Rick Pitino knows what it’s like to take over a program hit with sanctions. John Calipari knows what it’s like to be fired.
Both coaches on Thursday empathized with Tom Crean, who was dismissed by Indiana after nine seasons in charge of the program.
“It’s the thing I don’t like about the business when you see someone who works as hard as Tom get fired,” said Pitino, now in his 16th season as coach at Louisville.
When he was hired to take over at Kentucky in 1989, Pitino inherited a program that was sacked with NCAA probation in the wake of recruiting violations committed by coach Eddie Sutton. It was a situation similar to the mess Crean walked into at Indiana in 2008, where violations committed by Kelvin Sampson caused the NCAA to slap IU with three years of probation.
Pitino’s first team at Kentucky went 14-14. Crean, meanwhile, was forced to keep his chin up while Indiana trudged through a 6-25 season during his first year in Bloomington.
“I thought when I took over University of Kentucky, it was as low as it could possibly get in every aspect until Tom Crean took over Indiana (and it) was even lower,” Pitino said. “We were on probation for two years, but Tom Crean took over a team that couldn’t win, period. He took it from the bottom to winning a couple of conference championships.”
For Crean, this is the first time he’s been fired in a coaching career that spans 30 years.
“Hard profession,” Kentucky’s Calipari said. “It’s just disappointing. I feel for him and his family. I’ve been fired. I know what it’s like. I know what it is to your family, your wife, your kids. They take it harder than you take it.
“Two Big Ten titles the last four years, had injuries this year, beat North Carolina, beat Kansas, have injuries, stuff happens. But you know what? In this profession, you’re hired and you’re fired. That’s the two things that happen. And you have to buy into that coming in.
“Whether I think it’s right or not, I’m just disappointed. I’m disappointed for him and his family. But let me say this, someone will hire him because he’s Tom Crean. He can coach. He works. Great integrity. There will be a job. If he wants to take another job, he’ll get it. If not, he’ll sit out and do what I did. I became the highest paid amateur golfer in the country for about six months.”
Michigan’s John Beilein, a coaching rival of Crean from within the Big Ten, also expressed disappointment that the former IU coach will no longer be matching up on an opposing sideline during conference seasons to come.
“It’s an unfortunate part of your business that so many of your friends, so many guys you coach against every day, that there’s a change in direction at the schools,” Beilein said. “So I don’t know a lot about it. All I know is Tom’s a heck of a coach. We had some — he’s won some championships there, right. But I think we all understand, given the way we are — the way we are compensated, it’s a part of the business and we better be ready to roll with it if it happens to us or to others.”
Crean had been rumored as a fit for the Missouri job until he denied his interest last week. That position was filled by California’s Cuonzo Martin on Wednesday.
Jobs across the country are now beginning to open, with Cal, Washington, LSU and Illinois among the programs looking for a new leader. Should he choose to take his time before jumping back into the business, Crean would also be a good fit for television. He was widely praised last summer for his in-depth analysis on The Vertical’s NBA Draft telecast.
“The good thing about it is everybody in our business knows that Tom is an outstanding teacher, coach, workaholic, and he’ll land on his feet,” Pitino said. “So it’s not always that way for other coaches. So Tom has done a great job at Indiana. They were probably both ready for a change, and Tom will land on his feet and be better than ever.”