Max Bielfeldt has a unique perspective on Tom Crean.
Bielfeldt’s first impression was of Crean as an opposing Big Ten coach.
But that didn’t much resemble the Crean he got to know after transferring from Michigan to play a final season at Indiana.
“While I was at Michigan, I saw a very energetic coach running up and down the sidelines, really intense, and I remember thinking, ‘Man, that guy would be tough to play for. Holy cow,’ ”Bielfeldt said Thursday, the day IU let Tom Crean go after nine seasons at the Hoosier helm. “But appearances were deceiving.
“Getting to know him as a player, from that perspective, I saw the stuff he did for the community. I saw how he interacted with fans, with kids. He is one of the most kind-hearted persons I’ve ever met. And I think that shows when you’re actually around him.”
Bielfeldt feels his view of Crean as a Michigan player, before earning Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year honors last season at IU for Crean, was somewhat analogous to that of a fan base.
“At first I had an outsider’s perspective, which I guess is somewhat similar to the fans’ perspective,” he said. “They’re interested, they follow it, but they don’t really knows what goes on from the inside.
“In the time I was here, I got to know a coach who trusted me and made me better.”
And that was tangible.
From his final Michigan season to his only IU campaign, Bielfeldt saw his scoring increase from 5.1 to 8.2 and his rebounding average went from 3.6 to 4.5. His field goal percentage go from .481 to .516 and his free throw percentage rise from .688 to .705.
Perhaps most markedly, Bielfeldt’s 3-point percentage ballooned from .267 to .453, from 11 makes from beyond the arc for his entire three-season Wolverine tenure to 29 makes in one year at IU.
Crean had said watching film on Bielfeldt convinced him the player had some unrealized potential.
“I’m feeling today for a guy who believed in me, trusted my maturity and basketball knowledge, and who made me better when I was here,” Bielfeldt said. “I really enjoyed having him as a coach. He’s an incredible teacher. He knows the game so well. He’s a smart guy.
“He’s the same guy he was last year, when the team bought in and had a lot of older guys in positions of leadership who, I thought, did a good job of leading.”
One of those older guys leading last season’s Big Ten champs was point guard Yogi Ferrell, who has now carved himself a nice niche as a rookie point guard with the Dallas Mavericks.
“I feel like he really developed me as a player,” Ferrell told Chris Mannix on the latter’s NBC Sports Radio show, “and developed so many guys as players and human beings.”
“He just instilled a work-ethic in me, and how to go about your daily business as a pro, and how to be an upstanding, genuine person and to give back to the community every single day. He had a big impact, big influence on my life.”
Ferrell was impacted by Thursday’s news out of Bloomington.
“Personally, I was a little shocked by it,” Ferrell said. “There is a lot of pressure. It goes without saying. The Hoosiers fans are great, day in and day out, supportive of us whether we’re winning or losing – but, man, when you’re not winning …
“They know the rich history of IU and the basketball culture that goes with it. At Indiana, they want a winning culture. That’s it. That’s what they want to see, bottom line.”
Ferrell said that culture persisted during his Hoosiers years.
“I feel like he rebuilt the program … I feel like he brought Indiana back,” Ferrell said of Crean. “I don’t think Indiana was being talked about much in the years before he got there but, when he got there, Indiana was back on the map – especially my four years there.
“I was part of two Big Ten championships. I made it to the NCAA tournament three times, with two Sweet Sixteens. I feel Coach Crean definitely brought winning back to Indiana.”
But a chunk of the fan base was also noting, among other things, that Indiana missed the NCAA tournament two of the past four years. And that a defensive identity never seemed to fully materialize and too often the Hoosiers failed to value the ball while trying to push the pace of play.
This is a fan base fond of fundamentals. And banners.
“It’s tough,” Bielfeldt said. “It’s really hard. At Indiana, you’re expected to win and to win championships. For his team this season to have the talent but not those intangibles, the necessary ingredients in one way or another, was frustrating.
“Indiana fans like that stuff, and rightly so. The fundamentals. Hard-nosed play. Not turning the ball over. Really good defense. Good fundamentals, generally. And that played into the angst, no doubt.”
Bielfeldt noted there were recent occasions at Assembly Hall when he heard Crean booed.
“There was a lot of pressure,” Bielfeldt, who did some color analysis as an announcer for BTN Plus this past season. “His methods did work and he did have success here, a lot of the time, but the fan base has expectations of more success more consistently.
“Had Coach Crean inherited a healthy program, I think everything would have been judged differently all along. But I think he did a great job. I’m very grateful. Grateful for what he did for me, personally, and very grateful for what he did for Indiana. He did a great job, and that’s after he had to address a really ugly situation when he arrived.”
That was the Kelvin Sampson mess. Rife with disciplinary issues, which had continuing ramifications, rendering the program uncompetitive for a couple of seasons.
But Bielfeldt saw what happened when Crean was confronted with a rash of off-court disciplinary situations a couple of years later. Even in situations when players were ultimately removed from the squad.
“His heart was with those guys,” Bielfeldt said. “It was very much like a father being there for a son even while being temporarily disappointed in a son. Tom Crean would take a bullet for about anybody who ever played for him.
“Unfortunately, this team didn’t have it this season, and sometimes it’s just hard to put your finger on it. The injuries obviously played factor, no doubt. I know nobody wants to make excuses, but we’ll never know if this team could have hit a stride.”
Ultimately, in Fred Glass’ judgement, the Hoosiers weren’t able to maintain a successful stride consistently enough.
But Max Bielfeldt isn’t the only Hoosier who will harbor fond memories of playing for Crean.
And not just because his one campaign in Bloomington produced an outright Big Ten title.
It’s a broader perspective than that.