The gospel according to Cody Zeller
Indiana's star revived both a program and its coach
This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Nov. 12 College Basketball Preview. Subscribe today!
This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Nov. 12 College Basketball Preview. Subscribe today!
IT'S HARD TO overstate how popular Zeller is in Bloomington. When he joined the program last year as a freshman, Indiana was not only considered a long shot to make it to the Big Dance, it was predicted to finish ninth in the Big Ten. Then Zeller led the Hoosiers to the Sweet 16. His fellow students were so eager to bestow a Shaq-esque nickname upon him that Zeller now answers to the Big Handsome, in person and on Twitter.
Cody Zeller's cover
Behind the scenes at Big Handsome's Mag shoot Gallery
But Zeller is not so aw-shucks wholesome that he blushes at the moniker. Instead, he plays along. In fact, you get the feeling he knows how good he is. "Cody doesn't say much," says junior forward Victor Oladipo. "He's just chill. But when it comes to basketball and to winning, that's a bad dude, man."
Had he declared for the NBA draft after last season (alongside brother Tyler, who was picked 17th by Dallas, then traded to Cleveland), Zeller likely would have been a lottery pick. Instead, Zeller (aka @CZeller40) chose to stay in school, explaining the decision last spring to his 36,000 Twitter followers thusly: "I'm returning to IU next year because I haven't accomplished all of my goals. For example, I haven't gotten a date with @KateUpton yet." He followed that by filming a video of himself strolling through campus, using a soundtrack that parodies Bruno Mars' hit "Billionaire," featuring his own Big Handsome-specific lyrics:
I don't wanna be a millionaire all that bad
Just keep getting allowance from my dad
I'll still be on the cover of sports magazines
Smilin' next to Yogi and Tom Crean
Perhaps Cody Zeller is a prophet after all.
If nothing else, he is towering proof that fortunes can shift quickly in college hoops, in which a transcendent talent can turn a program around in a single year. In addition to last season's Sweet 16 run -- during which Zeller averaged 15.6 points and 6.6 rebounds while shooting 62.3 percent from the field -- his emergence sparked a 15-win improvement in the Hoosiers' record over the previous season. Once he confirmed that he was returning for his sophomore year, everyone began penciling in Indiana as a national championship contender and heralding the Big Handsome as the leader of a Hoosiers basketball revival.
But it was never a given that Zeller -- the youngest, goofiest and most talented of a trio of basketball-playing brothers from Washington, a hoops-mad town of 12,000 in southern Indiana -- would become the program's homegrown savior. His older siblings, Luke and Tyler, were named the state's Mr. Basketball (Luke in 2005 and Tyler in 2008) and McDonald's All-Americans. Each led Washington High to at least one state championship before spurning Indiana to play for Notre Dame and North Carolina, respectively.
Cody one-upped them by winning three state titles with Washington. But like his brothers, Zeller wasn't awed by Indiana's musty ghosts. "IU's glory days were before I was even born," he says. He'd also been a front-seat witness to his brothers' recruitments and was jaded by the same old pitches. He'd sat in his family's living room as coaches pitched their programs, their traditions, their academics -- the same spiels over and over. He didn't want to be sold from the sofa; he was itching to be on a campus, where he could talk to players and take the true pulse of the teams that pursued him.
In 2008, when Tom Crean began recruiting Zeller as a high school freshman, there was no fairy tale to sell. The coach had inherited a program with so many NCAA sanctions, academic issues and defections that he was forced to field a team that included eight walk-ons. But Crean continued to court Zeller during the worst season in IU history, when his woebegone team won just one conference game and finished 6-25. "He told me [the program] could be what it is now, that we could be back in the national spotlight," Zeller says. "It was tough to believe given where they were at that point."
But Crean and his staff were persistent, and Bloomington was only a 90-minute drive from Washington. So Zeller continued to make unofficial visits to IU, where he witnessed firsthand those disillusioning losses -- and discovered an unexpected upside.
"I came here for a lot of open gyms throughout my high school career," Zeller recalled recently, sitting at the scorer's table in a near-empty Assembly Hall. "So I could really see the improvement that each player was making. Just being on campus with the guys, seeing them work out, I could tell that they were making strides."
