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Chasing Ghosts: Will Indiana ever really move on from Bob Knight?

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Throughout the offseason, ESPN will take a closer look at the programs that have faced the challenge of moving on from a single historically revered coach, evaluating the successes and failures they have experienced along the way.

This week, the "Chasing Ghosts" series continues with the Indiana Hoosiers, who have had moments of success over the past 19 years but have yet to fully emerge from the shadow of the controversial Bob Knight.

History | Roundtable: Why Indiana has struggled to move past Bob Knight
Previously in Chasing Ghosts: UCLA | UMass | UNLV


Indiana Hoosiers

Icon: Bob Knight

Seasons coached: 1972-2000
Key accomplishments: 662-239 (.735) record, 24 NCAA tournaments, 5 Final Fours (1976, 1981, 1983, 1987, 1992), 3 national championships (1976, 1981, 1987)

"They really treated Mike [Davis] poorly for a variety of reasons, one of which was he was the guy following Knight, which wasn't going to be easy for anybody. Indiana was never going to accept anyone, and I still think they haven't, that wasn't Bob Knight." -- former Indiana coach/assistant/player Dan Dakich to the Detroit Free Press in 2018

"When they pay us the money they pay us, they have the right to fire us. When you are not getting it done, there's no grace period. When you take a job like that, you better know what greatness is." -- Mike Davis in 2017

"Patience is not something a lot of fans have. But [Archie Miller] is going to do a good job. Why? Because he can coach. Most of the coaches I've known can't coach. You folks are going to appreciate him, but it ain't gonna happen in a year." -- Bob Knight, speaking to a group of Indiana supporters, in 2018


Ranking the Knight chasers

5. Dan Dakich (interim), 3-4 in part of 2007-08 season, 1 NCAA tournament -- Dakich, a former player and assistant under Knight, was elevated from his assistant coach role when Kelvin Sampson was fired near the end of the 2007-08 season. As it happened, Dakich's tenure as head coach at Indiana was as much about crisis management as coaching -- six players skipped his first practice in protest of Sampson's firing, and he'd eventually have to kick Armon Bassett and Jamarcus Ellis off the team after both went AWOL from the program. Dakich won his first two games after taking over and kept the ship afloat long enough for IU to reach the NCAA tournament, but the off-court turmoil had a clear effect on the progress of the Eric Gordon-led team, which lost to Arkansas in the first round.

4. Archie Miller (2018-present), 35-31 (.530) -- After leading Dayton to four NCAA tournaments in six seasons, Miller was hired to succeed Tom Crean in 2017. With two seasons in the books, the jury remains out on Miller's stewardship of the program. A frustrating 2018-19 season saw the team start strong before enduring a 1-12 stretch that ultimately kept the Hoosiers out of the NCAA tournament, despite the presence of five-star guard Romeo Langford. Langford is moving on to the NBA, but 2019-20 will need to be an NCAA tournament season in Bloomington, lest the simmering tensions within the fan base completely boil over.

3. Kelvin Sampson (2007-08), 43-15 (.741), 1 NCAA tournament -- Sampson's legacy in Bloomington is complicated. Indiana fans and stakeholders were divided (and it never seemed like an equal divide) on his hire, with the anti-Sampson group citing low graduation rates and NCAA violations during his tenure at Oklahoma. Those naysayers' fears were reinforced when Sampson was found to have broken NCAA rules about contact with recruits, and to have lied about it, during his second season at Indiana. With 10-plus years of hindsight, the reality is that the no-contact rules that brought down Sampson (which have since been changed) were arcane and look especially silly in this era of an FBI probe that has touched the brother of the current Indiana coach. In light of that reality, and the fact that Sampson was winning at IU (and is winning now at Houston), is it fair to wonder whether he should have been allowed to prove he was the long-term answer in Bloomington?

2. Tom Crean (2009-17), 166-135 (.551), 4 NCAA tournaments -- Crean spent nine seasons at Indiana, a near decade in which the former Marquette coach seemed to be perpetually embattled. Crean won just 28 games in his first three seasons as IU picked up the pieces from the fallout of the Kelvin Sampson era, then got the program somewhat on track to the tune of three NCAA appearances in the next four years. But the Hoosiers could not get beyond the Sweet 16 under Crean, and second-weekend losses to storied programs Indiana had a previous winning history against (Kentucky, Syracuse, North Carolina) helped twist the knife. After an 18-16 finish in 2016-17, Crean -- now the head coach at Georgia -- was dismissed.

