Testifies Bulldogs big man Nicolas Claxton: “Honestly, I’ve never had a coach push me in the ways he has on a consistent basis, every day. It has been a great change for me.”
The changes will start to become more evident as Georgia opens the regular season with an 8:30 p.m. home game on Friday against Savannah State at Stegeman Coliseum.
Anyone Crean has run into while he was out trying to recruit a fan base – he has dropped the puck at a club hockey game, passed out food to students at UGA’s Tate Center during finals, led the Braves pregame chop at SunTrust Park, made all the usual rounds at the frat and sorority houses – will add that he is most demanding of their attention.
“When you look at the passion that they have for other sports, there’s no reason whatsoever to think we can’t get that in basketball. It has been here. It’s just connecting with that passion,” Crean said.
And, yet, those under the most duress have to be the graphic artists of Athens, who already have been stretched to their limits keeping up with the coach’s desire for the next motivational poster. So much wall space, so little time.
Crean collects maxims the way a belly button collects lint – continually, organically. “I’m a big believer in visual management and symbolism,” he said.
Hired in March as Mark Fox’s replacement, he already has done some dramatic redecorating in the office. That’s beyond the two TVs in there that he always keeps on, because quiet so unsettles him. (In Crean’s world, there always needs to be something moving, something making a little noise, which is why, he says, he always sleeps with an overhead fan turning.)
There is, for instance, the mural taking up the entire wall opposite his desk, featuring the various players he sent to the NBA from previous postings at Marquette and Indiana. Or the large, acrylic NBA logo that would be the envy of any man cave. Note the common carrot Crean chooses to dangle before players and recruits.
See that sign by the door, one of a half-dozen lining his walls, with the diverse thoughts from a host of sources. Not a basketball coach among them, Crean says almost proudly.
“Victory lies in the organization of the non-obvious.” – Oswald Spengler.
“I’m not sure who Oswald Spengler is,” Crean said, appraising the sign. (Via Wikipedia: German historian and philosopher, writer of “The Decline of the West.” Was useless, though, in designing a trapping full-court press.)
Crean is 52 and still always in the market for another influence. The search for the next concept never seems to end. It was that way when he was inventing himself as the parks and recreation major at Central Michigan who split time volunteer coaching at both his old high school and a Division III college program. And it remains that way here at his third major college head coaching job, where the deal’s for six years at $3.2 million per.
“If he’s not Barnes & Noble’s No. 1 customer in America, he’s probably in the top 10,” said former coach and current ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla. “I’ll get a text from him: Hey, did you get ‘Gridiron Genius’ yet? What did you think of the new Belichick book?
“It’s something we’ve been doing for 25 years. No matter how much success he’s had through the years, it’s how can I get better? What idea can I steal from somebody that’s going to make a drill better or make the offense or defense better or make his relationship with his players better?”
Fraschilla was someone who already had cleared a path to coaching that Crean hoped to follow. Like Crean, Fraschella threw himself into coaching while still a college student.
“I was always concerned because I didn’t play past high school, that could affect me,” said Crean, one of those high school guards who did his best work when passing the ball to somebody else. In college, so preoccupied was he with coaching part, that the studies sometimes lagged. He needed to churn out 63 credit hours in his final three semesters to graduate.
Fraschilla advised him to embrace his lack of playing experience. You’re already ahead of the people who are playing the game, his mentor told him.
At this far more advanced stage, Crean is a coach uniquely capable of operating in the shadow of King Football, as is required at Georgia. Sure, he has done it the other way, performing a rebuild on Indiana – a place somewhat more involved in its basketball – after Kelvin Sampson sullied the place. Yet, his game competes with football for dominance at even the family reunion level. He has only himself to blame. He married into the situation.
Joani Harbaugh had just finished college and boomeranged her way back to her folks’ home near Bowling Green, Ky. At this stage in the early 1990s, dad Jack was coaching a little football at Western Kentucky, his place as patriarch of a family coaching dynasty not yet exactly spelled out.
While home, Joani took a job at a local gym, in both training and sales. One of Western Kentucky’s women’s basketball assistants worked out there, and happened to mention a young men’s assistant who really needed to start working out.
In comes Tom Crean, the aforementioned out-of-plumb assistant, who as a coach was still as green as an unripe banana. Joani gave him the full tour. Crean left without buying a membership. That club and its eager rep are still waiting to sell him one.
“About four months later we started to date. And the rest is history,” Joani – now Crean – said.
That Harbaugh name is still worn by Joani’s brothers John – head coach of the Baltimore Ravens – and Jim – head football coach at Michigan. You’d think that duo – along with her football-coaching father – would have been a formidable gauntlet for any suitor to face.
“I was more nervous about the mother of the Harbaughs,” Crean said. “There were all very, very good. They have been role models to me for a long time, longer than the 25 years we’ve been married.”
Making basketball relevant began in his own home. For a while there at the beginning, his wife kept calling basketball infractions penalties rather than fouls.
So, if Crean can carve out his niche in that family, why can’t he make it at Georgia?
“Here is where I think Tom is a great fit: He loves football, by the virtue of his family background,” Fraschilla said. “He appreciates football coaches and he has used many of them as mentors – not just the Harbaughs, but Nick Saban and Urban Meyer and Belichick. When you coach at a place like Georgia or Florida or Ohio State or Texas, you have to embrace the idea that football is king. Those who do that recognize it’s pretty cool to coach basketball at a football school once you really get it going.
“I think Tom fits the culture.”
As for trying to coach up a program that last won a NCAA tournament game in 2002, Crean enters stressing the most fundamental of the fundamentals. “Everything’s important,” is one of his slogans, repeated as a nearly daily mantra. So, he urges guard Tyree Crump to lengthen his stride when driving to the basket and all his left-handed shooters to work on their sloppy footwork before launching, and a hundred other little details.
In nine seasons at Indiana, Crean and his methods went 166-135. If you throw out the first three because of NCAA sanctions and the Sampson hangover, he averaged 23 wins a year from that point forward and reached the NCAA tournament four of those six years (three Sweet 16 appearances).
But at Indiana, critics lined up to condemn double-digit losses in those Sweet 16 games and the fact that he wasn’t landing all the Mr. Basketballs like he should. Then, when injuries cut deeply into his 2016-17 team and he lost to Georgia Tech in the first round of the NIT, Crean got to experience one more inevitable consequence of coaching: Getting fired.
He spent last season doing games for ESPN, swallowing the anger that came with losing the IU job, while his kin adjusted, too. And a big adjustment it is when coaching is the very taproot of your family tree, and when you take each assignment as a personal mission, not just a job.
“If you do it the right way, you’re poring yourself into that place,” Joani Crean said. “It’s not your alma mater, but it becomes your place. Our kids did that too, they pored themselves into the place. That’s the downfall when it doesn’t go well.”
Georgia is the Creans’ place now. Their oldest daughter Ainsley has taken a job in Atlanta. Son Riley is a walk-on pitcher for the Bulldogs. Youngest Megan, 13, has eased into another school and club volleyball team.
While Tom has thrown himself back into the community of coaches, for his part working to install the same up-tempo style that had Indiana leading the Big 10 in scoring five of his last six years there.
“I think he’s going to take this program to something it’s never been before,” one of his guards, Crump, predicted.
Crean swears in the process he’ll begrudge football nothing. No jealousy or competing for attention here. It’s not all that complicated. Aren’t they all members of the same tribe? Don’t they all answer to the same adages that are gradually taking over his office walls?
Well, then comes the quite foreseeable day Georgia plays Harbaugh’s Michigan in a football game of great importance. Then it gets a little complicated.