Are IU fans' lofty expectations warranted?

Mark J. Terrill/ AP PhotoUCLA coach Steve Alford gestures to his team as guard Lonzo Ball watches during the game against Washington State. Alford says he’s focused on the Tournament, not the job opening at his alma mater Indiana. His name was among the first to come up when Indiana coach Tom Crean was fired on Thursday.

Leave it to the state school that didn’t make the NCAA Tournament to steal the headlines on Thursday.

On the first day of the NCAA Tournament, three Indiana schools competed, and all three won, albeit with varying degrees of nervousness.

Butler cruised past Winthrop. Purdue got a challenge from Vermont but pulled away late. And then there was Notre Dame, surviving a scare from Princeton in the very first game of the tourney at 11:15 a.m. on Thursday morning.

About two minutes into that game, though, there was some breaking news. Indiana University fired its head coach, Tom Crean, after nine years and a 166-135 record.

Crean led the Hoosiers to a pair of Big Ten titles and the Sweet 16 three times. But it seems this season was the straw that broke the camel’s back, i.e. Indiana athletic director Fred Glass — though I tend to believe high-profile alumni and boosters were pushing this decision more.

IU went 18-16 after a great start, beating both Kansas and North Carolina when they were ranked No. 1 in the country. The Hoosiers are the only school in history to beat two No. 1 teams in the same season and NOT make the NCAA Tournament.

So I understand the decision, and there’s a bit of irony that it came down on the day three other state schools competing for the same recruits as IU won tourney games.

What I don’t understand is IU fans’ perception of their program.

Sure, Indiana has won five national championships in men’s basketball. But the last came in 1987 when Bobby Knight was the head coach. Things have changed in college basketball over the last 30 years, though maybe some people down in Bloomington haven’t gotten the memo.

IU isn’t North Carolina.

IU isn’t Louisville.

IU isn’t Kentucky.

IU isn’t Kansas.

IU isn’t Duke.

Hoosier fans think they are, but denial isn’t just a river in Egypt and naivety can be a contagious disease.

Those five programs have one thing in common: a hall of fame coach who is the face of the school.

The Tarheels have Roy Williams. The Cardinals have Rick Pitino. The Wildcats have John Calipari. The Jayhawks have Bill Self, who isn’t a hall of famer yet, but he’s on the ballot this year and has won a national championship. And of course, the Blue Devils have Mike Krzyzewski.

Not only wasn’t Crean even close to any of them, but there’s not many coaches out there comparable to those five who would consider the IU job.

And with the exception of Duke, all of those coaches were preceded at some point by at least one other hall of fame coach with at least one title. Carolina had Dean Smith. Louisville had Denny Crum. Kentucky had Adolph Rupp, Tubby Smith and Louisville’s Pitino. Kansas had Phog Allen, Larry Brown and some guy named James Naismith who only invented the game of basketball in 1891.

If you’re an Indiana graduate or fan, do you really believe your Hoosiers are worthy of the status of those five programs anymore? If you said yes, then you’re stuck in the 1980s — not bad if you’re talking about music, but a huge problem in sports since Mike Ditka once said, "Those who live in the past are cowards and losers."

You’ll notice I didn’t include UCLA in those five schools. Sure, it was a monster in the 60s and 70s under John Wooden, and won another national title in 1995. But in the last 20 years, the Bruins are just another team in the same group as IU behind those five blueblood programs.

It's also a team coached by a man whom many IU fans want as their coach.

Steve Alford was on that last IU champion in 1987, and he’s still loved in this state. But he also has a tainted past (go ahead and look up Pierre Pierce, 2002 sexual assault, Iowa and Alford on Google and get ready to puke at the horrible details) and has coached at four different schools — Southwest Missouri State, Iowa, New Mexico and UCLA. That’s a lot for someone who’s supposedly a premier coach.

Of course, IU fans only care about Alford’s Hoosier roots. There’s still a hotel called the “Steve Alford All-American Inn” in his hometown of New Castle, Ind., with a very large sneaker in front and the owner, Kenny Cox, painting that sneaker the colors of the current school at which Alford coaches.

It’s UCLA baby blue and gold right now, but rumor is Cox just purchased some white and crimson red paint down at the New Castle Menards just in case.

Indiana University men’s basketball coach used to be one of the top five jobs in the country. Now maybe it’s somewhere between 6 and 10 — heck, if you catch me in the right mood, I might say it's more like No. 11 or 12 — and multiple programs in the same state have passed the Hoosiers competitively (two of them won on Thursday).

But don’t tell IU fans that. They’ll call it fake news and then go home and watch a DVD of the 1987 NCAA championship season again … or 1981 or 1976 ... hoping that Alford or someone else will bring back the "glory days," which was a decent song by Bruce Springsteen.

I'm thinking of a different song: "Dream on" by Aerosmith.

Reach sports editor Steve T. Gorches at sgorches@thenewsdispatch.com or (219) 214-4206. Follow him on Twitter @SteveTGorches.

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