Spurred by a self-loathing email from Widenhofer on Sunday about IU basketball, I felt the need to write a State of Indiana Basketball post. Apologies to those of you who don't care one way or another about IU basketball, but it's my blog, so I write whatever I damn well please.
This past season -- which ended with an uninspired loss to Arkansas, who went on to lose by 31 in the second round to North Carolina -- was supposed to be the year that springboarded the Hoosier program back to prominence and dominance. We had, in D.J. White, the best big man in the Big Ten and, in Eric Gordon, one of the most talented all-around players to wear an IU jersey since Isaiah Thomas. In Kelvin Sampson, we had a coach who excited his players and excited the fans. He was the man who would bring us back to consistent top three finishes in the Big Ten and consistent Sweet 16s and Final Fours.
I wouldn't be writing this post if things had gone well this season. I'm bitter, frustrated, and angry at the way things turned out. More than anything I'm disappointed. I'm disappointed that Sampson couldn't keep his fingers off the phone. I'm disappointed that the media made Sampson out to be Satan, even though all he did was make extra phone calls. And I'm even more disappointed that our players absolutely mailed it in after Sampson resigned (I'm not sure if that's a testament to Sampson's coaching and motivation skills, a knock on Dan Dakich, or simply a lack of concentration and dedication by the players).
The state of Indiana basketball is as follows: not good.
It's been 21 years since we've won a national title. I know that for programs like Illinois and Purdue, you just wish you had an NCAA title, but at Indiana we expect to win them every now and then -- certainly more often than the time it takes for an infant to reach the legal drinking age.
We're going through (and are hopefully in the late stages of) a bit of a dry spell, the likes of which the Hoosier program hasn't seen since the unstable bridge between Branch McCracken and Robert Montgomery Knight. Between 1953 -- when McCracken led the "firewagon" to its second national title -- and 1973 -- when Knight made his first of five Final Fours -- times were dark for Hoosier basketball fans. In the 20 seasons in between, the Hoosiers won only 4 Big Ten titles (three while McCracken still coached) and failed to reach the Final Four. The names Lou Watson and Jerry Oliver still cause IU fans to shudder a bit. As well they should. In the seven years between McCracken and Knight, Watson and Oliver combined for a 42-46 record, only one Big Ten title, and only one NCAA appearance.
Then came an angry 31-year-old coach from Army, who arrived in 1971. The next 23 years were pretty damn good by any measuring stick: 11 Big Ten titles, 18 NCAA tournaments, 3 NCAA championships, 5 Final Fours, 8 Elite Eights, 14 Sweet 16s. Plaid suits were worn. Chairs were thrown. Puerto Rican cops were punched. Good times were had by all.
Knight's last six years were marred by wasted talent and underachievement. The vaunted high school class of '94 was supposed to keep the train running. I remember watching the McDonald's All-American game in 1994 when an unchoked Neil Reed threw a perfect alley oop off the backboard to a soaring Andrae Patterson, who slammed it home with authority. I beamed, knowing that these two would be leading IU for the next four years (in those days, most players actually stayed in college for four years -- good ones, too), along with Charlie Miller (a lefty small forward who was to be the next Calbert Cheaney), Michael Hermon (a gritty guard from Chicago's Public League who lasted one season at IU before being dismissed from the team), and Rob Hodgson (who ended up being a hell of a player -- at Rutgers). It was a solid class that was touted as the next "Magnificent Seven" (the class of 1989 -- Calbert Cheaney, Greg Graham, Pat Graham, Chris Reynolds, Todd Leary, Lawrence Funderburke, and Chris Lawson). By the end of their careers, those of the class of '94 who were left had led IU to exactly zero Big Ten titles and a single NCAA tournament win.
In Knight's final few years at IU, the talent was either transferring to other schools or not coming in the first place. He tried to make due with decent players, but he simply could not bring in the caliber of players that he once did. It was brutal to watch as our teams would get outmanned in the first and second rounds of the tournament by such basketball powerhouses as Missouri, Colorado, and St. John's. Not to mention his last game at IU, a 20-point drubbing by Pepperdine in a 6-11 match-up in the 2000 tournament. Thankfully, a connecting flight from Newark to Indy was delayed on my way back from spring break in London. Six of us sprinted through the concourse after landing in Indy, arriving at the first sports bar in time to see the final 30 seconds. It was painful. Had our plane been on time, we might have destroyed that very same sports bar with its own pint glasses. For that, and many other reasons, I have not been back to Newark and hope never to return.
We all know that Bob Knight's tenure at IU ended unceremoniously in September 2000 with nothing more than a "What's up Knight?" Fuck you, Kent Harvey. Show some respect. Protests ensued. Myles Brand was deservedly burned in effigy.
