After bringing Indiana back from crippling NCAA sanctions, winning two Big Ten titles and earning conference coach of the year honors merely a year ago, Tom Crean is out as Indiana University men’s basketball coach.
It’s the end of a nine-year run for Crean, IU’s longest tenured coach since Bob Knight. Crean authored a return to prominence for IU’s legendary basketball program, but ultimately couldn’t shake the inconsistencies that defined his final years at the helm of the program.
Indiana athletic director Fred Glass decided late Wednesday night to fire Crean, then informed the 50-year-old of his termination on this morning. Although Crean reached great heights as IU’s coach, winning conference championships in 2013 and 2016, his teams also missed the NCAA Tournament twice in the last four years.
His final game as coach was Tuesday’s 75-63 loss to Georgia Tech in the opening round of the National Invitation Tournament. A national search to find Crean’s replacement will begin immediately.
“We had two specific conversations about the future and what I saw as my options going forward,” Glass said during a news conference this afternoon. “They were very, very positive. He was very relaxed and non-defensive, and I really appreciated those conversations a great deal. But last night, after I had a chance to really absorb and consider everything, the feeling was that a decision needed to be made. I felt like it would be bad for everybody to leave him twisting for a few more days.”
Because he was terminated without cause, Crean will receive a $4 million buy-out for being fired with three seasons remaining on his current contract. IU will not make that payment in a lump sum, but rather over those three years, and should Crean find comparable employment, whether as a coach, media personality, etc., that money will be offset dollar-for-dollar with his new salary. In the end, IU may owe very little — if anything at all — to its former coach.
Crean’s tenure at IU had reached a crossroads prior to his firing. With only three years left on his deal, he would have needed a contract extension to continue recruiting prospects, especially given the early relationships Crean liked to build with eighth-grade players and high school freshmen.
Even after Crean won Big Ten Coach of the Year honors in 2016 for leading the Hoosiers to the conference championship, Glass said no meaningful discussions took place with regards to an extension. So the athletic director determined he had three options: grant Crean an extension, let him continue coaching without long-term security or make a change.
Glass decided upon the latter.
“I concluded the extension wasn’t something I was prepared to do, because even though we have had success, I just think both between and within seasons, it’s been too inconsistent with our expectations,” Glass said. “It was very tempting to go with a second option of allowing him to go forward without the extension, and to his credit, he was willing to do that, which I would think would have been a very hard thing for him to do.
“But I will tell you, he loves Indiana. He loves living here and he loves his kids going to school here and I think he felt like he could win, and he was willing to bet on himself and I admired that. I appreciated that. In the final analysis, I wasn’t comfortable moving forward with that, because given that he would only have three years left, given that I would have very publicly not given him an extension, I think he would have been on the hot seat from Day 1.”
Crean compiled a 166-135 record at Indiana, beginning his tenure with merely one scholarship player for the 2008-09 season. He pulled the program out of the depths of sanctions left over from his predecessor, Kelvin Sampson, but struggled to keep Indiana consistently in the national conversation.
From the beginning of the 2011-12 season — when IU made its first of four NCAA Tournament appearances under Crean — through this past season, Crean’s teams went 63-45 in Big Ten play with an average league standing of fifth place.
Because they dispersed for spring break following Tuesday’s season-ending loss, players were informed of Crean’s firing through text messages, “which isn’t the way you want to do things, but it’s spring break,” Glass said.
Glass has scheduled a meeting with the players for Sunday night. Upon the return of the players, longtime athletic trainer Tim Garl, director of player development Derek Elston, academic advisor Mattie White and men’s basketball sport administrator Scott Dolson will oversee team activities until a new coach is hired.
Glass said he will request that players give the new coach an opportunity before they may decide to leave or transfer elsewhere.
“My request to them will be to be loyal to Tom, hurt and grieve,” Glass said. “Tom cared about these kids and I think they knew that, but I’m going to ask them to give the new person a chance and talk to them. Then, if they want to make other decisions, we’ll work with them. Hopefully, they at least give the new person an opportunity.”
Crean preached patience and brought energy to the Indiana basketball landscape upon his arrival in 2008. His first three teams combined to win only eight conference games until the program found a breakthrough in December 2011.
Christian Watford’s iconic buzzer-beater to knock off No. 1 Kentucky in Assembly Hall that season served as the turning point for the program under Crean, signaling to the rest of the college basketball world that Indiana was ready once again to compete for a place in the national hierarchy.
That season saw the Hoosiers advance to their first of three Sweet 16 appearances under Crean, before eventually falling to the Wildcats in a well-played effort in Atlanta. Led by a core that included All-Americans Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo, Jordan Hulls, Watford and incoming freshman Yogi Ferrell, the 2012-13 team spent 10 weeks ranked No. 1 nationally and beat Michigan in the final seconds of the regular season finale to claim its first outright conference title under Crean.
For as high as that team peaked, the memories of how that season ended dogged Crean until his final days of employment at IU. The Hoosiers earned a No. 1 NCAA Tournament seed for only the third time in program history, but couldn’t solve Syracuse’s 2-3 zone in a 61-50 loss in the Sweet 16.
Zeller and Oladipo were both lottery picks in the 2013 NBA Draft, while Hulls and Watford each graduated, leaving Ferrell and Will Sheehey as the on-court stewards of a 2013-14 team that never found its footing.
Even with freshman forward Noah Vonleh, who would leave for the NBA after the season, the 2014 team never seemed to gel. The Hoosiers finished 17-15, tied for eighth in the conference standings and failed to earn a bid from both the NCAA and National Invitation Tournaments.
The heat surrounding Crean began to intensify around this time, with the flames fanned by a rash of transfers and off-the-court incidents. Hanner Mosquera-Perea’s arrest on OWI charges in February 2014 was the first of six incidents in a span of 18 months.
After backing into the 2015 NCAA Tournament and dropping their first game against Wichita State, the Hoosiers struggled to gain traction at the start of the 2015-16 season. IU began the year 5-3, counting two bad losses in the Maui Invitational and a 20-point defeat at Duke in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge showcase game. The team rebounded in January, winning 15 of its 18 conference games to clinch the program’s second outright Big Ten championship in four years.
Injuries, absent defensive attention, poor leadership and, at times, a stuttering offense were among the factors that doomed IU’s 2016-17 season.
“While winning two outright Big Ten titles in five years and being named Big Ten Coach of the Year, Tom worked tirelessly to develop great young men and successful teams,” Glass said. “However, ultimately, we seek more consistent, high levels of success, and we will not shy away from our expectations. Tom is a good man and a good coach and we owe him a great debt of gratitude for his many positive contributions to Indiana basketball. We wish him well.”