ATHENS — Tom Crean instantly brings star power to the Georgia basketball program. Star power, but a reputation for winning that had lagged. It was clear from the moment when he was introduced as its coach on Friday — a moment that turned into a filibuster of an opening statement — that Crean hopes to win big again and do so at a program that hasn’t traditionally done that.
“(The goal) is to continue to continue to build this program into what it can continue to become, and that is one of the most outstanding, driven, energetic basketball programs in the country,” Crean said Friday. “The goal is to make this one of the most driven, energetic programs in the country. That can compete and play for national championships. That can play for conference championships. That can play for any championship that’s put in front of them by working towards it on a daily basis.”
Crean, introduced in a press conference in the team’s basketball facility, spoke for nearly a half-hour without notes. He talked about his career, his upbringing, his family, his former players, the Georgia players he inherits, his vision for the program on and off the court, and the man he replaced as coach.
And that was just his opening statement.
“I had a lot to say,” Crean said when told his opening statement was clocked at 27 minutes.
Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity, introducing Crean, said the coach had referred to the job as a “gold mine destination.”
Crean was asked about joining a school where football is the main sport after coaching at Marquette (which didn’t have football) and Indiana (which isn’t very competitive in football.) He answered by pointing to his family — he’s married to the sister of football coaches Jim and John Harbaugh — and mentioning that he watched Nick Saban as a young assistant when both were at Michigan State. Crean said he was “excited” to be at a football school.
“It’s great. I’m in a football family,” Crean said. “Kirby [Smart] sent me a heck of a text last night. I know he’s on spring break with his family. It was one of those where I’m not deleting that.”
In his opening remarks, Crean said the foundation of success in basketball exists at Georgia, based on the school itself and its success in other sports.
“It all falls under the umbrella of tremendous excellence that’s a part of this university,” Crean said. “I’ve paid attention from afar. I’ve been a fan from afar. When you’re a sports fan like I am, you’re spending a lot of attention on more than just basketball.”
Vern Fleming, a Georgia star player in the late 1980s, was one of Crean’s first favorite players, the new Georgia coach said.
Crean name-checked former players at Indiana — Victor Oladipo and Cody Zeller — but also players he inherits at Georgia, specifically forward Nicolas Claxton. He also mentioned Juwan Parker, the outgoing senior small forward who was in attendance at the press conference.
“I look at (Claxton) and watch him play and I say that is the living proof of somebody that can be versatile and multidimensional on both ends,” Crean said of the 6-foot-11 blend of size and athleticism. “And we can go right on down the line. I don’t want to name every player, but I use that example because of the size.”
Crean also spoke about increasing fan support, including launching a “Midnight Madness” or “Georgia Madness” event to signify the beginning of practice. He said he wanted the atmosphere inside “the Steg,” as he called it, to be just like it is at Sanford Stadium for football games.
“Hopefully something will work to get the fans to come to get inside of this,” Crean said. “Because I know it’s not going to happen overnight. But I promise you that there will not be a day that goes by that we don’t continue to build on the energy of what can happen here. Build on what has already happened here, and move it forward to what will happen here.”
This was Crean’s first time in Athens since 1990, when he came for a game as an assistant coach at Western Kentucky. Crean took the job sight unseen after an interview on Thursday at his home in Florida. Crean said he could do that by researching both UGA’s facilities and potential places to live online. His wife, Joani, did that to her satisfaction.
“If she’s happy, I’m happy,” Crean said.
Crean, who turns 52 next week, was introduced one year to the day that he was let go as the coach at Indiana. Crean pointed that out in his opening statement, getting choked up as he discussed the impact it had on him and his family. Crean was there for nine years, after spending nine years at Marquette. He has a career winning percentage of .606, and he took Marquette to a Final Four and Indiana to three Sweet 16s.
The nine-year time frame appears to be a theme. Georgia fired Mark Fox last Saturday after nine years at the helm after he finished with five straight winning seasons. But there were only two NCAA Tournament trips, which proved to be the undoing for Fox.
Finally, Crean wrapped up his epic opening statement by listing three things that would be the pillars of his program:
- Energy: “There’s going to be a foundation of enthusiasm, energy and intensity, demands, details. But it is going to be done based on what can you do, and how can we get you better doing this or that, versus ‘he can’t do this, he won’t do that.’ We don’t coach in ‘can’ts’ and ‘won’ts.’”
- Player development: “Making sure that when you meet them, and you see them, and when their parents get them back, or their grandfather or grandmother gets them back, that you see a maturity that’s grown.”
- Recruiting: “There is no doubt we have to recruit. We’ve got to find a group of people that are going to commit to the G.”
(Note: Those quotes are very truncated versions of the soliloquy that Crean gave to explain each of those pillars.)
Crean paused during his statement to talk about Fox, whom he said he has not spoken to since the coaching change but who he has known for awhile. He recalled once getting a text message from Fox at 5:30 a.m. to tell him of the passing of a mutual friend.
Crean praised the way Fox ran the program during his time and pledged to build upon it.
“My respect for Mark Fox has always been high. And that is not going to change,” Crean said. “And as we continue to build this program, as we continue to move forward, I hope there’s plenty of opportunities to credit him for bringing fine people in here, fine young men, fine young student-athletes, people that represented Georgia, this state, OK, this alumni base, the right way.”