1. Mike Davis (2001-06), 115-79 (.593), 4 NCAA tournaments, 1 Final Four -- Davis was handed his first head-coaching job amid the pressure cooker that was Bob Knight's ouster in September of 2000, acquitting himself astonishingly well under the circumstances. Davis led Indiana to the tournament in his first season and all the way to the national championship game in his second before things began to unravel over the second half of his six-season tenure. Davis missed the tournament completely in 2004 and 2005 and announced he would resign with Indiana struggling near the end of the 2005-06 campaign. (Davis stayed on to coach IU through a second-round loss to Gonzaga that season.) Whether or not he was the perfect fit at Indiana, Davis has reinforced that he was a pretty good basketball coach by guiding Texas Southern and UAB to a total of five NCAA tournament appearances since departing Bloomington. (Davis recently completed his first season at Detroit Mercy.)


Roundtable: Why Indiana has struggled to move past Bob Knight

The subject of Bob Knight is a study in pure tribalism -- either you're Team Knight and you'll back him no matter what details emerge about his behavior, or you're anti-Knight and you'll entertain no positive endorsements of the man. How much do you think this divide among the fan base has kept Indiana from moving on in the 19 years since his ouster? Is the Bob Knight shadow overblown? Is the Indiana head-coaching job about more than basketball?

Myron Medcalf, senior college basketball writer: Since I started covering college basketball in 2007, I've probably been to Bloomington six or seven times for games or stories. I can't recall a trip that didn't include a conversation about Bob Knight and his shadow. Crean, Sampson and Davis all had solid highs during their time with the Hoosiers. "Life was better under Coach Knight," however, is a haunting catchphrase that impacted every coach who came after Knight, mostly in his worst times. The sustained success that defined the best portion of Knight's run is something no coach has been able to duplicate. That matters.

And yes, the job is bigger than basketball in a state that put 41,000 fans in the stands for the state's high school title game in 1990, brought a standing-room-only crowd to Romeo Langford's commitment announcement last year and somehow helped Indiana finish 16th in NCAA men's basketball attendance even in the 2008-09 season (14,331), when the Hoosiers finished 6-25. Every Indiana head coach is the face of that culture. And whether they love him or hate him, everyone in that state knows you can't talk about the legacy of the sport within Indiana without mentioning Knight.

Jeff Borzello, college basketball insider: I think the Bob Knight shadow is very legitimate, and I think that shadow has impacted the program over the past 20 years -- but I'm totally sure it's solely because of the divide in the fan base. Yes, there is a segment of the fan base that wishes Knight was still the head coach of the Hoosiers and thinks they should hire a Knight replica every time the job opens. But more importantly, I just think the shadow is there because of the success he had during most of his tenure in Bloomington.

The fans, whether they still love Knight or have moved on, want the success he had during his first 20-plus years in charge (and even when Indiana was no longer a national contender, the Hoosiers still made the NCAA tournament his final 16 years at the helm). But the last part of the question -- whether it's about more than basketball -- is key. Indiana basketball isn't just wins and losses on the court. It's a reflection of the culture of the state, more so than almost any other job in college basketball.

John Gasaway, college basketball writer: The Indiana head-coaching job is about so much more than basketball. Embrace the paradox: Knight set the standard that every IU head coach labors (and, so far, has failed) to meet. Yet the very first coach to fall short in that category was ... Bob Knight. After the three national titles and a superb run of basketball in the early 1990s (the 1993 team was one of the best he ever had), Knight never earned a top-four NCAA tournament seed over his last seven seasons with the Hoosiers. Any once-contentious divide in the fan base specifically related to Knight surely becomes less divisive and more antiquarian with each passing year, but the challenge of living up to the body of work he compiled across his first 20 or so seasons in Bloomington remains.


Beginning with Knight's firing right through to the present day, what would you cite as the single-most dubious decision that has prevented Indiana from maintaining a consistent place among the college basketball elite?

Gasaway: In retrospect, replacing Mike Davis with Kelvin Sampson does loom large purely in terms of opportunity cost. That's not a knock at all on Sampson, who's currently doing rather amazing work in Houston. But in 2006 Indiana had a truly blank slate for the first time in 35 years (since Knight was hired). Recall that Davis inherited the job in September 2000, promptly delivered the program's highest seed (a No. 4) in eight years in his first season, and then, of course, took the 2002 team all the way to the national title game.

