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CBSSports.com Senior College Football Columnist

Ask Indiana's Crean -- being a great coach has nothing to do with playing


Indiana's Tom Crean was a college assistant coach while he was still a college student. (AP)  
Indiana's Tom Crean was a college assistant coach while he was still a college student. (AP)  

This Friday, Todd Kulawiak, his wife and their five kids will embark on their first family vacation in nine years. The Kulawiaks of Traverse City, Mich., will pile into their Suburban for spring break and begin an 18-hour drive to Florida.

Todd, a high school principal, isn't quite sure how he is going to break up the drive. But he does know of one certainty of the road trip: At 9:45 p.m. ET, Kulawiak will make absolutely sure he'll be in front of some monitor, whether that means his laptop screen (if he can wrangle in a wi-fi signal) or a TV in some hotel room. He will not miss the Indiana-Kentucky game.

Kulawiak didn't grow up a fan of either traditional powerhouse. But four years ago, when Tom Crean was hired as the new head coach at Indiana, Kulawiak became a die-hard Hoosiers fan.

Kulawiak, a former all-stater in basketball and track, has known Crean almost 25 years. They met after one of Kulawiak's high school basketball games when Crean was in his first season as a college basketball assistant for tiny Alma College (enrollment: 1,400). Crean had come to recruit the Benzie (Mich.) Central High star. Kulawiak, who had scholarship offers from Division II and NAIA programs, was wowed by the Division III coach.

"He was so energetic, so positive," said Kulawiak, still with a hint of awe in his voice of the "instant" connection the coach made with him. "He just made you feel good about what you're doing."

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Crean was 20 years old, and only a sophomore himself at Central Michigan, but Kulawiak was sold even though the young assistant's program didn't have any scholarships to offer. It didn't matter that Crean himself never played one second of college hoops.

"You could tell that if Tom was coaching someone at checkers, he'd probably make those kids sweat," said Kulawiak, "and he'd make them better."

Crean's path into coaching in college hoops is colorful, but isn't all that uncommon. In fact, of the Sweet 16 teams remaining in the NCAA tournament, four are coached by guys who never played college basketball -- Crean, Marquette's Buzz Williams (a former Crean assistant), Cincinnati's Mick Cronin and Baylor's Scott Drew. Unlike Crean, the other three broke into coaching as student managers.

"I think players at all levels -- and this starts in high school but certainly it carries to college, and it's this way in the pros -- if you can teach 'em and you make 'em better, they're going to respond to you," explained Crean, who has taken an Indiana program that went 6-25 in his first season to a 27-8 record this year. "You gotta have a certain amount of knowledge. You have to have the ability to inspire them to make them better. You have to have a passion for it.

"Charlie Coles, who just retired at Miami (Ohio), had a great point when he said, 'If you never lose the faith of your players, you'll always be in high demand.' His point was, if you're constantly making players better and they believe in you, people will always want you to be a part of their staff.

"The NFL is a great example of, it doesn't matter if you played. It doesn't matter how great of a player you were. It matters what your competency is. It matters if you can teach. It matters what your work ethic is. It matters if you can relate to people. And, it's that way certainly in college basketball. It's really what you're capable of and how much you're willing to learn and work to get better. But at the same time, you have to have people that will help open doors for you."


In college football, the nontraditional route for coaches is rarer. There are eight head coaches of the 120 at the FBS level that never played college football, which is a much lower percentage than in basketball. Most of the coaches contacted for this story weren't sure why that is. Maybe it's because there is more of a stigma attached to not having put the pads on in college football that scares guys from trying to break into the business. Or maybe the people doing the hiring at the entry level, the coaches themselves, were more skeptical that an outsider would get the game or be able to relate to the players.

"Whenever I'd get the question, 'Where'd you played your college ball at?' it used to bother me," said new Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze, who attended Southern Miss but did not play. "You knew that they expected something different than what the truth was."

The more I batted the topic around with coaches, the more I thought of a line I heard from a former college linebacker-turned-head coach -- there are two things in America every man thinks he can do: work a grill and coach football.

