I.U.’s Continuing Search for a Nice Guy Who Finishes First

March 20, 2017

by Craig Ladwig

One of my favorite lines was delivered by the provost at my daughter’s college: “The only thing in life that is exactly as it seems is professional wrestling.” The search for a new Indiana University basketball coach will fall well outside that definition. It is not a search for a winning coach, please know, but a nice winning coach, that unicorn of collegiate athletics.

Since Bobby Knight was kicked out of town, I have been among those fans who doubt that the Crimson and Cream will have another national-level program soon. That prediction involves no particular basketball expertise but merely a sense of how these things work from a lifetime of following various sports dynasties. They are a lot more delicate than the sports page makes them out to be.

The problem is squaring the dynastic wishes of a student body and alumni with the sensitivities of an adverse faculty and administration, one that may or may not want to win games buts wants it all done a certain way and with it clearly in charge. I will explain.

My oldest son and I spent a weekend at one of Steve Alford’s basketball camps. There we learned for a few hundred dollars that there are actual nails in the court that you can use to line up with the inflation point on a basketball to get properly set for a free throw. And we learned a bit more. It was shortly after the firing of Coach Bobby Knight and Alford was asked what he thought about that.

His answer involved respect for Coach Knight’s victories but reservation about how they were achieved — a more proper coach-player relationship, means before ends, and so forth. Alford, philosophical in his youth, thought there was a better way to go about it.

I doubt that. Dynasty basketball, unlike anything else on the I.U. campus, involves dealing with absolutes. And it goes without saying that the sport has been corrupted by money since that woeful day in 1891 when the International YMCA Training School decided to charge admission to watch Jim Naismith’s new game.

In sum, you may have a fine chancellor who imagines he is running things, but the person who matters on campus in all regards is the coach of the dynasty. He is the only one in that magical kingdom other than the director of building maintenance who is expected to produce results.

Coaches of the dynasty caliber, nice or not, know all that. They are good at identifying the proper environment for their talents, one that allows them to survive that merciless absolute that is the scoreboard.

Bloomington is no longer such an environment. The place has filled with a generation sipping craft beer from participation trophies. The talk from there reminds me of a condescendence by an Ivy League friend regarding the great Woody Hayes: “Yes, but would you want a man like that on your campus?”

So it will not go unnoticed by the coaching universe that the vetting of an NCAA champion, the home-state Alford, the pluperfect all-American boy, has begun with condemnations from the politically correct. It turns out that Alford was not properly sensitive to a charge of sexual assault 15 years ago against a member of his Iowa team. Worse, he is accused of publicly praying for all those involved in the incident (later reduced to a misdemeanor).

Many years ago at an otherwise forgettable legislative budget hearing, a University of Oklahoma president was asked why he wanted more money for his school. ”We want to build a university of which the football team can be proud,” he famously answered.

It was not a joke, as Indiana University is about to find out.

Craig Ladwig is editor of the quarterly Indiana Policy Review.


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