He clearly deserved his shot, but once Davis was let go after six seasons, IU occupied the best market "position" it would have at any point in the 21st century (so far) as a legendary program looking for a head coach. Conversely, it took Tom Crean three full seasons of 28-66 basketball to dig out from the debris left behind by Sampson's messy exit. The 2006 moment came and went.

Borzello: I think John got it right. Indiana needed to get its replacement choice in 2006 correct. After Mike Davis replaced Knight, there was some early success and then it petered out. It was time to start fresh, and Indiana had its choice of a number of coaches. Sampson had done well at Oklahoma, reaching a Final Four in 2002 and an Elite Eight in 2003. And he didn't do poorly in Bloomington. But ESPN reported at the time that Indiana had reached out to Mark Few and John Calipari (who was then at Memphis), and there's long been the rumor that John Beilein (then at West Virginia) was heavily involved. Had Indiana been able to land one of those big names, would things have been different in the decade-plus since?

Medcalf: Phone calls ... really? It's crazy to look back and realize a college coach was hit with one of the most severe show-cause penalties in recent history over improper phone calls, rules that have since been removed or vastly minimized by the NCAA. But at the time, it was a major issue that crippled the program. After the fallout from the Sampson era (Indiana self-imposed the loss of one scholarship), Crean inherited one scholarship player from the previous season in 2008-09. He won only six games.

That year, I watched more than 14,000 Hoosiers fans in Bloomington push through an ice storm and nearly fill up Assembly Hall for a game against Minnesota. The dedication remained in tough times. Whether you blame Sampson for his actions or the NCAA for its response (and the impact that response had on the program), Indiana lost momentum that took years to regain.


Apart from our colleague Dan Dakich's interim tenure, one thing Indiana has not done is appoint an "Indiana guy" to shepherd this program since Knight was fired. Do you have any reason to believe Steve Alford, Randy Wittman, Isiah Thomas or any of the other IU alumni whose names have been connected to this job in the intervening years would have met with more success?

Borzello: I don't, no. Isiah Thomas ran the New York Knicks into the ground before going 26-65 in three seasons at Florida International. Randy Wittman went to the playoffs twice in 10 seasons coaching in the NBA. Steve Alford has been fairly successful at each of his stops in college, but he hasn't been better than Tom Crean or Archie Miller or Kelvin Sampson. Would some of the Indiana fan base embrace Alford more than other coaches? Maybe, but I don't think Alford would have been more successful than anyone Indiana has hired.

Medcalf: I don't think the coaches on that list have done anything to collectively and definitely prove they'd be better options than the non-Indiana guys the Hoosiers have hired since Knight. I actually think, more than anything, Indiana needs an outsider, someone so defiant and confident in his own approach to the gig that he won't give a damn about Knight's shadow.

Sure, you still have to acknowledge Knight and what he did while building the program but without succumbing to the pressure related to past achievements. Perhaps Archie Miller will bounce back and become that. If not, Indiana's next hire will need the backbone to endure questions about the scattered success of Knight's successors.

Gasaway: One working theory would be that, with any program, you hear about the "our guy" syndrome only when there's actually an affiliated guy who's a really good coach. Yet that is so rarely the case, for Indiana or any other team.

Yes, UNC graduate and former Tar Heels assistant Roy Williams has panned out rather well in Chapel Hill. Jim Boeheim is Jim Boeheim, and Bob Huggins and Matt Painter of course make this same cut. Who knows, maybe Jamie Dixon, Patrick Ewing, LaVall Jordan and Penny Hardaway will all do great things for their alma maters. Past that? It turns out the best coaches (say, Mike Krzyzewski, Jay Wright, Tony Bennett, Tom Izzo, Bill Self and John Calipari, just as examples) went to some far-flung places for school (Army, Bucknell, Wisconsin-Green Bay, Northern Michigan, Oklahoma State and Clarion by way of UNC Wilmington, respectively).

Alford certainly earned a good deal of buzz as a head coach off of the 1999 NCAA tournament, but at that time no one, least of all Knight, was thinking of any kind of transition scenarios akin to what Purdue did later with Gene Keady and Painter.


