Indiana’s coach needs to be more than that. Here’s how and why.
You simply cannot talk about the job of Indiana men’s basketball’s head coach without discussing Bob Knight.
Arguably no men’s college basketball coach left as tall of an order for his successors than Knight with both his on-court record and the way he carried himself in mind. And no, I’m not saying that Indiana’s head coach needs to be some larger-than-life, Darth Vader-esque figure of discipline, no.
Just hear me out.
Thanks to an enlightening piece from Bob Kravitz of the Athletic, we got some additional info on Indiana’s coaches since Knight’s firing and thoughts on each of them from program stalwarts.
With that insight in mind, let’s discuss what it means to be the head coach of Indiana men’s basketball.
Indiana’s head coach is the leader of the premier team at the state’s premier university, every eye in the state is watching their every move. As a result, the coach becomes a public figure whether they like it or not.
Knight embraced that role because he created it, travelling around the state and interacting with fans on a regular basis. Of his successors, some have shied away from that role while others have fully embraced it.
Those who do the former usually fail.
With that being said, let’s go through Knight’s successors and assess how they handled that aspect of the job.
Mike Davis, as Knight’s immediate successor, had the most pressure of those on this list. He was an internal hire brought aboard for that very reason, he knew the program. But how would he operate, given the way Knight’s firing went?
In later years, Davis has said that he was too young and inexperienced at the time to lead a program like Indiana. He’s largely right in that assessment. This was a role that Davis had no time to prepare for, but it’d be a foolish decision to say no to an offer like Indiana for obvious reasons.
It didn’t help that Davis was hurt as a recruiter by outside narratives that he wouldn’t be around for too long and outdated facilities that were previously mitigated by Knight’s mere presence.
Among the many Knight successors, Davis probably has both the most complex legacy and gets the least credit for getting the team further than those who came after him to this day.
The next coach needs no introduction.
If you’re reading this blog, you know what Kelvin Sampson is about and what his legacy is in Bloomington. In hindsight, his recruiting violations seem pretty minor, but they were the rules of the era that he consciously broke knowing the consequences for doing so.
Sampson carried himself in a certain way, not quite like Knight, but comparable. As we’ve seen with his tenure at Houston, he can absolutely coach, but he came across as abrasive to many.
This “works” when you’re hanging banners, but not when you’re brand new to a program with a fanbase that’s already questioning your background with violations at previous stops.
Sampson ushered in what was, without a doubt, the darkest time in the program’s recent history. Indiana couldn’t recruit and couldn’t compete with what they had. The program wasn’t just looking for a new coach, it was searching for someone to rebuild.
They needed Tom Crean.
As stated above, if Davis had the experience of leading the program at the time of his hiring, he’d be in contention for the title of Indiana’s best coach in the post-Knight era. But I don’t think it’s a controversial statement to say that title currently belongs to Crean.
Crean knew what he was getting into when he took this job, and he was asked about it at his introductory press conference. His answer still rings through the program’s history:
That’s obviously the viral moment of the presser, but it also conveyed to the fanbase that this is a guy who Gets It.
He’s going into this incredibly tall task knowing the responsibility he’s about to accept, and he had a plan for doing that. Crean understood the program’s history and what it means both in the state and around the country, and leaned on that as he picked up the pieces.
Indiana needs a frontman and, well, Crean was definitely that. He was a goofy guy, always making *those* faces, saying funny things in the media and just being unabashedly himself.
But he was always, without a doubt, willing to go to bat for his players and the program.
A lesser coach than Crean who didn’t understand what they were getting into probably would’ve kept the program at a middling level or got it back to some level of respectability before bowing out. But no, Crean rebuilt it and guided it to highs unreached in the last decade.
This fanbase is a restless one, and the administration noted that. They needed more, and Indiana opted to make a change after one last inconsistent season from Crean.
To some, Archie Miller seemed a fine hire. A young, up and coming star in the coaching ranks swept into the Big Ten alongside Brad Underwood and Chris Holtmann. But hindsight is 20/20, and there is simply no way this looked like a good hire looking back.
If Crean embraced the program, Archie almost shunned it. When Indiana legends of yore reached out to him, ready and willing to help get the program back to the highest of heights, he allegedly didn’t respond.
There’s a reason Hoosier Hysteria exists, it’s meant to get younger fans/students riled up for the men’s and women’s basketball seasons after such a long period of the program trying to find itself. And the men’s coach, needing to be a frontman, is supposed to be the star of the show.
Archie was not that.
He simply wasn’t the type of coach to let their personality show, engage with the crowd and get people legitimately interested in his program. He was reclusive, a boring quote at press conferences and forced this very blog to keep pushing Crean content because of how incredibly boring he was.
That can work just fine somewhere else, I’m sure, but not here. Archie just wasn’t it.
If Indiana’s coach needs to command a room, Archie was more comfortable hiding in the corner just out of sight. Beyond the on-court failures, that was never going to work.
The wake of Archie’s firing was arguably the strangest of them all. The program wasn’t in shambles like it was post-Sampson and the roster was honestly in better shape than it was post-Crean. It just had no identity.
Enter Mike Woodson.
Now, we are but one year into Woodson’s era of leading the program. There’s a lot more of this story that’s yet to be written, but we’re gonna do our best with what we have.
On-court play aside, Woodson is arguably the best person for the job of all the Knight successors. Crean understood the program and how to build it, but Woodson had been there and done that as a player, only a select few know Indiana better.
When Woodson was hired, he took the program’s existing roster on a tour of Assembly Hall to truly take in the history of the place for the first time. That kind of thing just didn’t happen under Archie, and Woodson was immediately set on putting culture back into the program.
Like Crean before him, Woodson leans on that tradition as a recruiter. He brings the additional ability of coming from the NBA world and knows what front offices look for at the next level, a lethal one-two punch that netted him a top-10 class in year one.
Indiana went through a lull down the stretch, much like it did under Archie, but Woodson got them to compete on a run in the Big Ten Tournament that got the Hoosiers all the way back to the NCAA Tournament.
Off the court, this fanbase simply loves the man. Athletics staff handed out facemasks with Woodson’s now-iconic beard on them for students to wear at Assembly Hall, he’s a reliable quote in pressers and is willing to get out there and be the frontman the program needs.
There’s viral photos of him in Indiana gear and shades, smoking cigars and more that fans make liberal use of in response to good news. All that happened naturally, he didn’t need to lift a finger to become that figure.
That’s what’s key with Woodson. It’s not like he’s trying to be The Guy, he’s really just being himself.
He just gets it, and that’s the kind of person this job needs.