I grew up as a Michigan football fan, meaning that in December 2014, I watched the rumors that the program would hire Jim Harbaugh with bated breath. After suffering through Brady Hoke’s rocky tenure in Ann Arbor, and ultimately the 5-7 season that earned Hoke his walking papers, a historic college football blue blood had found its savior.
What tends to be forgotten, however, is that in Hoke’s first year at the helm, Michigan went 11-2, beat its hated rival Ohio State for the first time since 2003 and won a BCS bowl game. Hoke got four seasons before he was out, even after he returned the program to relative mediocrity after the even darker days of the Rich Rodriguez administration.
Just minutes after the NCAA Round of 64 tipped off, Indiana announced that men’s basketball head coach Tom Crean would be fired after nine years in charge of the Hoosiers. Crean’s team came into the season ranked No. 11 and even scored victories against Kansas and North Carolina before dropping an ignominious contest to Fort Wayne. Plagued by injury throughout the rest of the year, Indiana finished the season tied for 10th the Big Ten before losing in the first round of the NIT.
Crean became yet another victim of a thought process sweeping across college athletic departments defined by the question, “What have you done for me lately?”
Les Miles won a national title in football at LSU, but was canned after the Tigers fell out of the national title conversation as rival Alabama ran rampant on the entire country. Mark Helfrich took Oregon football to the first College Football Playoff championship game, but was dismissed just two years later. Although Dom Starsia was the winningest coach in NCAA Division I men’s lacrosse history at the time of his dismissal, after Virginia missed the NCAA tournament in back-to-back seasons, the legendary architect of four national championships was asked to pack up and leave Charlottesville after more than 20 years there.
Crean’s firing is emblematic of a historically excellent program grasping for relevance. Indiana has not made the Final Four in 15 years now and suffered through NCAA imposed penalties at the outset of Crean’s tenure after violations during the Kelvin Sampson era. Despite Crean bringing the program back from an unparalleled low to win the Big Ten twice and make the Sweet 16 on three separate occasions, the brass in Bloomington decided to make a change, believing that Crean had done little for them lately.
That swift rush to decisions about coaches by athletic departments and a school’s increasingly influential boosters has had inconclusive results at best. Although Harbaugh has become one of the best coaches in college football, he also came to Michigan as a coach with tremendous NFL success behind him. The results for LSU and Oregon football, as well as Virginia lacrosse, remain to be seen.
The coaching turnover for these elite schools, however, prohibits the possibility of a coach managing to make the necessary adjustments on the recruiting trail or simply taking time to put it all together. After UCLA considered firing Steve Alford at the end of last season, Alford responded with a 28-3 regular season and a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament after securing commitments from star freshmen Lonzo Ball and T.J. Leaf.
Alford has also appeared to lock in the future of his program as well, as Ball’s younger and similarly talented brothers have committed to the Bruins. Duke fans have of course seen a similar narrative, as a large section of the fan base and those all-important athletic boosters wanted Mike Krzyzewski fired in 1983 after a series of down years. Krzyzewski went on to raise Duke above its previous standard of excellence.
Now, without a clear candidate for its vacancy, it remains to be see how Indiana will fill the all-important seat at Assembly Hall once occupied by the likes of Branch McCracken and Bob Knight.
The impatience surrounding Indiana basketball’s contention has pushed it to a critical juncture. Indiana athletic director Fred Glass said in his statement on Crean’s firing that “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.”
Glass’ expectations, and by extension, those of Indiana’s fans, are for immediate national championship contention, a difficult standard to hold against any coach in charge of a major program. With a small pool of schools locking down top recruiting talent year after year, Indiana’s path to immediately playing deep into March is a difficult one.
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Things are likely to get a lot worse in Bloomington before they get any better, which is a testament to the one things athletic departments need far more than the hottest coach in the market—patience.
An answer like Harbaugh rarely comes around, and it just may be in the interest of a program to wait for its luck to come back around.
Just ask the Blue Devils.