With Calbert Cheaney hire, Mike Woodson continues to bridge Indiana basketball generations
At his introductory news conference in March 2021, Mike Woodson talked about bridging the gap “between old and new.”
One of his goals outlined on that day was to connect generations of IU basketball. There had seemed to be somewhat of a disconnect between eras — historic success and modern-day program. Perhaps it was in part due to the firing of Bob Knight and subsequent bad blood. The relationship between generations might have been among the many missing pieces of a program that had floundered since its glory days. Woodson wanted to bring that connection back.
“I will bring them (old players) all back and bridge this gap that’s so desperately needed with the young players and the young fan base that we do have, a lot of these young fan base, they don’t know who I am and I get that,” Woodson said in March 2021. “My daughters kind of remind me of that. But at the end of the day, I’ve been chosen to be the coach here and I’m going to try to tie it together to make it all work, and we all be one big family and win basketball games.”
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More than two years after being hired, Woodson has delivered on that hope. The latest development is the return of legend Calbert Cheaney, who will join the IU staff as Director of Player Development in a non-recruiting coaching role. Cheaney, who played at IU from 1989–93, is the Big Ten's all-time leading scorer. He is leaving his job with the Indiana Pacers to take this opportunity at IU.
Woodson is surrounding himself— in and around the program — with people that care deeply about IU basketball. It doesn’t directly equate to wins, but when you’re talking about rebuilding a culture, that is important.
Perhaps the most notable mend since Woodson's hiring is that with the program and Knight. The legendary coach, speaking of his former bosses, infamously told Dan Patrick, “I hope they’re all dead.” Knight, returned to Assembly Hall for a game in 2021, though it was before Woodson was hired as head coach. If that was starting to truly mend wounds, Woodson has continued it.
“(Knight) comes to practice once a week, man, and it’s a beautiful thing,” Woodson said in February 2023. “And it’s been that way for the last month and a half. He pays me a visit. He sits courtside and it’s just nice to see him sitting there where he belongs.”
Beyond adding Cheaney to the staff, Woodson has filled roles with other former IU players. Dane Fife left a job on Tom Izzo's Michigan State staff to return to IU under Woodson. The partnership ultimately didn’t work out as Fife was not retained following the 2021-22 season, but it wasn't the last homecoming.
Jordan Hulls returned to the program last offseason as team and recruiting coordinator. Hulls, a Bloomington South grad and IndyStar Mr. Basketball winner, was part of an IU reemergence under Tom Crean and won a Big Ten title in 2013. Hulls was still playing professionally — and planned to continue to do so for another two or three years — when an opportunity to join IU's staff arose.
“For me, it was something if I was going to give it up (playing basketball professionally), it would have to be for a situation to come back home, that's really the only way that I would ever do that,” Hulls said in June 2022, “and after going through the process and doing my research and talking to the coaches and other people to figure out if this was really something I want to get into, for me it was something I just couldn't pass up.”
There have been other smaller, but still meaningful, ways in which together IU generations have been connected. At Hoosier Hysteria in 2021, Woodson’s first as head coach, Isiah Thomas spoke. Two others came by way of exhibitions last season. IU hosted Marian, whose athletic director is former IU basketball player Steve Downing. Saint Francis (Ind.) featured Brayton Bailey, son of IU legend Damon Bailey.
This isn’t to say being rooted in Indiana is everything. Yasir Rosemond, Kenya Hunter and Brian Walsh have done admirable jobs as key members of the IU staff. But having some people with deep-rooted connections to the program is meaningful. Dwelling too much on the past probably isn't a recipe for success, but bringing back people who know what worked very well could be.
Woodson said he'd bridge the gap. It’s one thing to say it. It’s another to do it. Woodson still has more work to do, but he has come through with that plan.
Follow IndyStar sports reporter Tyler Tachman on Twitter at @Tyler_T15.
This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Mike Woodson delivering on hope to bridge IU basketball generations