Moving up through the ranks
Head Coach First college job Current position
David Cutcliffe Student assistant at Alabama Head coach at Duke
Charlie Weis Graduate assistant at S. Carolina Head coach at Kansas
Mike Leach Assistant at Cal Poly Head coach at Washington State
Hugh Freeze Football external affairs at Ole Miss Head coach at Ole Miss
Paul Johnson Assistant at Lees–McRae JC Head coach at Georgia Tech
Bob Hauck Assistant at Montana Head coach at UNLV
Sonny Dykes Graduate assistant at Kentucky Head coach at Lousiana Tech
George O'Leary Defensive line coach at Syracuse Head coach at UCF
Rising Assistant First college job Current position
Manny Diaz Videographer at Florida State Defensive coord. at Texas
Chad Morris Offensive coord. at Tulsa Offensive coord. at Clemson
Lincoln Riley Student assistant at Texas Tech Offensive coord. at East Carolina
James Coley Graduate assistant at LSU Offensive coordinator at Florida State
Jedd Fisch Graduate assistant at Florida Offensive coord. at Miami
Daron Roberts Quality control coach (NFL's Chiefs) Cornerbacks at West Virginia
John Papuchis Graduate assistant at Kansas Defensive coord. at Nebraska
Note: Roberts' first college job is his current position.

Washington State head coach Mike Leach played rugby in college, not football. He actually got his start coaching Little League baseball when he was 15. Leach, too, was perplexed why there seems to be so many more coaches -- percentage-wise -- in basketball than football that didn't play. After a few minutes of mulling some ideas, Leach offered up two theories. First, that the nature of the sport discourages people from considering the coaching route.

"Everybody has played basketball," Leach said. "You may not be good enough to play in college, but everybody has played in a pickup game, play shirts and skins or in some church league. People play touch football, but that's different than real football. People play flag football, but that's very different than real football. Unless you've been involved in organized football, it's not really real football."

Then there is this one: Detailed football understanding has been insulated for many years because it was restricted by the film itself. To study the inner workings of the game, you needed the film, and that was not easy to get. Up until the early '90s, most teams just used film, Leach says.

"It took hours to splice film together," Leach said. "Now that it's on video and DVD more people can actually study football."

Another curious aspect: Of those eight college football head coaches, seven have backgrounds that are primarily rooted on the offensive side of the ball. Is there some draw-it-up-in-the-dirt vibe that attracts the guy with the nontraditional background?

"That's an interesting question," said Freeze. "My initial reaction is, probably for those guys that didn't play college football that our mental makeup is a little different. Our type of guy -- me, Leach -- I was a math major. I think that mindset is probably more geared to offense. Most of those defensive guys probably relate to their players because they once were a mean linebacker. I'm not really sure though."

There does appear to be a wave coming of rising-star assistants in college football that didn't play beyond high school. Among them: Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris, Texas defensive coordinator Manny Diaz, Florida State offensive coordinator James Coley, East Carolina offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley and Miami offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch, who didn't even play high school football and actually was a tennis player.

The 28-year-old Riley was an all-region quarterback for the Muleshoe Mules high school team in Texas before enrolling at Texas Tech as a hopeful walk-on. Leach, then the Red Raiders head coach, was unimpressed by Riley's physical skills. But Leach noted Riley's intelligence and awareness. He called Riley into his office and spoke to him for two hours, offering the chance to be a student assistant. Riley wasn't sure.

"He told me, 'You'll get the [coaching] exposure right away and you'll learn things the players won't. And by the time you graduate, there'll be so much more that you can do,'" recalled Riley, who added that at the time he figured he might end up as a high school coach.

Riley accepted the chance. After graduating from Tech, he became the Red Raiders' offensive graduate assistant. A year later, he was promoted to wide receivers coach, where he helped Michael Crabtree became the first freshman to win the Biletnikoff Award. At 26, he became a D-I offensive coordinator.

"Leach was right," said Riley of his college apprenticeship as a student assistant. "At that early part of your career, you can be a lot closer in experience to being a GA (graduate assistant). If you're playing in college and then go try to become a GA, it's a lot of new stuff for you because there are so many things that go on behind the scenes that you'd probably be oblivious to."

