“Gods do not answer letters.”
- John Updike
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – The Indiana Hoosiers wrote to the gods this summer. The objective was not to get an answer, but to offer forgiveness.
The letters were addressed to the men who made Indiana basketball great: Isiah, Cheaney, Buckner, May – and, yes, Knight. They also were addressed to the less-heralded men who poured sweat equity into building a program that ranks among the all-time greats: role players, walk-ons, assistant coaches, managers. The motivation was to atone for sullying the Indiana name through a seemingly endless series of misdeeds.
The letter-writing campaign came at the end of a hard August week, which came after another embarrassing episode for Indiana basketball. Sophomore Emmitt Holt and incoming freshman Thomas Bryant, the team’s star recruit, were cited by police for illegal possession of alcohol on Aug. 21. Over the preceding 16 months, seven Hoosiers had been involved in either alcohol-related incidents or suspended for positive drug tests. That included a car accident when Holt struck teammate Devin Davis, leading to a severe head injury for Davis that sidelined him all last season.
The net result was three dismissed players, one transfer and a coaching staff trying to get through to the young men who remained.
So the week of Aug. 24-28 was a challenging one for a basketball player in Bloomington. The first four days were filled with pure punishment: hours of brutal conditioning drills with the football strength staff. In the mornings, there was a dose of perspective: players visited cancer patients at 6:30.
On Friday, Aug. 28, the Hoosiers were told to report to the team theater room in Cook Hall, the basketball facility. They were greeted with a bowl that was filled with 220 index cards.
On each card was the name and address of a former Hoosier. The players drew cards until they were all gone. Then they spent the weekend handwriting letters to everyone in the bowl.
Jayd Grossman, the Indiana assistant athletic director for basketball administration, had suggested that each player write letters of apology and accountability to athletic director Fred Glass and school president Michael McRobbie. Head coach Tom Crean embraced that idea and expanded it, trying to personalize an important lesson for his players.
The letters were unscripted, unedited and went unread by the coaching staff. Each was a completely personal communication with someone that player may or may not have heard of. But there was an overarching message Crean wanted to get across to his young men.
“Your choices affect not only you and your personal family, but the Indiana family,” Crean said. “And it’s a big one. Your choices have consequences with people you don’t even know, but who care about you because they care about this program. This is their program. You just got here. They own it, and someday you want to be an owner, too. None of you did anything to build this building. None of you did anything to build Assembly Hall.
“Your choices affect a lot of people who have been part of 21 Big Ten championships and five national championships and countless other teams. Every one of those guys on those teams matters. You need to show those guys that you care.”
To Updike’s point, few former Hoosiers wrote back. But getting an acknowledgement, a pat on the head, a wave of forgiveness – that was never the point. The point was unilaterally expressing penitence while gaining awareness.
“I think we all got the meaning behind it,” guard Nick Zeisloft said. “It was great to connect with those guys and apologize for some things that happened that shouldn’t have happened.”
Said guard James Blackmon Jr., “We wanted to show we care more than people actually think we care.”
Nobody at Indiana cares more than the head coach. But caring doesn’t necessarily equal thriving. Which is why this is a season on the brink for Tom Crean.
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There is no busier mind in college basketball than Tom Crean’s. He never shuts down, never turns off. The information intake is constant, the quest to learn something never ends.
His office contains a large, packed bookshelf. None of the books are there for show – he’s read them all. Everything that’s ever been written about coaching; dozens of books on self-improvement; anything that could be mined for some pearl of life-enhancing wisdom.
The IU staff room is stocked with wisdom borrowed from others. There are quotes in frames or on posters from Bill Parcells, Bill Belichick, Bear Bryant, Jesse Owens, Michael Lombardi, Michael Hyatt and Jim Tressel. There are two open Bibles on a counter.
Beyond the inspirational is the tactical: half a dozen notepads of diagrammed plays are on the table in the middle of the room. There are a couple other notepads filled with Crean’s distinctive handwriting.
Crean is among the industry leaders in obsessive coaching – and it’s a crowded field. So it is no small surprise to find the most prepared and passionate guy in his field facing something of a make-or-break season.
Because the problems haven’t just been off-court. Not by a long shot. If they were, Indiana fans would excuse the citations and suspensions – it’s what fans do. They will tolerate a lot in exchange for a big winner.
Indiana hasn’t been a big enough winner for its own lofty standards.
In 2009, Crean inherited an absolute toxic dump left behind by Kelvin Sampson. It took a correspondingly long time to dig out – he lost 66 games his first three seasons, a harsh adjustment period after consistent winning at Marquette.
But Crean landed a cornerstone recruit in Cody Zeller and surrounded him with enough complementary talent to launch the program forward – the Hoosiers went 27-9 in 2011-12 and advanced to the NCAA tournament Sweet 16. The season highlight was beating eventual national champion Kentucky on a buzzer-beater in Assembly Hall in December.
With Zeller returning for a second season and plenty of talent with him, Indiana harbored national championship aspirations in 2012-13. For a fan base that hadn’t hung an NCAA tournament title banner since 1987, the anticipation was immense.
Indiana largely lived up to it – the Hoosiers won the Big Ten and earned a No. 1 seed. But their season crashed to a halt in the Sweet 16, undone by Syracuse’s zone defense. When Zeller and Victor Oladipo both were top-five NBA draft picks in June, the reality was reinforced: this was the golden opportunity missed.
And really, that early exit is what Crean is still paying for with the Indiana fan base. If the Hoosiers had made the Final Four, life would be easier now. But they didn’t, and then they followed it up with a 17-15 backslide and didn’t make the 2014 NCAA tourney. Last year Indiana actually overachieved through injuries and personnel losses to make the tourney – but they lost 10 of their last 15 games on the year and were a first-round NCAA knockout.
Combine those past two seasons with the off-court turmoil, and Crean will be coaching in a cauldron this season.
He’s fine with that.
“The biggest thing you have to learn yourself is, don’t embrace all the accolades and don’t internalize all the negativity,” Crean said. “The key is to make changes where they’re needed, focus on what you can control, and take all the steps you can to improve a situation. And above all else, protect your families.”
The good news for Crean is that he is not carrying a knife into a gunfight this year. The Big Ten should be very good, as usual, but the Hoosiers should be among the best teams in it.
He returns an explosive backcourt of Yogi Ferrell and Blackmon. Forward Troy Williams, a dazzling athletic talent who is gradually rounding out his game, has gained strength and could be poised for a huge season. Bryant, the freshman cited in August, could fill a major void on the inside.
Interior depth, rebounding and defense all will be question marks. But the hope is there. And the urgency.
“We don’t want to just be a good team, but a great team,” Zeisloft said.
Perhaps even a team worthy of respect from the Indiana gods who received letters from the penitent.