SACRAMENTO — Thursday afternoon, just moments after Notre Dame began the NCAA tournament, in-state rival Indiana fired Tom Crean as its men’s basketball coach. Only a year ago, Crean had been named the Big Ten’s coach of the year and won his second league championship in four seasons. He’d recruited several NBA lottery picks to the school. Indiana had advanced to three Sweet 16s in the previous five seasons — getting that far only once in the 14 seasons before it hired Crean, and after he inherited and cleaned up the massive mess left behind by his predecessor, Kelvin Sampson.
It’s a resume that should be celebrated, not condemned. But it wasn’t enough for the Hoosiers and their rabid fan base, who soured on the coach and who were vocal in their demands for change. Indiana Athletic Director Fred Glass heard those demands, and Thursday he acted. In doing so, he made one thing perfectly clear: In the year that marks the 30th anniversary of Indiana’s last championship, it’s time for one of college basketball’s storied programs to get back to the mountaintop.
“I think this is one of the best jobs in college basketball,” Glass said at a news conference in Bloomington hours after Crean’s firing was announced. “I think through a variety of situations, we haven’t been there since 1987. I think sometimes, those of us who are so close to it at Indiana don’t step back and recognize what an extraordinary job this is.”
Glass later would say that resources would not stand in the way of hiring the Hoosiers’ next basketball coach. He also said they wanted a coach whose team was still playing, be it the NBA or college. How about a coach with in-state ties?
“Double-check-plus,” Glass said.
All of that — the referencing of the title team, the discussion of resources, the desire to hire a coach whose season is still in progress, the allure of a coach with in-state ties — all come back to one name: Steve Alford.
Other than Bob Knight, no name is more synonymous with Indiana basketball than Alford, the all-American talent from the little town of New Castle, nestled less than 50 miles outside of Indianapolis. After being named Indiana’s Mr. Basketball in 1983, Alford went on to accomplish just about everything one possibly could during his four years as a Hoosier: becoming the program’s all-time leading scorer, being named Big Ten player of the year and a two-time all-American. Most importantly, he was the senior captain of that 1987 NCAA-championship-winning squad.
It’s a resume that screams out to Hoosiers fans, and reminds them of everything they want to be. There’s only one problem: Alford is gainfully employed at another basketball blue blood, UCLA, which he has in the NCAA tournament with a consensus top three-pick in this year’s draft, point guard Lonzo Ball, and whom he will lead into the Big Dance on Friday night as a No. 3 seed here against No. 14 Kent State in the South Region’s first round.
From the way Alford answered the question about his potential interest in the job, however, it seems safe to say he won’t mind hearing from his alma mater once his time in this tournament comes to a close.
“It’s March Madness, and unfortunately in our business you’re either on top or something like this is happening to all of us,” Alford said. “I’ve been in a long time, 26 years now. So I’ve seen things evolve and how they go, but that’s never been something that I look at, whether it be that job or other jobs. I learned a long time ago, when I was probably four or five years into the job, I started interviewing for jobs that that’s what I wanted.
“When I quickly trusted God and my faith my journey has taken me to places I had no idea that that was going to be my journey and I’ve fallen in love with every spot. I’ve met great people, great institutions. Obviously, that was 30 years ago. I was a part of that. I stood on stage with a great group of guys and won a national championship. It’s my home state. I played there.
“So obviously all that comes up, but I love UCLA. I love Los Angeles. You’re talking about arguably the greatest brand anywhere on the planet, and we got things going at a very high level now and we’re very excited about it. We’re excited about being in this tournament and seeing what we can do in this tournament.”
For those counting, that was 219 words. Nowhere among them was the phrase, “I am committed to staying at UCLA,” or “I am not interested in the Indiana job.” A reporter gave Alford, 52, the chance to say either when he asked again: Would you take a phone call from Indiana after your season is over?
“That’s really going to be my comment about that situation,” Alford said. “I don’t want that to be what this is about.”
Now, though, that’s exactly what “this” will be about.
Truth be told, there would be no small bit of irony in Alford leaving UCLA to go to Indiana. While his perception among the Bruins’ fan base — one that’s as delusional as Indiana’s — has improved this season with the addition of Ball, there’s still plenty of skepticism about a coach who, in 21 seasons as a Division I coach entering this season, has made three Sweet 16s (including the two he made in his first two seasons with the Bruins). Crean, by comparison, has made that many in the past six seasons — and has a Final Four appearance at Marquette, to boot.
But Alford has something Crean was never going to have in Bloomington: credibility with the fan base, thanks to those connections to Indiana’s glorious basketball past. And, in the final two sentences of Glass’s release announcing Crean’s firing, it was made clear that a return to that glorious past is the only acceptable outcome for whomever chooses to succeed him.
“The expectations for Indiana University basketball are to perennially contend for and win multiple Big Ten championships, regularly go deep in the NCAA tournament, and win our next national championship — and more after that,” Glass said. “We will identify and recruit a coach who will meet these expectations.”
It remains to be seen if such expectations are realistic anymore at Indiana. But whether they are or not, no one understands them better than Alford. And, by the sound of it, no one fits the criteria for what Indiana is looking for in its next coach more than him, either.