As a student assistant in football, you may be able to assist in organizing recruiting as well as sit in on game-planning and see how coaches handle players.

"You also see how to work a meeting room," Riley said. "Just being in the meeting room [as a player] is very different than having the clicker in your hands and running the room."

Riley admits it did cross his mind how players would respond to him as a guy who didn't play in college or was their age. "I did worry about that at first," he said. Some of the other coaches advised him to avoid being around the athletes (his classmates) in social scenes. "It was like I gained 10 years in 30 minutes and went from being a 19-year-old to a 29-year-old."

The biggest key, he said, was knowing his stuff: "If you work hard and you know what you're talking about and you say it with some authority and confidence, people adjust pretty fast."


Excelling in the sport at the highest level as a player often doesn't translate into coaching acumen or coaching success. Exhibit A: Isiah Thomas. If anything, the opposite seems to hold true. Bill Belichick, arguably the best coach in the NFL, was a marginal player at Division III Wesleyan in Connecticut. Tom Izzo, one of Tom Crean's mentors, a guy who has led Michigan State to six Final Fours, played Division II basketball. Tony LaRussa, named Manager of the Year four times and winner of three World Series, was a .199 hitter and started all of 40 games in his entire major-league career.

After taking his own unconventional route to the big time, Mike Leach has opened doors for others. (US Presswire)  
After taking his own unconventional route to the big time, Mike Leach has opened doors for others. (US Presswire)  
Crean has a unique perspective on the parallels of football and basketball, and the psyche of coaches and star athletes. He is married to the daughter of Jack Harbaugh, a football coach who led Western Kentucky to the 2002 I-AA national title. Crean's brother-in-laws also happen to be John and Jim Harbaugh, the head men of the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers. Crean is a student of coaching, not just basketball coaching. He is a voracious reader of anything he feels can make him better (full disclosure: I first met Crean when he reached out to me after he read my book Meat Market, about college football recruiting).

Jim Harbaugh, as Crean points outs, is an interesting anomaly of sorts. Harbaugh is one of only two current NFL head coaches that played in a Pro Bowl (Mike Munchak is the other). He also proved to be wildly successful as a college coach after transforming Stanford from mediocrity into a top-five program.

"People forget when Jim finished his playing career, he went on as an offensive quality control assistant with the Raiders and slept on an air mattress three or four nights a week," Crean said. "I would bet a lot of guys that have had success in the NFL are not willing to do that. He was also willing to go the I-AA route at San Diego to learn how to be a head coach.

"It's suppressing your ego, because if your ego gets in the way, you're going to be limited. When you're selfless and you want to do what it takes to win, and you really understand that it's about putting the players first and it's about how much better they get, and what they can learn, you're going to have a chance to keep moving forward."

Crean spent three seasons coaching at Alma. He landed a GA job at Michigan State under Jud Heathcote after Crean bonded with Izzo, who was then an MSU assistant, on the summer recruiting scene. After that, Crean got an assistant's job at Western Kentucky, then Pitt, and then back to MSU, where he helped Izzo amass the talent of what would become a national championship team in 2000 -- although by then Crean had earned the chance to run his own program at Marquette. In his fourth season, he produced a Final Four team. Now, in Year Four at Indiana, he has turned the Hoosiers back into a basketball powerhouse.

After playing for Crean and thriving at Alma as a three-year starter, Kulawiak's sense is that the coach's distilled view of the game was something of a virtue.

"Some people have these blinders on that you gotta walk these shoes to fill this role," Kulawiak said, "but he was able to analyze each individual and not take his own biases into it."

In fact, Crean's unconventional background actually provided a relevant model for Kulawiak's own career. Most high school principals at some point taught a class. Not him. His background was in the private sector.

"You come in unbiased," Kulawiak said. "You can look at their weaknesses and strengths and really improve on those. That's how Tom does it too."

Bruce Feldman is a senior writer for CBSSports.com and college football commentator for CBS Sports Network. He is a New York Times Bestselling author, who has written books including Swing Your Sword, Meat Market and Cane Mutiny. Prior to joining CBS, Feldman spent 17 years at ESPN.

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