over, and everyone has hailed him as the perfect fit for Indiana. The team is still struggling with the disaster left behind by the coach who shall not be named however, so the 180 has not been as immediate for Crean and IU as it was for OU under Bob Stoops.
The way I see it, the years after the departure of Bob Knight in Bloomington are following a very similar path to the years after the departure of Barry Switzer in Norman. Right now, Indiana is in the midst of its “John Blake years”, so to speak; with the obvious difference being that Blake was not the long-term answer, but Tom Crean is. Crean has taken over a once elite program that returned all of 30 points last season. This year’s Hoosiers are one of the youngest and least experienced teams in college basketball history. The Hoosiers’ performance this year certainly is not an indictment of Tom Crean, and he should not really be judged by wins and losses until probably two seasons from now, next year at the absolute earliest.
So why can’t Indiana experience the same phenomenal resurrection that Oklahoma has experienced? The fan support of the two school is similar, the strength of the historical brand is similar, and both schools’ administrations are committed to fielding elite-level basketball and football programs, respectively. Plus, Oklahoma’s turnaround was marked by the arrival of a high-energy, high-enthusiasm coach known to be a good recruiter. Tom Crean has arrived in Bloomington with obvious energy and enthusiasm, and is also known as a good recruiter. Plus, unlike Stoops when he came to OU, Crean has head coaching experience and has been to a Final Four. You don’t think the status that comes with being Dwyane Wade’s college coach and having a Final Four on your resume won’t help him on the recruiting trail? Look at next year’s class; it already has.
Plus, if Bloomington is “backwater” then what, exactly, is Norman? As referenced by Ryan over at Inside the Hall, Forbes recently rated Bloomington as one of the top-10 college towns in America. (As an alum, I wholeheartedly concur.) And while no one is claiming that the Forbes list is the be-all end-all, I don’t see Norman on there. Yet Bob Stoops consistently signs top-10 recruiting classes. Additionally, Tom Crean has the opportunity to recruit to a “better” academic institution than Bob Stoops, at least according to the prestigious U.S. News and World Report rankings. Indiana was rated #71 out of all U.S. universities while Oklahoma came in at #108.
Again, let me reiterate: my purpose here is not to try to say that Indiana basketball is better than Oklahoma football, and I’m not trying to tell you that Bloomington and Indiana University are necessarily better than Norman and Oklahoma University. The entire purpose of this breakdown of the two programs and the schools is to show you the similarities, and is my best effort to provide solid evidence that Rick Chandler is wrong to believe that my beloved Indiana Hoosiers basketball program can no longer reach elite levels.
If Oklahoma could do it, why can’t IU?
I do not dismiss offhand the possibility that there could be compelling counter-arguments to what I have presented today. But, what I can say is that the process of writing this post has made me even more excited about the Tom Crean era of IU basketball and even more fervent in my belief that the Hoosiers can once again become a consistent national contender. At the very least, the story of Oklahoma football has given me a legitimate and very comparative example to grasp onto as I search for reasons to believe as much in the block IU, the candy-stripe warmups, the banners, and the cream & crimson as I did back in 1993.
Who knows, maybe cream & crimson just happen to be the official colors of college sports powerhouse resurrection? Bob Stoops did it in Norman and I see no reason why Tom Crean cannot do it in Bloomington.
You can assess for yourself whether I am making that judgment more with my heart or with my head. I feel pretty good that it’s a healthy combination of both.
What do you think?