Tom Crean was on yet another recruiting trip, looking for players who would help him rebuild the shattered Indiana basketball program, when he saw the red lights coming up behind him. It was late at night and he was on State Road 37, a few miles south of Indianapolis. Tired from the trip and tired of losing, he hadn’t noticed that he was nearing 80 mph on a stretch of road where the posted speed limit was 55.
The trooper did notice.
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.”
When Crean needs someone to talk to about coaching, he calls his brothers-in-law, both of whom know a little bit about the ups and downs of coaching: Baltimore Ravens Coach John Harbaugh and San Francisco 49ers Coach Jim Harbaugh. Crean is married to their sister, Joani.
“I talk to them all the time,” Crean said. “Sometimes I call them, sometimes they’ll call me just to let me kind of unload on them. John is great at making sense of things quickly. Jim’s different. He’s just a force of nature.”
One of Crean’s lowest moments was a game against Wisconsin in February 2010. The Hoosiers lost, 78-46, Indiana’s worst loss ever in Assembly Hall. Crean wasn’t around to see the end, having been ejected midway through the second half.
“I was frustrated, embarrassed, angry — you name it,” he said. “Right after I got into the locker room there was a knock at the door and it was John. He was in town for the [NFL] combine. He gave me a talking to, telling me not to be embarrassed and not to feel bad because I was standing up for my players. If he hadn’t done that I probably would have gone in after the game and apologized. Instead, I went in and said I’d never apologize for standing up for my team. Which was the right thing to do. Then John sat up with me until 2 in the morning, even though he had to go watch kickers at 7 the next morning.”
Crean often watches Ravens and 49ers games on tape in part so he can try to think along with his brothers-in-law but also because it is less emotional that way. “Watching a game live when my parents-in-law are in the house is pretty intense,” he said. “This weekend [when both teams have NFL playoff games] will be tense but a lot of fun.”
As difficult as Crean knows it will be for his team going into Ohio State — especially having beaten the Buckeyes already — he feels a lot more comfortable walking onto the court with a team he knows can compete.
“I really think the experience of the last few years made me a better coach,” he said. “Because I had no choice. I had to try to come up with creative ways to stay in the game, to find ways for us to compete. I had to keep my head down and stay focused on the process of getting better. I never thought we wouldn’t get it turned. But it’s very nice for all of us to see the work starting to pay off.”
Two wins, even huge wins, at home do not a champion make. But there’s no doubt the Hoosiers have come a long, long way. Even if their coach is still spending a lot of time on SR-37.
For more from the author, visit his blog at www.feinsteinonthebrink.com. For his previous columns for The Post, go to washingtonpost.com/feinstein.