The Healer: Tom Crean has won over IU's aching fan base by embracing a storied program's past
What Crean gets, numerous former players said, is how important tradition is to a program that has recently suffered through two unpopular coaches, unmotivated players and an NCAA investigation. He gets the impact of having former players on a united front.
He gets Bob Knight, and all he built.
"I don't know if we've tried to do that so much the last six to eight years," Graham said. "I don't think that was even a thought. It was more about 'win, win, win,' and less about the former players.
"And I think more than anything else, he has tried to get the message out there that he's going to bring Indiana basketball back, and he's going to do it the right way. And I've got to tell you, that's a message we've all been waiting to hear."
IU's first-year coach has won over a fan base before winning his first game.
He has done more than that. He has gained the approval of at least one member of the first family.
"I think he was a great hire," former IU player and assistant coach Pat Knight recently told WNDE 1260-AM. "I wish him nothing but the best. He knows that. I've talked to him and I've told him if there's anyone that I can call for him -- like past players who may not be buying into what he's doing -- that I'll vouch for him. I just hope people are patient because he inherited a brutal situation. . . . But since he took it, you couldn't find a better guy. I think he's going to get it done and I hope he gets it done.
"I'll admit when we first got fired (in September 2000), I didn't root for Indiana at all. It took several years. But now that Tom's there, it's kind of nice to be able to root for my alma mater."
Crean has gained approval by touring the state, turning speaking engagements into revival meetings. After he accepted the job, he reached out to former players.
"I told them I wanted them to be part of the program, because this is their program," Crean said.
"There's nothing more important with Indiana basketball than the tradition, and all of the players that have come before that are part of the fabric of that tradition."
The Gospel according to Tom says players will attend class, graduate and represent the university the right way. His perfect graduation record at Marquette pounds that point home.
He doesn't promise instant success but rather pleads for patience.
Expectations are low this season. IU has nine freshmen and only eight scholarship players, only one of whom played last year. Several publications picked them to finish last in the Big Ten.
But hopes are high for the future.
Graham said Crean has delivered a team fans can be proud of and enjoy watching. He said the past two years weren't enjoyable. Talented players, but not a team. A lot of those players didn't care and didn't want to be in Bloomington, Graham said.
They didn't play Indiana basketball.
Joe Hillman was more succinct.
"He came in and he cleaned house," said Hillman, who played on the 1987 championship team. "He got rid of all those punks and bad guys, and just said, 'Hey, this is the way we're going to do it. We're going to take some lumps, but we're going to do it the right way.'
"You can say what you want about Bob Knight, but we didn't have many bad guys. Mike Davis didn't bring in many bad guys. But Kelvin Sampson brought in a whole rack of bad guys. Crean basically said we're going to get rid of these guys and I don't care if we go 0-28, but we're going to do it the right way and get it back to where it was."
Todd Meier, one of three seniors on the 1987 championship team, lives in Wisconsin and became a Crean fan when the coach was at Marquette. Shortly after Crean got the IU job, Meier sent him a congratulatory e-mail. A few days later, Crean called. He thanked Meier and invited him to get back involved.
"It's so nice to go back to Bloomington now and feel like they're glad to see you, and want you to be there," Meier said. "It's been very refreshing and very energizing. It's going to be a rough year at IU this year, but I think they'll win a lot more games than a lot of people seem to think."
Hillman, like many former players, never liked the Sampson hire. Sampson, he said, avoided IU's past.
"Coach Crean has embraced the past and wants to use every bit of our tradition to help turn the program back around," Hillman said.
So much so that Crean hosted a two-day IU basketball reunion in West Baden, Ind., in August. Bloomington businessman Bill Cook paid for the party. More than 180 former players, dating to the 1940s, and managers attended. More than 300 guests attended a dinner and golf outing the next day.
Archie Dees, a two-time IU All-American in 1957 and 1958, said Crean told former players he wanted them involved in the program, in whatever way they could. He wanted them at games and practices. An IU season ticket holder since 1962 and a Bloomington resident, Dees said Crean is the right man at the right time.
"I think he's the communicator of all communicators," Dees said. "I feel sorry for coach Crean that he has inherited the problems he has because none of this is his fault. But if anyone could get this turned back around, there's no doubt in my mind that it's Tom Crean."
IPFW coach Dane Fife, who played for Knight and Davis at IU, said wherever he goes, people are discussing IU basketball.
"There's a real buzz right now about Indiana basketball again, and about coach Crean," Fife said. "And the nice thing is, it's a positive buzz again."