Editor’s note: Regular Sports Nut columnist Howie Magner is on assignment (watching the CBI tournament), so Milwaukee Magazine interns Logan Macomber and James Carlton will serve as temporary guest writers.
Photo by Adam Ryan Morris
Turn on sports radio and listen. Pull up a blog or news site and glance down at the comments section. Casually mention the name to a fan sitting at the bar with his eyes glued to an oversized television screen.
It’s become clear: Marquette basketball fans really don’t like Tom Crean.
Crean is the former Golden Eagles head coach who left the school in 2008 to take charge at Indiana. The move was unpopular in Milwaukee at the time, but has become the source of even greater loathing the past couple of years.
Now, as Crean’s Hoosiers enter the NCAA Tournament Thursday with a No. 1 seed in the same East Regional in which the Golden Eagles are seeded third, fans have taken to the airways, blogosphere and barstools to talk about the scintillating possibility of a Marquette-Indiana showdown in the Elite Eight. Already, they’re spewing venom at Crean and his Goliatheian Hoosiers, while salivating at the thought of knocking the pearly white smile right off the face of the immaculately coiffed coach.
It’s a sincere ire many local basketball fans have for Crean. Also a peculiar one.
After all, he was the most successful coach in Marquette history not named Al McGuire. He led the 2003 team to the Final Four. The Golden Eagles made the NCAA Tournament five times in Crean’s nine seasons; in the prior 16 years, under four different coaches, they made just four trips.
And he did it all while exuding PR savvy and using his adroit eye for talent and seemingly slick charm to lure some of the nation’s top recruits to Milwaukee. Besides Dwyane Wade, who was lightly recruited due to academic problems, Crean attracted in-state stars such as Travis Diener and Steve Novak and drew transfer players like Robert Jackson, all of whom contributed to the Final Four run. He was very popular, at least among fans.
Nevertheless, when Crean left for Indiana, one of the most prized coaching jobs in college basketball, the support here quickly dried up. Fans saw him as a deserter, a perception exaggerated by how the move played out: abrupt to the point that his players learned of the change not from Crean, but through media reports. Fans saw his grinning, high-fiving crowd play and animated interviews as duplicitous. They cheered and jeered as his first three seasons in Bloomington, Ind. – where he’d arrived to find a desecrated program decimated by NCAA violations committed under the previous coach and a derelict roster consisting of walk-ons – resulted in a combined 28-66 record.
But then things started to change. Crean’s own recruits, including Victor Oladipo, this year’s Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, and Cody Zeller, one of the nation’s best, quickly turned the program around. Last year, the Hoosiers made the Sweet 16, and this season, they’re a favorite to win the national championship.
Crean’s success has been accompanied by ever-more vociferous disdain from Marquette fans. Many view current coach Buzz Williams as the antithesis of the dapper Crean. The popular Williams is a bald, sweating Texan whose voice goes hoarse during games and afterward gives croaky interviews in his average-American drawl. While Crean apprenticed at elite Michigan State before taking the Marquette job, Williams paid his dues at lower-tier schools in the south and west before coming to Milwaukee as an assistant in 2007.
But, as much as fans want to see the 40-year-old Williams as different, the possibility remains that he could follow in the 46-year-old Crean’s footsteps. Despite signing a long-term contract in 2011, Williams’ name is always mentioned as one of the highly regarded fast-risers who could be snatched away.
Would Williams bolt the way Crean did? Possibly, especially if one of the big-time powerhouses every coach dreams about came calling. Would Marquette fans turn on Williams the same way? Probably.
Williams has proven himself an excellent recruiter and motivator. He’s gotten his teams to the Sweet 16 the last two seasons. But he’s yet to take the next step, as Crean did, past that threshold. Holding the highest seed of his five-year tenure, if Williams can finally guide his Golden Eagles beyond the Sweet 16, there’s a good chance they’ll meet Crean’s Hoosiers in the Elite Eight.
Marquette would have to get past tiny Davidson, an aptly named tourney giant-killer. On Tuesday, Williams said, “I’m not smart enough to be on the selection committee, but [Davidson is] not a 14 seed.”
Marquette’s likeliest foe in the next round: soon-to-be New Big East member Butler, a well-coached mid-major only a few years removed from playing for the national title. If Marquette won that, a date could await with second-seeded Miami, an athletic team Marquette would have to beat with ball security and 3-pointers.
And then, potentially, Indiana. It’d be an exhilarating, must-watch game, one that would boil blood in this city. Williams vs. Crean, student vs. teacher, beloved vs. reviled, with a trip to the Final Four on the line. It’s a succulent possibility.
Of course, there’s much work to be done before Marquette fans can envision such a scenario.
"I think sometimes people lose touch with how hard it is to get to the NCAA tournament," Williams said. "We just won the Big East. We're a three seed.”
Williams can fairly implore fans and media to appreciate the moment. But if Crean’s Hoosiers are waiting in Washington, D.C. in a few weeks, and Williams’ Golden Eagles aren’t there to meet them, the biggest moment for Marquette and Buzz to together do something great may have permanently passed.