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Thursday, May 29, 2008
Crean appeals to Hoosier fans as he tries to salvage the program

By Pat Forde
ESPN.com

STARLIGHT, Ind. -- Tom Crean's get-acquainted tour of Hoosier Nation came to the state's southern edge Wednesday. The highlight of the day might have been a trip to the bathroom.

Tom Crean
Tom Crean knows wins may be hard to come by on the court, so he's winning over the rabid Indiana fan base now.

Businessman Ned Pfau of Jeffersonville, Ind., has turned the spacious men's room at his office into a replica of the Assembly Hall locker room. Yeah, the men's room. A guy can relieve himself amid lockers, banners, posters and autographed memorabilia of all things Indiana. The only thing missing is Damon Bailey handing out paper towels and mints.

"We had 12 grown men hanging out in a bathroom today," Crean said. "That is not healthy. But that is what it's all about."

That is absolutely what Indiana basketball is all about. Even with the program in the toilet, the passion cannot be flushed from the faithful's system.

And that is why Tom Crean is the brave new coach of the Hoosiers, not the comfortable old coach at Marquette. That is why Crean has signed up for an arduous Operation Tidy Bowl in Bloomington, instead of extending his streak of seven straight seasons of at least 19 wins in Milwaukee. Even as this tottering Indiana team has further crumbled during his seven weeks on the job, you cannot convince Crean that he made a bad decision leaving a winning program of his own making for the land of candy-striped warmups.

He understands that Marquette is a good program currently operating near its peak, while Indiana is a great program operating far below expectations -- and waiting to canonize the guy who can restore it.

He understands that Indiana basketball means so much that someone will turn a bathroom into a shrine. It means so much that one store alone has sold more than 10,000 "Crean & Crimson" T-shirts since April 1. It means so much that 850 fans think late May is the perfect time to drive deep in the Hoosier hills and cough up big fund-raising bucks to hear the new coach spread a little sunshine in Starlight.

Crean talked a lot about tradition and character, and he appealed to the fan base's immense pride. He gave them something to believe in, but no timetable for when the glory days are coming back. He didn't give many specifics about a team that could lose the most games in school history.

We're going to fight like crazy. We're going to fight every day, tooth and nail, to not let the outside world come in and take Indiana down.

--Tom Crean

The current record is 17, set in 1970. It is in grave jeopardy. The schedule includes the Maui Classic, Kentucky, Wake Forest, Gonzaga in Lucas Oil Stadium and 18 Big Ten games. The roster includes one returning player who scored more than 1.3 points per game, three returners and only eight scholarship players total (at the moment).

Tom Crean should be Big Ten Coach of the Year if he somehow avoids breaking that mark.

"It's not going to be easy next year," the coach told his audience Wednesday evening. "I think most of you know that. It's very, very likely that for the next couple years, we'll be the youngest team in major-college basketball."

It's also very, very likely that once-stable Indiana has had the most turbulent year in major-college basketball. Even Arizona, with its Lute Olson melodrama, hasn't gone through what Indiana has gone through.

A year ago, the Hoosiers were coached by a rather popular Kelvin Sampson, had a flush roster of talent and were lining up recruits from here to eternity. Today, Sampson is long gone after an NCAA investigation, a promising season went up in mutinous smoke and so many players have left that Crean would be hard-pressed to field a quality team in a three-on-three league. And the star recruit Sampson had signed, Devin Ebanks, de-committed and went to West Virginia. Crean was only half joking Wednesday night when he said he'd be watching the Indiana football team this fall with both eyes open -- one eye while rooting for the Hoosiers and the other searching for anyone who can guard a pick-and-roll.

Worst yet for a school with a pristine off-court image has been the flood of reports and innuendo about the program's becoming an academic and character disaster area. In the blink of an eye on Sampson's sketchy watch, IU turned into UNLV Midwest. The new sheriff had to ride in and clean up the town.

