EAST LANSING, Mich. — Georgia basketball coach Tom Crean is no stranger to rebuilding programs, and no one knows that better than College Basketball Hall of Fame coach Tom Izzo.
Izzo, who has led Michigan State to a national championship along with seven Final Fours and 13 Big Ten titles, remembers making Crean his first hire when he took over the Spartans’ program 23 years ago.
“Tom Crean helped me build this thing, he was phenomenal,” Izzo told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and DawgNation in an exclusive interview. “I had gotten Tom hired as a graduate assistant (1989, when Judd Heathcote was still ahead coach), and as soon as I got this job, he was the first guy I went after.
“I knew he was a relentless worker, good recruiter, a very good Xs and Os guy, and he was driven.”
Crean has shown those qualities to Bulldogs fans already this season with Georgia off to a 7-4 start including last Saturday’s impressive 70-59 road win at Georgia Tech and the 76-74 near-miss against a Top 20-ranked Arizona State team earlier this month.
Izzo has taken note of Crean’s early success after taking over a downtrodden Georgia basketball program that has been to the NCAA Tournament just once in the past seven years.
“I’m glad he’s not in my conference, but I’m also glad he’s back into coaching,” Izzo said. “I think people there will enjoy him, and I think he’ll build it, they just have to give him a little time and let him get all the people in there he needs.”
Izzo said Georgia can build a basketball program alongside its championship caliber football program, much like he has been able to do at Michigan State and Florida and Ohio State have done.
“I think this is a football school 1A, and 1B, it’s a basketball school, Florida has gotten to be the same,” Izzo said. “Ohio State is probably a little more football, but it’s a pretty good basketball school.
“There’s no reason at Georgia you can’t do that. I know there’s players in the state of Georgia. Atlanta, it’s like Chicago and Detroit, lots of people recruiting the city, but the players are there.”
Crean, like Izzo, has an innate love of football that works to his advantage at the college level.
“Tom is smart and he has a lot of good football friends, pro and college, and he uses football to help him in basketball,” Izzo said. “I think he’ll do that at Georgia, because I think he’ll get along with the football guys.
“I don’t think there will be jealousy because he’s been brought up a football guy.”
Indeed, Crean is married into the Harbaugh family, and maintains close relations with Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh and Baltimore Ravens football coach John Harbaugh.
Just as Izzo is a regular at Michigan State football games, driving through parking lots on a golf cart and visiting with fans each Saturday of the Spartans’ home games in East Lansing, Crean has made himself available at the Bulldogs’ home football games.
“I think why he’ll be successful there is he can coach, he’ll demand some things,” Izzo said, “but importantly, I think he’ll embrace football, where a lot of coaches get jealous of it.”
Izzo remembers the characteristics Crean help instill at Michigan State that have led to the Spartans becoming a national basketball power.
Izzo said Crean had so much of an influence in helping to build the Spartans’ 2000 national championship team that he sent him a national championship ring even though Crean had moved on to coach Marquette (1999-2008).
“In football terms, he’s an incredible offensive coordinator, and he has a very good offensive mind,” Izzo said. “But he has the base to be a great defensive coach, like he was here.”
Izzo’s programs are known for their defensive prowess and physical rebounding nature.
“Tom brought some of that rebounding here every bit as much as I did,” Izzo said. “This program was team built — Tom, BG (Brian Gregory) and Stan Heath. But Tom was absolutely instrumental in helping me build this thing.
“That’s why I’ll always appreciate what he’s done for me.”
Competing with Crean
When Izzo says he’s glad Crean isn’t in the same conference, he’s referencing the rivalry the two coaches built after Crean took over and re-established Indiana basketball.
“He did an unbelievable job at Indiana, and I think he had to rebuild it,” Izzo said. “But in that state, it’s 19 years after Bob (Knight) was there, and there’s still people talking about him. There’s been a couple guys who have been there since Bob Knight, but nobody has really replaced him if you know what I mean, and Tom was the closest thing.
“But it was ugly from day one, he had to deal with the (NCAA) issues that were there, and then he had the wrath from the Bob Knight fans, so I think that was hard on Tom,” Izzo said. “That’s unfair for any coach, just like it will be unfair for the guy that follows Mike Krzyzewski.”
Georgia, however, offers Crean a unique opportunity.
“You know, even when he was at Marquette going to that Final Four, there were still some Al McGuire whispers around that program,” Izzo said.
“Georgia, in a lot of ways he gets to build his own program, and the canvas is blank there and he gets to paint his own portrait,” Izzo said, “and he gets to put his mark on that program — and I have a lot of respect for Mark Fox — but it’s not like he’s replacing a legend like Knight.”
Izzo wants to see Crean do well at Georgia, because he believes he has earned it.
“Here’s what I know for sure: I know he’s a phenomenal working recruiter,” Izzo said. “He’s a very good basketball coach, and he’s a very attention-to-detail guy.” “
Crean’s intensity is unmistakable, and he’s already made it clear he wants the Bulldogs basketball program on an accelerated path to success.
Izzo believes the year Crean spent away from coaching will serve him well as he build his brand in Athens.
“He did a great thing last year in that he got away, he visited a lot of programs, and he had a chance to sit back and evaluate,” Izzo said. “When you’re in this job, you’re on the treadmill and you never get off. But he got to sit back and say, ‘how did this guy handle that, or that guy handle this.’ He got to hear how other people think about other people and look at things constructively.
“It gives you a better perception of who you are.”
Izzo believes Crean was sometimes misunderstood at Indiana because of the ever-present pressure and speculation that comes with the Indiana job post-Knight.
“I think now at Georgia, he has to take things one step further,” Izzo said. “He needs to let himself enjoy the people around him.
“I’ll be shocked if he’s not very, very successful there.”