In came Mike Davis, a players' favorite with no head coaching experience who had recruited many of the IU roster at the time. He was a nice guy who was thrust into a tough position, not only coaching at one of the most storied basketball programs in the NCAA, but also following a legend who was more associated with Indiana basketball than anyone else. He was set up to fail.
Many IU fans lambasted Davis as soon as the "interim" tag was lifted from his title. In my opinion, he was never given a fair shot by much of the IU fan base, and I was embarrassed on more than one occasion about how he was treated. In the last 2 or 3 years of Davis's tenure, people who called themselves IU "fans" rooted against the team because they thought it would get Davis fired. It wasn't fair, especially for someone like Davis, who was a genuinely nice and good person. His problem was that his name didn't start with a "B," nor did it end with a "t," and, worst of all, nor did it have an "ob Knigh" in the middle.
Granted, Davis was not a great Xs and Os coach, but as maligned as he was, he provided IU fans with their only bright spot of the past 15 years: a share of the Big Ten title in 2002 and a miraculous and emotional ride to the NCAA championship game. I was in my second year of law school at IU that year, and it was unbelievable. I broke my toe running out of my house on Grant Street to celebrate in the street with the masses when IU beat Duke in the Sweet 16, and I didn't care. It was euphoria in Bloomington. My toe still doesn't bend all the way.
Things were looking up. We had momentum, excitement, and a solid recruiting class coming in the next fall. But things did not go up. In fact, they fell. Fast and hard. After starting 8-0 in the 2002-2003 season, Davis infamously flipped out at Freedom Hall, running onto the court after Bracey Wright was fouled (but it wasn't called) during the last minute of a close IU-Kentucky game. Before that game, his record as a head coach was pretty good (54-25, .684). His record after that was a mediocre 61-54 (.530).
Eventually Davis saw the writing on the wall and resigned in 2006. The search was on. It was the first coaching search IU had had in 35 years. We needed a coach with experience, with a history of winning, with passion, and preferably with public speaking ability, although not the kind laced with profanities.
In late March 2006, a tight-lipped IU announced that Oklahoma's Kelvin Sampson was the next head coach. I was thrilled. He was better than any of the other names that had been tossed around by the media and IU fans. Frankly, aside from one small problem, he was everything IU would want in a coach. He won games, he recruited very well, his players loved him, he was passionate, and he was a great marketer for the program.
But there were those pesky extra phone calls he made while at Oklahoma. 577 of them. It was an issue, but I quickly got over it when Sampson addressed the concerns head on in his first press conference. I don't blame the administration or the AD for hiring Sampson. I trusted that they had done their homework and that they thought Sampson was worthy of the job, despite his misgivings at Oklahoma. I though it was a great hire then, and I still think it was the right hire at the time. They took his word that he wouldn't do it again, and I don't fault them for that. Everyone deserves a second chance, right? And it's not like he was offering recruits Chevy Blazers, looking the other way as boosters padded players' bank accounts, hooking his players up with cushy summer jobs that involved little to no actual work, or committing academic fraud. No matter what you think of his excessive phone calling, Sampson legitimately cared about his players and his players cared for their coach. I was happy with the hire, even after the second wave of allegedly improper phone calls was reported by IU last fall.
Then came the NCAA's report -- conveniently released the day before we played Wisconsin at home with the Big Ten lead at stake -- which alleged that Sampson had made 10 additional phone calls while on NCAA probation. Worse yet, he allegedly lied to NCAA investigators and to IU investigators. The lying made these infractions "major" in the eyes of the NCAA.
Not this year, I thought. Not this fucking year. This was supposed to be our year. Big Ten title. Final Four. Maybe even a championship. I've been waiting too long for this year for it to go down the shitter. Not. This. Year.
IU ponied up $200,000 and an anonymous donor ponied up the remaining $550,000 to force Sampson to resign about a week and a half after the NCAA's report was released. Disgrace shrouded the IU basketball program. More than anything else, I was disappointed because it was just so stupid of a thing to ruin one's coaching career.
To top it off, we end up making Dan Dakich our interim coach, even though the players' overwhelming choice was assistant coach Ray McCallum. It should be noted that Dakich was not even an assistant until this past fall when assistant Rob Senderoff resigned. McCallum, on the other hand, was an assistant all along, had recruited some of the players, and was simply a more familiar face to the players. Under Dakich, the team faltered, going 3-4 down the stretch, losing in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament, snagging a fucking 8 seed in the NCAA tournament, and then putting forth minimal effort in their first-round loss to Arkansas. For the past month, it looked like the players simply gave up. They obviously didn't jell with Dakich, and they didn't play with the kind of emotion they played with under Sampson. An 8 seed! This was supposed to be our year.
