ATHENS — Well, he won the press conference. Annihilated it actually.
That’s what I’d heard about Tom Crean from those who have covered him before. They said he’s usually late for his press conferences, and then they go long. From that standpoint, Georgia’s new basketball coach was true to form.
Crean, 51, was introduced as the Bulldogs’ 23rd men’s basketball coach in the Taylor Room at the Coliseum Training Facility on Friday. After a brief introduction from athletic director Greg McGarity, Crean’s opening statement lasted 27 minutes. To say it was intense and far-ranging wouldn’t begin to do it justice.
It started like these things usually do, with Crean offering sincere gratitude to Georgia and its leadership for offering the job. And in that regard, he had much for which to be thankful. The Bulldogs awarded the former Indiana coach a six-year contract that will pay him $19.2 million, not including bonuses. That’s just a half-million dollars less annually than what UGA is paying football coach Kirby Smart (although that soon won’t be the case anymore).
Then Crean thanked his family, most of whom accompanied him to Athens from Sarasota, Fla. He choked up for a second when mentioning his wife, Joani, his “rock in the storm” that was the last year since losing his job at Indiana. You might recognize her maiden name — Harbaugh — as she is the daughter of Jack and brother of Jim and John, rather well-known football coaches.
Also accompanying Crean on his first trip to the UGA campus were his 12-year-old daughter Ainsley and 18-year-old son Riley. His 22-year-old, Megan, couldn’t make it because the family literally dropped her off at the Tampa International Airport on their way out of town so she could begin her new life as an Indiana University graduate in Los Angeles. Father-in-law Jack also was there, as well as Atlanta Falcons secondary coach Doug Mallory and his wife Lisa. The Mallorys have been close friends since their days at Western Kentucky, where Crean started his career as an assistant basketball coach.
Because of such relationships, Crean scoffed at one question about whether he’d be able to flourish at “a football school.”
“Are you kidding me?” the Michigan native said. “It’s great. I’m in a football family.”
And while they didn’t play football at Marquette and probably shouldn’t have at Indiana, Crean was also on Tom Izzo’s staff at Michigan State. They had a football coach at the time named Nick Saban.
Here, Crean excitedly shared that he had received a text from Georgia’s Kirby Smart on Thursday night.
“It was one heckuva a text, the kind you save for a while,” Crean said without sharing details. “His wife already reached out to my wife as well.”
And so it went. Crean said and did all the right things, and he did them enthusiastically. He moved from one thought to the next without stopping in an almost breathless monologue. At one point he actually paused in mid-sentence to take a deep breath and gulp down a swig of Coke, otherwise he might’ve fainted right there.
He said former Bulldogs guard Vern Fleming was one of his favorite players growing up. He praised Hugh Durham for beating his Western Kentucky team by 54 points in 1990 (it was actually 59). He called Georgia “a gold mine of an institution” and the university “an international school of excellence.”
Crean did it all with such zeal and exuberance that anyone within earshot had to be ready to run through a wall.
“As you can tell, his energy is off the charts,” observed McGarity, who spent six hours visiting with Crean in his Sarasota home on Thursday, along with school president Jere Morehead.
“Oh, yes, it was very much like that,” Morehead said of Crean’s demeanor during that extended meeting, which included Panera sandwiches for lunch. “That’s him.”
People who saw Crean and his family arrive at Athens Ben-Epps Airport on Friday morning said he went around and shook the hands with literally every person in the terminal. When he entered the room where the press conference was held, he shook hands with all the people in the first two rows of the section reserved for administrative staff. When I grabbed the microphone to ask my own question, Crean noticed my 10-year-old son at my side, asked his name and stepped off the podium to come and shake my kid’s hand, too.
It’s Crean’s infectious enthusiasm where the Bulldogs appear to have received a significant trade-up from their first choice of Thad Matta. McGarity was not at all wishy-washy or embarrassed to say that he went hard first after the former Ohio State coach before the former Indiana coach. He admitted to feeling “stung” by Matta, who he was almost certain was going to accept Georgia’s five-year, $16 million offer. But a long-suffering victim of chronic back pain, Matta called at 10:30 Wednesday morning and said, “I just can’t do it Greg,” and McGarity said he “almost fainted.”
But there was no hesitation from McGarity in going from his first choice to his second, or what could be called a 1B. By 1:30 p.m. that same afternoon, he was offering Crean the job. It took another 24 hours to close the deal, but whatever the opposite is of a middle-aged man with a back problem, Crean appears to be it.
He didn’t actually do any flips, but verbally he was executing round-offs and back handsprings.
“I’ve always paid attention to Georgia,” said Crean, who has worked with ESPN as a basketball analyst in the last year. “You have to. They’re good at everything they do. What’s that they say? ‘Commit to the G.’ I love that. Gonna have to get me a T-shirt with that on it.”
At the moment, the Bulldogs will give Crean anything he wants. In exchange, they’re hoping for more wins, specifically of the postseason variety. In the end, that was the rub with former coach Mark Fox, who nobody disliked. Georgia simply never won an NCAA Tournament game during his nine years.
Crean has taken his teams to nine NCAAs and four NITs and failed to advance just five times. He went to the Final Four with Michigan State as an assistant and with Marquette as a head coach. He inherited a dumpster fire from Kelvin Sampson in 2008, took three years to extinguish the fires, then averaged 24 wins for the next five years.
His failing at Indiana was never getting the Hoosiers past the Sweet 16. They were the nation’s No. 1-ranked team for one eight-week period, but Big Ten titles and NCAA quarterfinals weren’t enough for the hoops-hungry Indiana fan base.
“There are so many parallels between what has happened with this program and what can happen in this program,” Crean said. “The bottom line, the foundation is tremendous excellence, and that’s already part of this university.”
Crean said he’ll attack the Georgia job with a three-pronged plan of energy, player development and recruiting. And when he finally settles on a staff, he said they’re going to hit Greater Atlanta — hard.
“We’ve got to find a group of people who are willing to commit to the G,” he said, basically yelling it at this point.
No, Georgia men’s basketball wasn’t playing on Friday, but this day will go down as a “W.”