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The coach coaches love to hate, Crean now toast of Hoosier Nation

by | College Basketball Insider
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Tom Crean goes after former Indiana assistant Jeff Meyer after a huge win against Michigan and IU fans rejoice. He cuts down the nets following a Big Ten regular-season title win and Hoosier Nation goes bananas. His drive-by postgame handshakes with conference rivals following a loss are applauded, even glorified.

Crean can do no wrong in Bloomington. He's become a full-fledged God in Hoosier country, where these fans have been clamoring to return to the good old days, when IU was competing for Final Four berths and national titles.

But for a while there, it was dicey whether the guy who led Marquette to a Final Four back in 2003 could bring this storied program all the way back.

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He made no secret about how bad it was when he took over for Kelvin Sampson in 2008. In fact, he let just about everyone within earshot know the issues that plagued the Hoosiers. It was a mess after Sampson was fired for making illegal phone calls yet again, and Crean had to start from scratch and also had to deal with sanctions set forth by the NCAA due to Sampson's mishaps. There were academic issues, drug problems and Matt Roth was the lone holdover from the Sampson debacle. Crean warned this would take time. But most figured more progress would be made after Year 3 of the Crean Regime.

There were just six wins and one in Big Ten play in his first season, but no one cared because the program was in rebuilding mode. The next season, Indiana made minor strides, winning 10 games and four in league play. Then came a 12-win campaign in 2010-11, with just three conference victories. The natives were becoming restless -- especially as Boy Wonder (aka Brad Stevens) at tiny Butler University, about an hour or so down the road, had taken the Bulldogs to their second consecutive national title contest.

Some began to wonder whether Crean was, in fact, the right guy for the job. He had recruited Dwyane Wade to Marquette, but had struggled to land an elite player for Indiana. Instead, he brought to Bloomington a bunch of decent players. The first class was thrown together quickly and featured role guys. The second was headlined by enigmatic Christian Watford and included a local kid named Jordan Hulls, who was widely overlooked. But that class, at the time, was more about who Crean failed to land rather than who he brought in. Kyrie Irving was, at one point, thought to be headed to Indiana. But Crean was unable to close the deal and he wound up going to Duke and eventually to the NBA, becoming one of the league's elite point guards.

For the most part, it appeared as though Crean had struck out in his first two classes. But it all changed on Nov. 12, 2010, when Cody Zeller decided, unlike his older brothers, to remain at home and play for his home-state Hoosiers.

That was the crossroads for Crean. I applauded the hiring back on 2008, giving Crean an "A" on my annual coaching report card, but there was skepticism about whether he could get it done. We at CBSSports.com even put him on our Hot Seat entering the 2010-11 campaign, and after watching a preseason practice, I wondered whether the Hoosiers could make enough progress in Year 4 to squash any of the Stevens-to-Indiana speculation that had begun to gain some traction.

But that's all history now. Crean owns Bloomington.

Indiana shocked the nation a year ago by winning 27 games and making its first Sweet 16 appearance in a decade. The Hoosiers brought back just about everyone this year and were picked by many as the preseason No. 1. Zeller didn't quite live up to the expectations set forth in terms of winning National Player of the Year honors, but this Hoosiers team has handled the task of being the hunted.

Sure, there have been losses. The one against Butler in Indianapolis back in mid-December stung, as did the home setback to Wisconsin early in league play. However, the Hoosiers won their first outright Big Ten crown in 20 years and enter this week's NCAA tournament as a No. 1 seed in the East region.

Gone are the skeptics, those that expressed concerns about whether Crean could bring this proud program back to national relevance. Now they love everything about him, from the countless times he pulls up his pants during games to his relationship with the Harbaugh brothers to his confrontations with coaches.

Crean has quickly become one of the most disliked in coaching circles, but none of that matters these days as long as he's beloved in Bloomington.

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