FOR CREAN, THOSE strides looked a lot more like baby steps. "When I first got here, it felt like nobody really wanted to be here," says Oladipo, who was a freshman during the 2010-11 season, when the Hoosiers won a total of 12 games. "We were doing all this work, but we all knew that we were going to lose anyway." By that point, Crean had cast aside any notions that the rebuilding process was going to happen as quickly as it had at Marquette, where he'd averaged 21 wins a season, reached the NCAA tournament five times and guided underrecruited players like Dwyane Wade and Travis Diener to a Final Four in 2003.
Indiana was an entirely different undertaking. The NCAA sanctions and player dismissals incurred under former coach Kelvin Sampson for extensive recruiting violations meant that the renovation was starting from less than zero. Upon his arrival, Crean dismissed a player for violating team rules; lost two more to transfers and one to the NBA; and had to contend with an abysmal team GPA (players had failed 19 classes) and rumors of drug use. "There was no way to put any timeline or any perspective to it," he says. What's more, the NCAA imposed a three-year probation period on top of the school's self-imposed sanctions, which included losing three scholarships and a restriction that prevented Crean from leaving campus to recruit players for a season.
With only two returnees, neither of whom was a starter, it was understood that wins would be scarce in his first season. And because Crean couldn't leave Bloomington to woo new talent, his first order of business was to square up the existing mess and muddle through with the handful of players who were willing to suit up. The next season, that crew of walk-ons teamed with a talented but largely unheralded recruiting class. But even then, practices resembled an overcrowded elementary school class: Crean & Co. had too many different needs to address, rendering them unable to teach advanced hoops theory. Instead, coaches had to impart fundamentals. They conducted entire practices with nary a traditional basketball drill, forcing players to pretend to rebound a thrown towel instead of a ball. That gave way to intense scrimmages. "It was one-on-one, five-on-five, four-on-four, going at each other," Oladipo says. "Dog eat dog. If you didn't win, then there were consequences for it."
Crean's six wins in year one and 10 wins in year two were understandable. But it wasn't part of anyone's timeline that year three of Crean's rebuilding effort would yield so few W's and so many L's.
The perpetual losing began to consume the plan's architect. Crean's frustration boiled over in February during Indiana's ninth straight loss of the 2009-10 season, a 32-point blowout at home to Wisconsin. He had to be restrained by an assistant after he was ejected from the game for arguing with officials. A few minutes later, arena security reportedly summoned a family member from the stands to prevent Crean from trashing the locker room.
That type of passion might have been laudable if Crean had been winning. But after three seasons well below .500, Hoosier Nation was growing restless -- and Crean's job was potentially on the line. Amid the kicking and screaming, Crean secretly worried that he'd sucked an army of people into his own free fall. "When it wasn't going right," Crean says, "I didn't spend a lot of time thinking about myself as much as I did my family, the coaches we took out of success at Marquette and their families."
Crean's wife, Joani, is the younger sister of Jim and John Harbaugh, the first brothers to serve as head coaches in the NFL (with the 49ers and Ravens, respectively). And as a daughter of longtime college football coach Jack Harbaugh, she knew how wins and losses could affect the family's dinnertime dynamic. But she'd never experienced lows like this. Indiana's continued losing brought out an intensity that shot every one of her husband's nerves. During a 2010 exhibition game against Division II Ferris State, the Hoosiers trailed for most of the second half. Joani and all three of their children were sitting in their usual perch behind the Hoosiers bench. They were so visibly distraught at the idea of another humiliating loss that Crean turned around during the tense game just to ask if everyone was okay.
With 10 seconds left in regulation, Oladipo completed a four-point play to send the game into overtime. Joani noticed tears streaming down her son Riley's face. When she asked what was wrong, the 11-year-old replied, "I'm just so happy that we're not going to lose."
"At that point," Joani says, "you're thinking, What did we do to our children? That was when I knew some things needed to change."
On the court, Crean tried to change everything. He got support from former mentors like Michigan State's Tom Izzo and colleagues like Kentucky's John Calipari. Associate head coach Steve McClain, who held the same position at Colorado at the time, says: "I'd text him to say, 'Hey, I'm watching your team today. They're doing everything you'd want them to do. They're playing hard.' He needed someone to tell him he was doing good."
Fortunately for Crean, playing hard and doing good is what Zeller saw too. All those trips to open gyms and home games had convinced him that a team that could compete so hard without any expectation of winning would continue to improve even after it became successful. "I could see that they were a good group of guys," Zeller remembers. "I could see they were trying hard. The work ethic was always there." On Nov. 11, 2010 -- three days after the Ferris State nail-biter -- he committed to Indiana.
