For the past 21 years, Indiana basketball has tried to forge its own path in different ways.
The Hoosiers tried it the players’ way — it produced a Final Four initially under Mike Davis but quickly ran out of steam.
They tried it the university president’s way — Adam Herbert pulled rank to give chronic overachiever Kelvin Sampson a shot but conveniently forgot he was also a chronic cheater. It held promise until the plug had to be pulled.
I.U. tried it the Fred Glass way, hiring an established, accomplished coach away from another institution with some basketball tradition. The Tom Crean rebuild took time before finally paying off with a team that spent the 2012-13 season at or near the top of the polls, but as quickly as the Hoosiers seemed to come, they also went with a myriad of missteps erasing the short-lived momentum.
So finally Indiana went the conventional way, grabbing the hot up-and-coming coach from a mid-major who had enjoyed postseason success with ties to the Midwest. Unfortunately, the in-state recruiting success for Archie Miller never translated into on-court playing success and with patience growing thin from the fanbase to the administration, it was time for the fifth reboot of the century.
On Sunday, I.U. installed Mike Woodson as the 30th coach in program history. Some might call it an out-of-box way to make a hire, some might call it a nostalgic way to make a hire.
And it’s a little bit of both of those things. Hiring an NBA lifer with no college coaching experience at age 63 is anything but conventional, and tapping a former Hoosier player with ties to the golden age of I.U. basketball could certainly be construed as grasping at straws of former glories.
Let’s split the difference and call this trying it the Indiana way.
In this case, that also means embracing the Bob Knight legacy, something that perhaps wasn’t possible until the burying of the hatchet between I.U. and Knight that occurred with last year’s reunion at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall. As a matter of fact, had the COVID-19 pandemic happened one month earlier, this hire likely wouldn’t have happened.
But with Knight back in the Hoosier fold, uniting the fractures among both the fanbase and former players, it was truly OK to hire someone like Woodson, who can offer a bridge from past to present.
He knows the toughness and attitude that characterized Knight-era teams, much to the delight of the old guard, but as an NBA coach is also well-acquainted with the modern game, much to the delight of players and recruits.
The other thing to keep in mind is that this hire isn’t about one guy. This is creating a coaching team that is greater than the sum of the parts. That starts with bringing on Thad Matta in an advisory role and will continue as the coaching staff takes shape.
Woodson might be in a starring role, but not so different from his playing days, he needs to have teammates he can rely on. Expect those teammates to have a Hoosier flavor of a sort, too.
All that said, some may not be enamored with the hire — I admit to not falling in the ambivalent camp, but one man’s slam dunk is another man’s $10 million buyout in four years, so overreaction is overrated.
Woodson may not have been Plan A, but that doesn’t preclude Plan B from success — or failure for that matter.
The measuring stick is what Indiana basketball looks like in two years. Yes, I said two years, even though Woodson is getting a six-year contract.
Make no mistake, this move was not only about getting the program going in the right direction but doing so quickly. After five years of being stuck in the mud, Indiana needs to gain some traction sooner than later.
It needs to get back to winning — the Indiana way.
Send comments to [email protected].