Wittman laughed to himself, and there was no need for him to name which coach he was talking about. It’s been exactly 30 years since Wittman last wore those candy-stripe red and white warmups for legendary coach Bobby Knight at Indiana, but his connection to his college remains strong. Wittman is a Hoosier to his core: He grew up in Indianapolis and won a championship playing alongside Isiah Thomas in 1981.
So, with the Indiana back in the Sweet 16 for the second year in a row and having a legitimate shot at a national championship as the No. 1 seed in the East Region of the NCAA tournament, Wittman will be watching with sincere interest when it takes on Syracuse on Thursday at Verizon Center.
“I still have strong ties there and I’m always rooting for them,” said Wittman, who was inducted into the Indiana University Basketball Hall of Fame in 1996.
Indiana hasn’t won a national title since 1987 or advanced to the Final Four since 2002, so Wittman won’t concern himself about which teams the Hoosiers beat – or how they beat them – along the way. They needed a furious rally to fend off Temple in the round of 32.
“I don’t care, to be honest with you,” Wittman said. “Just win and advance. At this point and time, that’s all you need to do. Doesn’t matter if it’s ugly. Bottom line is winning.”
Wittman added that he is excited to see his alma mater rebound from the forgettable Kelvin Sampson era between 2006-08, which resulted in several major NCAA recruiting violations and sanctions that hampered the program.
“It’s come a long way. It was run in the ground in the matter of 18 months. That’s the thing that’s the most gratifying,” Wittman said. “In the matter of 18 months, it was torn completely down. And you had to start from scratch.”
Current Indiana Coach Tom Crean was hired in the aftermath and endured three losing seasons with the Hoosiers before leading Indiana to a 27-9 mark last season. This season, Crean helped the Hoosiers achieve a No. 1 ranking and win their first outright Big Ten regular-season title in 20 years.
“That’s the thing that’s the most gratifying. That’s a storied program that has a rich tradition, and a rich history, that was built up over 30, 40, 50 years,” Wittman said. “Tom’s first couple teams, it was not pretty. I give them a lot of credit for sticking to it and finally now getting the team back to prominence. So I’m really, really happy for him and the university. It’s been really gratifying these last two years to see them take the steps they have and hopefully, now, we can continue down that path.”