You're the president at Indiana and you have been presented with three choices in this purely hypothetical scenario: Brad Stevens returns to the state to take over at IU, Bob Knight disciple Chris Beard is placed in charge of the Hoosiers program, or you stick with Archie Miller to deliver on the immense promise with which he arrived in Bloomington in 2017. What's your decision?

Medcalf: I would ask Brad Stevens if he preferred four horses or six horses for the chariot I'd bring to the airport when he arrived. To me, if you're getting Stevens after his impressive stretch in the NBA, you're getting a guy who would plan on staying at Indiana for a long, long time. He's lived his dream of coaching at the next level and now he wants to return to college and lead Indiana? I'm not sure how anyone could reject that opportunity. Sure, it's not realistic. Miller isn't going anywhere. He certainly deserves more time and he'll get more time at Indiana. But if Stevens called and I realized he was serious about leading Indiana long-term, I would make that move and not think twice about it.

Gasaway: Poor Miller. Let's throw in a cryogenically unfrozen John Wooden from just down the road in Martinsville while we're at it. If I'm the president at IU, I reinforce with my athletic director that there would have to be a very good reason to think of looking beyond Miller after just two seasons, even if Stevens and Beard are pestering me with phone calls. If my AD then weeps openly because we're missing out on these guys, I would say don't worry. Either Miller will render this question moot with success, or there will be Stevens and Beard equivalents (maybe even Stevens and/or Beard) when next we have an opening.

Borzello: Man, that's a tough question. Right now, I stick with Miller. He was arguably the best candidate on the market when Indiana hired him in 2017, and the other hot names from that spring have found heavyweight jobs since then (Chris Mack to Louisville, Chris Holtmann to Ohio State, etc.). Even in this hypothetical world, I still think you have to give Miller more time. Everyone knew Miller's first season would be a struggle, and it was. Were there more expectations for last season? Absolutely, and Indiana didn't live up to them. But that's not enough to get rid of an objectively good coach after just two seasons.


This remains a blue-blood program in both tradition and resources, but the reality is there has been one Final Four appearance in the past 27 seasons. Can IU win at a Kentucky or North Carolina level again, or is it going to remain just another program in the state along with Purdue, Notre Dame and Butler?

Borzello: Indiana certainly isn't in the top tier of programs in college basketball right now, as Duke, North Carolina, Kansas and Kentucky are in a class of their own. But Indiana is probably in that next group, which is something the other programs within the state can't say and probably will never be able to say. They just don't have the history and tradition of Indiana. The Hoosiers have been there before. So I think the perception of Indiana basketball on a macro scale will be above the other three programs listed -- even though those programs have been far more consistently successful in recent years.

And because of that last fact, I think Indiana will be closer to that group (Purdue, Notre Dame, Butler) than the Kentucky/North Carolina group for the foreseeable future. Those elite programs are simply winning at a rate -- both on the court and in recruiting -- that Indiana (and 348 other programs) aren't catching any time soon.

Medcalf: I think it's difficult for any squad to consistently reach the levels of the top blue bloods in the one-and-done era. But Indiana has an incredible brand. The Hoosiers have been able to recruit NBA-level players in recent years. They've made 12 NCAA tournament appearances in the past 20 years. And they will continue to attract the talent necessary to get lucky in the crapshoot known as the NCAA tournament.

I think this program could have a Michigan-like run over the next decade and make a Final Four or two (folks, Loyola-Chicago, Syracuse and UConn have all done it over the past 10 years), compete for Big Ten titles, make second-weekend appearances and restore its image along the way. That, right now, feels like the Hoosiers' ceiling.

Gasaway: For starters, being another program in the state along with Purdue, Notre Dame and Butler is a good thing. By my count, that trio has recorded five Elite Eight appearances in the past decade to Indiana's zero. As for pushing beyond that, call me a nut or a crazy dreamer but I do feel like there's latent performance capacity behind these storied relics from a previous century like IU and UCLA. Heck, the Bruins proved it with three consecutive 21st century Final Fours and players like Russell Westbrook and Kevin Love. If Ben Howland just stays the course a decade ago, who knows where that program is today. Not to mention even Kentucky and North Carolina floundered in a fashion, however briefly, before hiring their current coaches. The past quarter-century proves returning Indiana to glory isn't easy, but the only thing more difficult is conjuring up UK- or UNC-level success where none has existed before.

Next week in Chasing Ghosts: St. John's