The Documents

• Indiana University issued a 750-page response to NCAA allegations of violations involving former coach Kelvin Sampson. Take a look at the document. Indiana response (pdf)

• What exactly did the NCAA allege happened? Take a look at what the NCAA sent to the president of Indiana University. Notice of allegations (pdf)

•  In a statement that runs more than 70 typed pages, former Indiana coach Kelvin Sampson responded to the NCAA's allegations that his staff committed violations. Sampson response (pdf)

"I could not have imagined it," Crean said of the academic wreckage he inherited. "… Certain people didn't put working toward a degree and being an Indiana basketball player ahead of other things. Something's got to give, and it's certainly wasn't going to be the standards of the program."

Crean made both a telling gesture and a telling comment Wednesday night when he brought his entire staff, including the academic support group, to Huber Winery in Starlight. When he had the academic people stand up and take a bow, Crean said, "I can't wait to see what they can do when they have the full backing of their head coach."

The former head coach, of course, committed the NCAA rules violations that haven't yet come home to roost -- IU goes in front of the NCAA Committee on Infractions in mid-June. Interim coach Dan Dakich then presided over a virtual work stoppage down the stretch, as a promising season collapsed. Now just about everybody who is somebody from the 2007-08 roster is gone.

D.J. White and four other seniors left, but that was just the start. Eric Gordon turned pro after a year, as expected. Potential returnees Armon Bassett, Jamarcus Ellis, DeAndre Thomas, Eli Holman and Brandon McGee all are gone as well.

Bassett, Ellis, Thomas and McGee were dismissed. Holman chose to leave, after his final meeting with Crean ended with the player throwing a potted plant and campus police being called to the scene.

Crean drew a combination of groans and laughter from his audience Wednesday when, following a standing ovation, he said, "I needed this a couple weeks ago when potted plants were flying around our office."

Throwing plants at Indiana? A former head coach has been alleged to engage in such behavior in the past, but never the players. That was an indication of how far things had slipped, and how fast. The embarrassment factor just kept escalating as Crean asserted control.

The coach is trying to cap off a frenzied spring recruiting season by closing with a late coup: Former Arizona signee Emmanuel Negedu, who opted out of his letter-of-intent, is considering IU, Memphis and Tennessee. Negedu could become even more important if the lone returnee with any offensive ability, Jordan Crawford (9.7 ppg last season), doesn't come back. Crawford went home to Detroit for part of the summer, and Crean could only say "I'm hopeful" that he'll return.

At least Crean has the luxury of slow-cooking Indiana back to promise. He negotiated an eight-year contract ("It didn't start out that way," he said with a smile) that gives him a chance to methodically crawl out of the smoking crater in which he currently resides. The guy would rather milk goats for a living than lose, but he has the contractual latitude to go about this the right way.

Jordan Crawford
With or without Jordan Crawford, the team's top returning scorer and only returning contributor, Indiana is going to have some tough days ahead.

"There is a big difference between quick-fixing and taking your time," he said.

Still, that's always easier said in May than done in February. At a school that is accustomed to success, humility and patience are in small supply. Perhaps that's why a local banker who introduced Crean to the throng said "nobody cares" about the coach's bio.

"We want to know how you're going to win, when you're going to win and who you're going to win with," the banker said.

First he's going to win with his mouth. At the very least, Crean has a very persuasive recruiting pitch to give -- on those rare times he can give it. Thanks to Sampson's shenanigans, Crean is still limited to seven off-campus recruiting days in July and his phone contact with prospects has been curbed as well.

"There's an opportunity like there's never been before at Indiana," Crean said. "And there's probably never going to be another opportunity like this again. The story that's going to be written if we come out of this the right way, you have a chance to play an unbelievable part in it."

He has that recruiting pitch down. And the recruiting pitch to all the former players -- especially the Bob Knight-era players -- who have felt estranged from the program since Knight was fired in 2000. And the pitch to the fans as well.

Crean simply cannot and will not shake enough hands, sign enough things and kiss enough babies over the next year or two. Because the victories will be slow to come on the court, he'd better win the PR campaign first.

That isn't a problem. Crean doesn't just coach a good game, he talks one, too.

"We're going to fight like crazy," he said. "We're going to fight every day, tooth and nail, to not let the outside world come in and take Indiana down."

Indiana has done a staggeringly good job of taking itself down from the inside. Now the job falls to the tireless Tom Crean to make sure the Hoosiers don't slip down the drain for good.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.