INDIANAPOLIS – It’s fitting that the news about Indiana’s hire of Mike Woodson broke amid No. 1 Gonzaga’s merciless thumping of No. 5 Creighton on Sunday afternoon. The ghost of Bobby Knight lingered at Hinkle Fieldhouse, as two programs in disparate places amid the college basketball food chain are concurrently chasing Knight’s peak.
Indiana has spent two decades attempting to capture the highs where Knight brought them — the three national titles, five Final Fours and 11 regular season Big Ten titles. The Hoosiers haven’t reached the NCAA tournament since 2016, and Indiana is one bad hire away from being viewed by recruits as a nondescript Big Ten program that’s famous for once being famous.
Gonzaga is 29-0 and aiming to become the first program in more than four decades to match the moment so often associated with Knight’s on-floor genius, his 32-0 team in 1975-76. More than two decades since Knight got run out of Bloomington amid his typical bombast, his specter still looms over both the job, state and entire NCAA tournament. Does the shadow of any legendary coach in the last generation cover more real estate?
How will the dueling Knight chases end up?
The most polite way to greet Indiana’s latest hire is with a shoulder shrug. Woodson, of course, is a generational extension back to Knight. Woodson, 63, starred for Knight at Indiana in the late 1970s, ended up the No. 12 pick in the NBA draft and has nine seasons of NBA head coaching experience.
But there’s a glaring lack of college experience, even with the newly announced presence of former Ohio State coach Thad Matta overseeing the sport. This feels like the football coach news conferences where there’s a lot of energy expended on the corresponding coordinator hire.
The Matta package deal addresses some of the college experience questions. But the consensus around the sport is that few other top-50 jobs would go after Woodson, just like he wouldn’t want many of them. This is match made in steeped nostalgia, executed by former Bobby Knight manager, Scott Dolson, who is the athletic director.
The floor of this hire appears to be a lot lower than the ceiling is high, as it’s much easier to see this hire ending in the program sputtering than cutting down any nets. If you polled 100 athletic directors and asked if they’d rather have Archie Miller or Mike Woodson as their collegiate head coach, it’s hard to imagine more than 20 would take Woodson (no matter who his coordinators are).
But this is Indiana, where they have long been infatuated with their own. And it’s fitting that 20 years after Knight has left, this hire will still be viewed partially as a referendum of him through his coaching tree. There’s a reason Knight’s return to Assembly Hall in February of 2020 was a seminal moment that received breathless coverage in the state. His 36-year tenure and 659 wins have morphed into an ideal, with the dark moments often edited out.
The coaching credentials of Woodson certainly indicate that he’ll do a good job with in-game coaching. He’s been an NBA head coach for nine seasons, played in the league over a decade and has well over a decade of NBA assistant experience. There’s no ball-screen coverage that will surprise him. But in college, coaching is only about 10% of the job. Woodson’s lack of grassroots experience, recruiting chops and familiarity with the player pipelines are going to be pivotal to his success.
So will day-to-day recruiting energy, which has been the downfall of many NBA-to-college experiments. Someone who has spent a few decades at Ritz-Carltons has to suddenly become a relentless salesman to teenagers. That takes daily ego swallowing.
Can Woodson be Indiana’s version of a Juwan Howard hire? Here’s guessing no. One of the keys to Howard’s smooth transition to college was his familiarity with the AAU scene through his sons. He’d lived it for years, understood it and it led to a quick ability to navigate recruiting.
There are a lot of former NBA folks who’ve shoehorned themselves into college before forgettable tenure and awkward exits — Avery Johnson (Alabama), Chris Mullin (St. John’s), Eddie Jordan (Rutgers), Mike Dunleavy (Tulane), Mark Price (Charlotte) and Terry Porter (Portland).
Matta is a clever hire to oversee basketball and try to avoid that trend. He’s been living in Indianapolis and is only 53, so his return to the sport shouldn’t be a surprise. Matta was a dynamic coach who led Ohio State to generational success, so his presence and guidance will be welcome. But the things Woodson will need the most help with – hiring staff and navigating the grassroots scene — ended up ultimately undoing Matta at Ohio State.
Indiana’s decision on Miller always hinted at a ready-fire-aim approach. By firing Miller before the start of the tournament, they essentially boxed themselves out of hiring the type of seasoned NCAA tournament coach that could become an immediate magnet for top players. They clearly didn’t have a replacement already lined up before forking over $10 million to Miller, as Woodson is convincing as an upgrade to few who don’t see the world through a candy-striped prism.
When IU made the decision, Baylor’s Scott Drew wasn’t going to be available for a while. Nor was Oregon’s Dana Altman. Nor was Arkansas’ Eric Musselman. All would have been significant upgrades in terms of experience. So would have Texas Tech’s Chris Beard and former Michigan coach John Beilein.
How many of those were inquired about seriously? That’s unknown. Indiana never had a chance at Brad Stevens. The courtship of Ohio State’s Chris Holtmann was obviously misguided if you’ve ever spent a half hour with Chris Holtmann. You can argue whether he’s got a better job now, but you can’t argue if that job suits him better.
Can Mike Woodson recreate the standards set by his former coach all those years ago? Let’s just say there’s a much better chance Knight’s legacy has some company next week, as Mark Few’s Gonzaga program looks like an unrelenting buzzsaw. They dispatched Creighton on Sunday like it was a mid-January WCC game, dominant and drama free. The Bulldogs have won 28 of 29 games by double digits and appear poised to dazzle for three more games.
Gonzaga is neck-and-neck with Knight’s defining work, all playing out in his footprint. Indiana is still busy chasing Knight’s ghost.
In trying to revive the past, is Indiana being pushed further away from it?
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