Silence at Last: Tom Crean Quiets Critics with Indiana's Toppling of Kentucky

Jason King@@JasonKingBRSenior Writer, B/R MagMarch 20, 2016

DES MOINES, IA - MARCH 19:  Head coach Tom Crean of the Indiana Hoosiers reacts in the second half against the Kentucky Wildcats during the second round of the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Wells Fargo Arena on March 19, 2016 in Des Moines, Iowa.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

DES MOINES, Iowa — A few hours before the most pivotal win of his Indiana career—a 73-67 nail-biter against Kentucky that catapulted the Hoosiers into the Sweet 16—Tom Crean's wife, Joani, paced throughout a suite at the West Des Moines Marriott.

Normally composed on game day, Joani was jumpy and fidgety. As her husband slipped into his sport coat and opened the door to walk to the team bus, she hardly spoke.

"I was obviously nervous," Joani said later that evening. "But Tom had this incredible sense of peace about him, a sense of calm. He looked at me and said, 'Relax. I've gotta feeling today is going to be good.

"We're going to be OK.'"

Joani laughed.

"Usually," she said, "I use that line on him."

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It's disheartening that Tom Crean, who orchestrated one of the greatest rebuilding jobs in college basketball history, would ever need such a pep talk. It's sad that it took the fifth-seeded Hoosiers' mild upset of No. 4 seed Kentucky to pacify a delusional Indiana fan base that for years has spewed venom at the very man who tugged their beloved program out of the quicksand.

Yet that's what Crean has been subjected to in Bloomington, where he once listened as fans chanted "Tom Crean Sucks!" at his son's high school basketball game; and where college students erupted in cheers when an Indiana professor opened an April 1 lecture by saying, "Tom Crean got fired this morning. April Fools!"

Crean's daughter Megan, an Indiana student enrolled in the class, wasn't amused.

He wouldn't admit it, but perhaps that's why Crean appeared so energized after Saturday's victory, when he cracked jokes and took selfies with friends before scrolling through nearly 200 text messages. As excited as he was to advance to the Sweet 16, the accomplishment was even more special because of the adversity he conquered to achieve it.

DES MOINES, IA - MARCH 19:  The Indiana Hoosiers celebrate defeating Kentucky Wildcats 73 to 67 during the second round of the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Wells Fargo Arena on March 19, 2016 in Des Moines, Iowa.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Get
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Multiple times Saturday, Crean praised his players for being "resilient."

It's obviously a trait they learned from their embattled head coach.

"He has a sign in his office that says, 'Just Coach Your Team,' and that's what he did," Indiana athletic director Fred Glass said of Crean after the game. "He has a great ability to stay focused. The worse it got out there, the calmer it got in here."

By "here," Glass was referring to Indiana's locker room—and it was hardly a docile place after Saturday's win over Kentucky.

While players celebrated and conducted interviews near their stalls, Crean posed for pictures with Glass and members of Indiana's administrative staff. He embraced family members, longtime friends and even reporters. Moments later, in a nearby hallway, he exchanged a bro-hug with John Calipari, the man whose team he'd just defeated.

"Shoot that well in your next game and you'll be fine," Calipari said. "I'm happy for you."

Usually stoic and businesslike during postgame press conferences, Crean rattled off one-liners and laughed with Hoosiers players on the interview podium. A few minutes later, he used his cellphone camera to take a picture of his son, Riley, and former Kentucky star Karl-Anthony Towns on the way back to the locker room, where he granted even more time to an additional throng of journalists.

"Don't worry," Crean said as reporters peppered him with questions. "I'll get to every one of you."

As much as Crean tried to downplay the narrative that Saturday's victory would silence his remaining detractors once and for all, this was clearly a man engulfed by a feeling of relief.

After all, no coach in this year's NCAA tournament faced a more difficult predicament than the polarizing Crean. Uplifting as it was to win, the angst and fallout that would've accompanied a loss—especially to a rival such as Kentucky—would've been even more intense for Crean and his family.

Joani Crean
Joani CreanDoug McSchooler/Associated Press

"We live in a very social-media-driven society," Joani said. "For my kids to be able to go to school Monday and say we beat Kentucky and we're going to the Sweet 16…that's pretty cool."

Considering he's won two outright Big Ten titles and advanced to three Sweet 16s at Indiana—not to mention a Final Four at Marquette—it seems ludicrous that anyone ever questioned Crean's coaching acumen.

