NCAA Basketball: SEC Basketball Tipoff

Oct 16, 2019; Birmingham, AL, USA; Georgia Bulldogs head coach Tom Crean speaks at the SEC basketball tipoff at Grand Bohemian Hotel Mountain Brook. Mandatory Credit: Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

If you happen not to like Tom Crean — coaches get both thumbs up and slings and arrows in their business, even from what is supposed to be, in general, a passionate constituency — you have to applaud his boundless energy and over-the-top passion which borders on fanaticism.

You get the drift, that even over an unhurried cup of coffee in the off-season, that he is never idle, never given to inaction or never has had a torpid or slothful day in his life. When he gets up in the morning, he is up emotionally even before he takes his shower for the day. From there, like the Delta slogan, he keeps climbing.

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He packs as much in his day as anyone in any profession puts into earning his daily bread. Other than family, Crean doesn’t have interests or hobbies except coaching and recruiting. “Sometimes, I regret that,” he says which brings about the notion that he is so committed to changing the image and face of Georgia’s basketball program — just like Johnny Appleseed was in dotting the landscape with apple trees — all of his time is allocated to elevating his program to a championship level.

Crean has the missionary zeal of Johnny Appleseed in that Georgia basketball has never had a run of enduring consistency, outside the best years of Hugh Durham, which brings up an interesting vignette involving the current Bulldog head basketball coach. Because of an inquiring mind and an unquenchable thirst for basketball lore and fact, Crean knew about Dominique Wilkins when Dominique was a Bulldog. He once collected a Georgia basketball media guide. He can tell you about Vern Fleming, Terry Fair and James Banks from his familiarity with that media guide.

Growing up in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan, Crean’s first emotional attachment to a universally regarded team was the Dallas Cowboys. His affection for the franchise has never gone away. It became one of the many attachments he had in sports. He was a voracious reader of the sports pages; he collected autographs with abandon and sought out relationships with players, coaches and competitions.

There was a time when he was a kid that his mother would drop him off at the Pontiac Silver Dome so he could watch Piston games or practices while she shopped. His dad took him to Comerica Park to see the Tigers play baseball, which allowed for an inspiring Georgia connection. He listened to Ernie Harwell, of Washington, Ga., call Tiger games on radio and TV. When the Cowboys came to play the Lions, it was an enrapturing circumstance in his life to see his favorite team in live and living color.

All of this not only gives one a glimpse of his past, but to become familiar with what makes him tick. Crean fondly remembers the time that he got Larry Bird’s autograph. Then Bird would become a friend. Crean became a coach at age 20, advancing from a sports junkie to dealing with strategy and setting himself on his life’s journey.

Once In grade school, one of his teachers, a devout Michigan basketball fan, reminded her class that the Indiana Hoosiers would be playing the Wolverines that night on television. “Be sure and watch the game,” she advised, “and be sure and pull for the Wolverines.”

Tom did watch the game, but was taken by the aurora of the legendary coach, Bob Knight, and the candy stripe warmups that Indiana wore. He would become a friend of Knight’s. You could have bowled Crean over with a feather if anyone had suggested at the time that he would someday be a coach who followed Knight in Bloomington.

This brings about an interesting vignette involving Knight. Crean’s friendship with Knight soured after taking over the IU program. Knight had no interest in helping or identifying with anybody at Indiana. He no longer wanted to be friends with Crean. However, Crean embraced the Knight Legend and tradition with the Hoosiers.

“I’ve always respected Coach Knight and still do. I was happy to be part of the Bob Knight tradition, but while we embraced what he did for the school, we had to move on,” Crean says.

This aside about that. One day before Georgia hired Mark Fox in 2009, I got a call from Joe Dean, the longtime athletic director at LSU who was a friend of Knight’s. He led with a statement, followed by a question. Knight, Joe said, felt that he had one championship run left “in him” and that there were only about three or four schools where he thought he could win an NCAA title. Georgia was one of them. “Would Georgia be interested in talking to Knight?” was the question.

“That says Bob Knight and I have something in common,” Crean smiles. “I am sure he saw what I see. There is unlimited potential at Georgia. There is outstanding talent in the state and there is a noticeable passion among the Georgia fan base for other sports. Let me tell you, the SEC offers as good of competition as there is anywhere. In Greg Sankey our league has one of the best commissioners in the business. He promotes all sports with the greatest of commitment. When he hired Mike Tranghese as a special basketball advisor to the commissioner, he made a big statement. The league wants the best in basketball competition.”