ONE OF THE more often-repeated sports clichés is that a star player is "an extension of his coach on the floor." That's not the case with Zeller and Crean. Unlike his coach, Zeller never had to play the game of basketball freighted by anything but his own will to win. Although the entire Zeller family is knee-deep in sports -- the boys' mom, Lorri, played at D3 Coe College in Iowa -- they had learned early in their oldest son's AAU career not to push too hard. The brothers engaged in brutal scrimmages in the driveway at home, but they never argued about who was better, just what had happened in the game at hand. Cody, for his part, focused on getting in his best shots at the dinner table. Or on Facebook, where he once secretly commandeered his mom's account and updated her status to say, falsely, that Tyler was adopted.
Together the Zellers also focus their attention on running DistinXion, a nonprofit organization that hosts youth basketball camps in order to use sports to teach life skills, sportsmanship and character development. "You're around the Zeller family for five minutes and you see their love of God," Crean says. "It doesn't take long. You want to be around people like that."
Inspired by the Zellers and encouraged by Joani, Crean began to recalibrate his outlook. The couple decided to move the family across the court during games so as not to be so close to Tom's intensity in front of the bench. And instead of launching into a game recap when he gets home, Tom has agreed not to talk about hoops until he has caught up on Team Crean. At home, "the world does not revolve around whether Indiana wins or loses," Joani says. "The world has to revolve around three children and their happiness."
That personal transformation could also owe to the meetings Crean and other athletic department staffers have every Wednesday with a local pastor. "I've become a better Christian," says Crean. "I don't want to say the losing did that, but when you struggle, you're going to focus on something, and [my faith] became more of a focus in a sense of, We can get through this."
By the time Zeller landed on campus last fall, the vets noticed that something was different about him, even if they couldn't place it. "He's never negative now," Oladipo says. Crean even stopped cursing, a marked change from his usual red-faced, blue-streak sideline rants. "Before, he could get down with the best of them, but now he's just changed as a person," says Oladipo. Crean, Zeller and other Indiana players can be found worshipping together most Sundays -- basketball schedule permitting -- at Sherwood Oaks Christian Church in Bloomington.
Zeller's arrival on campus also coincided with improved on-court performances from the team, which gave Crean less cause to drop f-bombs. The coach still demands intensity from his players, and even the superchill Big Handsome obliges, in his own way. Although Zeller is an uncanny passer out of double-teams, his teammates say that if a ref blows a call against him, he'll respond by going extra hard to the goal on the next play. Oladipo still laughs while recalling a play during an open-gym workout this summer when Zeller, who had been hounded by senior Christian Watford, took off from the middle of the lane and clobbered the forward "like he was trying to put Christian and the ball into the rim."
Zeller's dominant post game, paired with a clutch of disciplined shooters -- including this year's freshman hotshot, guard Kevin "Yogi" Ferrell -- gives Indiana a high-scoring offense that can withstand challenges that the recent vintage Hoosiers couldn't. Last season, Watford's buzzer-beating three to upset top-ranked Kentucky on Dec. 10 signaled that Indiana had finally coalesced. But for each player there were other wins that sparked hope when before there had been none.
For Ferrell, that moment came on New Year's Eve 2011. In town on a recruiting visit, Ferrell was in the stands during the Hoosiers' upset of No. 2 Ohio State. An Indianapolis native and former AAU teammate of Zeller's, Ferrell told the coaches that "one of the reasons I wanted to come here is that I wanted to play with Cody," he says. "Nothing fazes him. When nothing fazes him, the whole team won't be fazed by much either."
If Zeller and Crean are able to remain unfazed by losses, then they must also remain unfazed by all the hype the team is getting this season. Zeller didn't flinch when he signed on with a program that was expected to lose, so it's unlikely that he or the Hoosiers will wilt now that everyone is expecting so much more. He also shrugs off the pressure of leading one of the sport's most storied programs back to prominence, casually saying, "It's kind of neat to be on the other side of it now, where you're expected to win, as opposed to how it had been the last couple of years."
That's the benefit of having a plan that the whole program believes in and can focus on: Get better and the wins will take care of themselves. "We're aiming to be No. 1 at the end of the season, not just at the beginning," says Zeller. "But this should be a fun year for us."
And if the Big Handsome says it, it must be so.
MORE MEN'S COLLEGE BASKETBALL HEADLINES
- Iowa St. rallies to beat Baylor for Big 12 title
- No. 1 Florida wears down Tenn., in SEC final
- Louisville takes first AAC final, tops UConn
- Providence beats Creighton to win Big East