Yet, for the last three years, fans have hounded Glass to get rid of the man who, in 2008, took over a program that had been decimated by recruiting violations that occurred under Kelvin Sampson. Crean's first team featured just two returning players—walk-ons who'd averaged a combined 1.6 points the previous year.

After going 8-46 in the Big Ten in his first three seasons, Crean brought Indiana back to prominence by leading the Hoosiers to the Sweet 16 in 2012. But the vultures began to circle the next season when the Hoosiers lost in the Sweet 16 as a No. 1 seed. And they multiplied when IU failed to make the NCAA tournament the following year.

Around that time, Crean stopped engaging in social media. He hasn't tweeted since 2014 and rarely spends time on Twitter.   

"He doesn't read [the criticism]," Joani said. "He doesn't listen to anything. I will share some things with him if it's comical or interesting. But literally, he doesn't read. I think that's a good lesson for a lot of people, including his wife."

Despite being picked to finish 10th in the Big Ten last season, Crean guided Indiana back to the NCAA tournament. Still, Twitter accounts such as @FireCreanNow were in operation, and suddenly Crean's name was on the top of nearly every "Coaches on the Hot Seat" list entering the 2015-16 season.

"That stuff doesn't bother me as much as people think," Crean said after Saturday's win. "It hasn't for a while. It used to during a period of my life, but it really doesn't anymore. It's only going to make it worse if you internalize it. So there's no sense in doing that. It's not going to make you better.

"I don't get caught up in a lot of things that aren't going make us better."

Still, after Indiana lost to Wake Forest and UNLV in the Maui Invitational, speculation was that Crean may not last the rest of the season. The talk only got worse after a 94-74 loss at Duke on Dec. 2.

Unhappy as some boosters and fans may have been, Glass continued to back Crean and said he never considered making a change.

"Tom knows he's good with me," Glass said. "We talk all the time. That was never an issue. We're getting back to where we want Indiana to be."

The administrative support and patience is paying off, as Crean is in the midst of what may be the most impressive coaching effort of his career.

Despite a season-ending injury to standout guard James Blackmon—not to mention the frustration and bickering that could've infected the locker room after the early setbacks—Crean transformed his team.

"Long story short, they've responded all year to getting better," Crean said. "They've responded to success. They've responded to adversity. The more they're doubted, the better they are. There was no other choice for this team in November and December but to bond together based on the criticism that was out there on us."

Perhaps more than anything early in the season, Indiana's players were shredded by analysts for their lazy, lackluster defense. Few teams were easier to score on than the Hoosiers. By January, though, the narrative changed.

In what may have been the masterpiece of Crean's head coaching career, Indiana held Kentucky—the nation's most efficient offensive team—to just 42.1 percent shooting Saturday. Pestered by the Hoosiers' length on the perimeter, Wildcats guard Jamal Murray, a projected NBA draft lottery pick, missed 11 of his 18 field goal attempts.

DES MOINES, IA - MARCH 19:  Jamal Murray #23 of the Kentucky Wildcats shoots against Collin Hartman #30 of the Indiana Hoosiers in the second half during the second round of the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Wells Fargo Arena on March 19, 2016
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

"Coach Crean has stayed on us throughout this entire year," point guard Yogi Ferrell said. "He saw our potential, and when we had a rough start he stuck with us and he kept getting on us every single day just because he saw the greatness in us."

Forget about Crean's job being in jeopardy. If anything, he's deserving of an extension.

After fulfilling his media responsibilities Saturday, Crean retreated to an empty locker room and ate a granola bar as he gathered his belongings, which included a book titled In Touch Ministries and a handful of diagrams and stats he'd scribbled on Indiana stationery.

As Crean walked toward the door, he scrolled through hundreds of text messages on his cellphone—many of which were from college and NBA coaches.

"Look at this," Crean said as he hurried to join his players, who were waiting on the bus. "This is unbelievable."

Some of the most flattering words from a colleague came from Calipari, who told reporters after the game that Crean should be named National Coach of the Year for the improvements he made in a team during a season when "the crazies were going nuts."

Calipari was referring to Indiana's fans, who on Saturday were reminded once again that their program is manned by an elite coach. Hopefully now they'll appreciate Crean, but even if they don't, it won't make any difference. Crean's mantra about his future echoes the message he gave to his wife back at the Marriott Saturday morning.

"We're going to be OK," he said. "We're going to be OK."

That goes for Tom Crean and his family.

And Indiana basketball, too.

Jason King covers college sports for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JasonKingBR.


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