Crean pulled over, gave the policeman his driver’s license and registration, and hoped he would only be cited for speeding. He was surprised when the officer handed him back the license and the registration and nothing more.
“Coach, I’m not giving you a ticket,” he said. “You’ve got enough troubles.”
That was about as good as it got for Crean during those early days at Indiana. He had gone 6-25 in 2008-09, his first season in Bloomington, and was on his way to a 10-21 record in his second when the sympathetic trooper decided not to ticket him.
Two years later, there is no longer any need to feel sorry for Crean. All those nights on the recruiting road are paying off. The seventh-ranked Hoosiers will take a 15-2 record into their rematch Sunday afternoon at No. 5 Ohio State. Among those 15 wins are victories over then then-No. 1 Kentucky and Ohio State, which was ranked No. 2 at the time. The win over Kentucky came on a buzzer-beating three-pointer by Christian Watford that produced the kind of court-storming almost never seen in the long history of IU basketball.
For Crean and Indiana, the road to that win was a long and often painful one to navigate — with or without cops in the rear-view mirror.
“There were certainly some moments those first couple of years when it was really tough,” Crean said late Tuesday night, back on SR-37 (and driving the speed limit) after seeing a recruit play. “I loved it at Marquette [where he went to the 2003 Final Four] but the chance to coach at Indiana was something I couldn’t pass up. I’m from the Midwest. I’ve always followed Indiana basketball. It was always something special to me.
“I knew there was a lot of work to be done but I didn’t know just how bad things were. There were academic problems and problems off the court that really set things back. I thought there were going to be some situations that would be okay but as it turned out very little was salvageable. It just wasn’t good.”
Crean was hired in the spring of 2008 after the disastrous 58-game tenure of Kelvin Sampson, who had resigned in February after being accused by the NCAA of making phone calls to recruits that he was prohibited from making because of previous violations he had committed at Oklahoma. By the time Crean coached his first game that fall, five players had either been thrown off the team or transferred, and in November 2008, Indiana was placed on three years of NCAA probation. That first team was made up of one senior, five freshmen and six walk-ons.
“Tom actually did a great job getting five wins out of that team,” said Ralph Willard, who hired Crean as a young assistant coach when he was the head coach at Western Kentucky. “As bad as it was, he never stopped trying to get the most he possibly could out of those kids. He’s doing the same thing now, except that there’s a lot more to get from the group he’s got now.”