Last year was a trying year for Georgia basketball. The talent level was lacking. Yet Crean has never coached harder. He can tick off rapid fire, some of the shortcomings: the team didn’t make enough shots, turned the ball over too much, didn’t force turnovers that leads to easy baskets. Georgia made 211 “threes.” Auburn, for example, made 454.

He remembers such specifics since he has a thorough insight into coaching and leading his teams. At Marquette, his first college head-coaching job, he will note that when he arrived, the attendance average was 6,700 and when he left it was 16,453. He did not round off the stats. He always knows the specifics.

With Crean it is a small, small world but there is always the big picture, which is why he not only has gone into out of the way places in search of talent but to become engrossed into the action, the playing of the game, the cheering and the crowd reaction. If there is action, he loves being there. If something out of the ordinary resonates, you will find him making notes. “I always make notes,” he says when the scene or the personality intrigue him.

A predecessor of his at Marquette, Al McGuire, was a successful coach with multiple interests and a deep and abiding curiosity. As soon as Crean was settled in Milwaukee, he made it appoint to spend time with the highly successful former Golden Eagles’ coach. Any distant observer could conclude that was a very savvy public relations move. Crean would agree, but also saw it as a learning experience.

The first time he went to see the former coach, he spent seven and a half hours with him (if you are thinking what I’m thinking, it was seven and a half, not seven as he could have said). McGuire took him on a tour of a couple of lakes in the area, antique shops, a fish fry at lunch and to see a lady who was a wood-working expert.

McGuire, believe-it-or-not, talked, and Crean listened. They talked about Marquette history and traditions, basketball strategy, recruiting—everything but stocks to which McGuire was intrigued and committed. “That was out of my league,” Crean says, “but I’ve never had a more enjoyable day.”

Crean didn’t take notes during the tour, but when he and the Marquette basketball hero parted ways at the end of the day, he sat in his car and wrote copiously for the longest time. Those notes are still in his files for reference.

In his own life, Crean has set a high bar for learning. He wants to know more about the state and University and the history that accompanies its diverse geography.

Crean married into the ultimate football family — his father-in-law Jack Harbaugh won a national championship at Western Kentucky and his brothers-in-law Jim Harbaugh (then with the 49ers) and John Harbaugh (Baltimore Ravens) met in the Super Bowl. Jim has since moved on to Michigan. Crean appreciates that his brother in law played successfully in the National Football League for 14 years, but mostly appreciates that when Jim decided to become a coach, he was first a quality control coach sleeping several nights a week on an air mattress in the Oakland Raider film room. Crean is a devout football fan and admires the Georgia tradition.

Basketball aficionados in Athens noted last year that when Crean’s struggling team wasn’t going anywhere, the fans kept coming. They identified with the Crean style of play, but he hopes “they ain’t seen nothing yet.”

Signing Anthony Edwards, who is not likely to stay very long, is a move in the direction of making winter nights in Stegeman Coliseum the greatest basketball show ever to take place in Athens. Edwards, and his supporting cast, are likely to spike attendance this coming season.

“He is a remarkable young man,” Crean says. “He is wired differently and we can’t wait for the season to begin.” This is a transition year, obviously. Edwards did not need to break away from his close family ties to play basketball elsewhere. He identified easily and steadfastly with Crean and his staff and will welcome his sister, who raised him, and his siblings to Stegeman all winter. Crean and his assistants have made the family feel at home and that rapport made a difference when it came time for Edwards to make a decision.

Crean saw the Big Ten as a conference, which appreciated the value of a championship basketball program. Win in basketball and that helps all budgets. A successful basketball program brings prestige to the community. It gives students another athletic outlet to enjoy. It enhances the campus atmosphere and image.

“Football,” he says, “has a waiting list (with ticket sales).” Then he adds, “We don’t have that,” respecting reality. What he didn’t say is that he is determined to elevate basketball to where the sport can enjoy a similar luxury. He has the energy, enthusiasm and commitment to make that happen. There many goals to be reached, but it is a fine start to know that Georgia has sold out of season tickets for the upcoming season.

Fasten your seat belts, Georgia fans. A rousing and electric ride has to be forthcoming.

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