Now I am (as I mentioned above) just bitter and disappointed. I got my hopes up, and I still can't fathom how we went from a top 10 team a month and a half ago to an 8 seed (!) and a first-round exit. I love IU. I love watching IU basketball. Since I watched my first full IU game -- a 1989 game against Michigan when Jay Edwards hit a 3 at the buzzer for the win -- I have bled cream and crimson. I expect certain things, and I certainly expected this year to turn out differently.
As IU fans, we're often delusional about our beloved Hoosiers. We cling to those 5 banners hanging in Assembly Hall and those 8 Final Fours and those 20 Big Ten Championships, believing that the program is much better off than it actually is. The fact of the matter is that we have been average since 1993, when we were ranked #1 going into the NCAA tournament (and we all know that we would have won the title had Alan Henderson not injured his knee, putting him out of commission for the tournament). Since 1993, we haven't had anything better than a 4 seed (2001 -- a first round loss to Kent State in Mike Davis's first year).
I remember a time, not so long ago, when a Sweet 16 was expected every year, and anything less than that was a disappointment. Since IU made the Sweet 16 in 1994, we have been back exactly once -- during the team's remarkable run to the 2002 title game.
First round exits in 1995 (9 seed), 1996 (6 seed), 1997 (8 seed), 2000 (6 seed), 2001 (4 seed), and 2008 (8 seed).
Second round exits in 1998 (7 seed), 1999 (6 seed), 2003 (7 seed), 2006 (6 seed), and 2007 (7 seed).
An NIT berth in 2005. What the hell is the NIT?
As if that wasn't bad enough, the year before, the team had its first losing season since 1970. Are you kidding me?
Meanwhile, since we last won an NCAA title in 1987, every other one of the "Big 6" programs has won at least one title: Duke (3: 1991, 1992, 2001), Kansas (1: 1988), Kentucky (2: 1996, 1998), North Carolina (2: 1993, 2005), and UCLA (1: 1995).
Each has been to multiple Final Fours: Duke (9: 1988, 1989, 1990, 1991, 1992, 1994, 1999, 2001, 2004), Kansas (5: 1988, 1991, 1993, 2002, 2003), Kentucky (4: 1993, 1996, 1997, 1998), North Carolina (7: 1991, 1993, 1995, 1997, 1998, 2000, 2005), and UCLA (3: 1995, 2006, 2007).
In that same span, IU has been to only two Final Fours (1992, 2002), reaching the championship game only once (2002), but failing to bring home a title. Since 1993, we have won a grand total of one Big Ten championship (2002), and even then, we shared it with three other teams.
So there it is. The State of Indiana Basketball. Just getting by. A shell of its former self, struggling to keep up and waiting to break out. IU basketball has reached a crossroads. Whoever IU hires as its next coach will have a gigantic impact on the direction of this program -- up, down, or stagnant.
I still think the position of head men's basketball coach at Indiana University is one of the top five positions in college basketball. IU is the flagship university of the only state in which basketball is religion. I hope the University hires someone who will bring excitement back to Assembly Hall (but who won't make too many phone calls from within its corridors). It's not about whether a potential coach played or didn't play at IU. It's not about whether he has some connection to the state or some connection to Bob Knight. It's about whether a potential coach can excite this fan base and bring IU back to it's former glory. It's about winning the right way and graduating as many players as possible. Most importantly, it's about whether a potential coach is ready and willing to become a legend. That last point may seem like a no-brainer, but I don't think every coach is willing (or ready) to become a legend. But to be a successful head coach at IU, you must be willing to be a legend. Branch McCracken and Bob Knight were legends and strove to be legends. Mike Davis wasn't ready to be a legend, at least not at IU. Kelvin Sampson was ready and willing, but perhaps a little too willing. Were it not for his happy fingers, I have no doubt that he had the passion, drive, and skills to become a legend.
I'd be hard-pressed to find a school whose alumni care more about their university than IU. Just about every IU alum you meet unequivocally and genuinely loved his or her time at IU. More than anything, we love basketball. It unites alumni and students alike, whether you're a business major or a fine arts major. We're great fans. Unlike some other fan bases, we're not obnoxious, we don't whine whenever something doesn't go our way, we're not petty, we don't have a "little brother complex," and we don't walk around with chips on our shoulders. We just love to love IU basketball, and we've suffered through mediocrity for too long. We fill up Assembly Hall every game, year in and year out, yelling our lungs out (I implore you to find a college basketball venue that gets louder than Assembly Hall when it gets rockin'), hoping that our passion in the stands will find its way onto the court (and it usually does).
With this next coaching search, I hope and pray that the administration hires the right man. I don't give a shit what his name is or his race or his religion or his alma mater (notwithstanding Purdue, of course, since we want someone capable of going to the Final Four). All I want is someone who will return this program to where it should be. A stopgap will not do. A "good coach" will not do. Only a legend will do.