The fascinating weirdness of Tom Crean

Tom Crean can’t help himself, so neither can the general public from ridiculing every defensive breakdown and bad haircut.

What is wrong with Tom Crean? That’s a great question. That’s what you say when someone asks a really good question, i.e. one you you do not have the answer for at all. You can start with this: Basketball coaches are categorically strange. They live indoors and rarely see the sun in a way that would bother even the most callous military officer. I’m saying that because I remember reading about soldiers on the Maginot Line during World War I, and how they would lie under lamps to simulate the sun their jobs stole from them. The French grow mushrooms in those buildings now. You could probably do the same in what we imagine to be Tom Crean’s dark, horrifying office.

Okay, well, how about we start with his hair? Tom Crean in a group of strange people seems especially strange. Gene Keady, an otherwise competent and successful person, chose to do this to his hair on purpose. It took two decades for Rick Pitino to go easy on the gel and stop doing the Wall Street ’88 special with his hair. His protege, Billy Donovan at Florida, still hasn’t given it up, and probably never will. Tom Izzo’s hair seems to be the default, the result of washing it, placing it as far back as it can go on the head, and hoping it dries in a neat, even swirl like he’s just gone through a human version of a car wash. (This is when Tom Izzo is not playing accordion in a Kiss cover band. I told you: weird.)

Tom Crean in a group of strange people seems especially strange.

Even here, you have to give Tom Crean some special mention. Tom Crean’s got what can only be best described as a “butt cut.” It’s the hair of a demented stableboy or cartoon knight’s squire. The last person who had Tom Crean’s hair was the French composer Gabriel Faure, or maybe Nicholas Cage in Next. It’s the greatest of mysteries: the strange thing done not on accident once, but repeatedly and on purpose.

And what about his pants? I don’t know. They never fit, and he’s forever in a war to cinch them somewhere between his nipples and his hipbones. They might be haunted pants, wandering his body in search of vengeance on the tailor who wronged them by putting them on Tom Crean. They don’t fit, and never will. Tom Crean has terrible pants, and after three crap seasons of rebuilding finished his fourth season in Bloomington with a Big Ten regular season title in 2012-2013, the school’s first outright regular season conference title since 1993. Crean was also successful with his horrible pants at Marquette, leading them to a Final Four. He’s a very good basketball coach and there is lots of evidence to back up this assertion.

Then why does this happen? You’re pointing to a real-time search of “Tom Crean” on the Internet during Indiana games. You’re suggesting we look at Twitter and see the anger of Indiana fans who, even during Indiana wins, see Tom Crean’s bad hair, worse pants, and inability to deal with a zone defense and scream bloody murder. Well, we did, and it was extremely entertaining.

This is just a dip in the waters:

That doesn’t seem very fair, even by the standards of coach-hating, does it? No, not at all. That’s above your usual standard of coach-hating. It means somewhere along the way, working next to the great industrial shredder of coaching, some part of Tom Crean got stuck in the machinery.

Multiple parts, actually: first the letdown of the 2013-2014 season where the Hoosiers finished in the bottom half of the Big Ten, then the erratic 2014-2015 season where the losses, when they’ve happened, have been rank clanking fiascoes. The Hoosiers lost by 12 to Ohio State, by 16 to reviled in-state rival Purdue, and by 20 to Michigan State. In all of them, it’s not just that Tom Crean looked lost. He looked like a lost Tom Crean, a thing more lost-looking in the moment than most lost-looking things, tugging at his horrible pants, swatting around his hopeless haircut, and driving Indiana fans to the brink of madness by refusing to take timeouts.

That may be why he’s so fascinating. All coaches serve as brick-eating targets for fans. It is part of their job, and certainly part of Tom Crean’s extremely lucrative, millionaire-grade pay as Indiana head coach. Most coaches handle this by blanding down and creating a veneer of coachspeak, grim nodding, and wordless, stony stoicism. It makes winning a little less bloating; it gives something close to dignity in defeat. (Even the famously individualistic Pete Carroll works in a healthy amount of pablum, something that helped him tamp down the furor in the wake of one of the more controversial NFL play calls of the millennium.)

He’s a jock with twerp DNA, a middle school principal sweatily dropping the mike at an assembly.

Then why doesn’t Tom Crean do that? Probably because he can’t. Tom Crean simply can’t do that. He’s too successful to be dismissed outright as a long-term solution for Indiana, and too flawed not to worry over. Worse yet for Crean, he’s one of the least-bulletproof coaches around in terms of how he looks just standing there.  Tom Crean is the kid in class who you almost can’t help but bully, because really: once he annoyed you, his pants looked worse, didn’t they? His hair, his oddball expressions — they all got more punchable by degrees once he lost to Purdue, right, even if you didn’t care?

That’s the marvel of Tom Crean. Even in a time when all coaches serve as paid punching bags for fans, Tom Crean is the one that makes a whimpering sound and lights up when hit. He’s a jock with twerp DNA, a middle school principal sweatily dropping the mike at an assembly, a shooting range target that’s 100 percent center mass. He’s uniquely mockable in spite of his talent as a coach, even with Indiana at 17-7 this year, and probably comfortably bound for the NCAA Tournament. The man responsible looks seconds away from a nervous breakdown at all times. I hope they win it all, if only to watch Tom Crean hike his pants up to his neck while chewing on the net he’s just cut down and eaten whole.

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