Crean looks to build hoops power at football-crazy Georgia
ATHENS, Ga. (AP) — Tom Crean can put a positive spin on pretty much any conversation.
Sure, it’s been a bit of a culture shock to go from hoops-crazy Indiana to a state that treats the sport with a collective meh. But, without batting an eye, he’ll tell you that Georgia has everything it needs to become a basketball powerhouse.
“Coaching is coaching,” Crean said. “I don’t view it as being different.”
But Georgia’s resume is undeniable.
The Bulldogs haven’t won an NCAA Tournament game since 2002. The most significant highlight in the school’s largely forgettable basketball history came way back in 1983, when its first NCAA appearance resulted in a run all the way to the Final Four (that was the year N.C. State beat heavily favored Houston in a memorable title game, so Georgia’s participation is a mere footnote).
No problem, in the World According to Crean.
“There is tradition in basketball,” he insisted. “Have they won? Can they win? Did they have it rolling with people when they had it going? Because then you have a chance of getting it back.”
Obviously, they’re not back yet.
The Bulldogs (6-4) were dealt an embarrassing 24-point loss by Georgia State, a far less prominent school from their own backyard. Last weekend, they squandered an 18-point lead at home against No. 18 Arizona State, denying Crean the first signature win of his new tenure.
“We just have to learn how to win,” Crean said, never straying too far from optimism.
At 52, Crean is on a comeback in his own career.
He started out at Marquette, restoring that program’s faded luster with players such as Dwyane Wade. He moved on to Indiana, one of the sport’s glamour jobs but severely tainted when he arrived in 2008.
The Hoosiers were dealing with an NCAA scandal that cost Kelvin Sampson his job and left Crean with a depleted roster. The rebuilding process was slow and painful.
In Crean’s first season, Indiana endured the worst mark in school history: 6-25, with only a single win in the Big Ten. The next two seasons weren’t much better. But the Hoosiers finally broke through in 2011-12, knocking off top-ranked Kentucky early in the season on the way to a 27-9 finish. They captured the Big Ten title the following year, raising hopes that Indiana had reclaimed its place among the nation’s elite.
The success didn’t last. Another conference championship was offset by three seasons in which the Hoosiers failed to post a winning mark in conference play. They never advanced past the NCAA round of 16. Crean was criticized for failing to land the state’s top high school talent.
Finally, after a first-round loss in the NIT, Crean was fired by Indiana in 2017.
Now, he’s back in the game at Georgia, a school where basketball is generally viewed as a way to pass the time between football season and spring football.
But Crean, who worked in television during his year out of coaching, was struck by a conversation he had about the Bulldogs with another coach-turned-broadcaster, Seth Greenberg.
“He said their facilities are better than what you had at Indiana,” Crean recalled. “I mean, it is all right here.”
Indeed, the school has spent millions on much-needed renovations at aging Stegeman Coliseum, to go along with a state-of-the-art practice facility.
Also, in what could be viewed as a backhanded slap at his previous employer, Crean said he’s already got a strong relationship with Georgia President Jere Morehead and athletic director Greg McGarity.
“I am not used to having an athletic director that is waiting for me after games,” Crean said. “I’m not used to being in a situation where I am getting a text from the president after the game. It isn’t some, ‘Hey, hang in there,’ but real words.”
No one can deny football’s hold over this university, which has only grown under coach Kirby Smart. The Bulldogs reached the national championship game last season and just missed out on the playoff this year.
Even Georgia’s basketball players gush at the gridiron success.
“As long as Kirby is the coach, I think they’re going to be national championship contenders,” forward E’Torrion Wilridge said. “The enthusiasm and the fans are always going to gravitate toward football because Kirby has turned this whole thing around and put us on top. We’re not trying to compete with football. We just want to have the same energy and electricity go through the arena as goes through Sanford (Stadium). I think that’s what Coach Crean is trying to build.”
Crean wants to embrace Georgia’s success on the football field, not run from it.
“I got my indoctrination into it in the spring game, when there were 85,000 people there on an April afternoon,” he said. “I think it is phenomenal.”
His son, Riley, is a pitcher on Georgia’s baseball team. The entire family — Crean and his wife have three children — is adjusting well to life in Athens.
“You want your family to be really happy, too,” he said. “Ours is very happy and very resilient, especially with everything we had to deal with at Indiana at times. They’re very, very resilient, so I want them to be happy with all of this too.”