Hire of former Hoosier Jordan Hulls a savvy rebound by Mike Woodson
When Indiana hired Mike Woodson to return the program to glory — or at least respectability — there were no questions about his basketball acumen. Few worried about his ability as a motivator.
The wonder was whether a 63-year-old coach who was 4 decades removed from college basketball would be able to cut it as a recruiter. Or grasp the nuances of how running a college program differs from being an NBA head coach.
Woodson and IU athletic director Scott Dolson made savvy plans to offset those concerns.
They brought in Thad Matta, who had a decade of coaching experience at Ohio State. Matta was given the made-up role of Associate Athletic Director for Men’s Basketball Administration. The idea was he would be a sage ear to advise Woodson during the transition from the NBA to college.
As for the recruiting trail, former Hoosier player Dane Fife seemed to be a perfect fit for the new staff. Fife left Michigan State after a decade as 1 of Tom Izzo’s assistants. He had the unique duality of playing for Bob Knight’s last Indiana team as well as the first post-Knight Hoosier team.
How could you do better than a guy who played for Knight and coached under Izzo?
Woodson and Fife appeared to be ideal bookends. The old and the young guards of Knight, uniting to revitalize the Hoosiers.
No Hollywood ending here
Apparently, that concept was better suited for Hollywood than Bloomington. A year later, Woodson found himself without either hire that was so widely acclaimed at the start.
Matta caught the coaching bug after a 5-year absence. His story was a bit more storybook, to be certain, as he returned to Butler 21 years after leaving the Bulldogs for Xavier.
Fife’s departure wasn’t voluntary. In March, Woodson announced Fife “wouldn’t return to the staff.” That is a pleasant euphemism for “fired.”
It was surprising on the surface, but not so much when reports arose of the duo having some differences in personality. That was the polar opposite of a surprise.
Going back to his days as a player, Fife’s fiery personality is what some might call an acquired taste. Others would probably use “abrasive” as the preferred adjective — if they are being diplomatic.
One imagines that Knight saw a lot of himself in Fife. It’s an ideal demeanor for the role of scrappy defender. Or in many cases, as a head coach.
But as a guy taking orders from above? You can see why this likely went south. An institution like Izzo might have more latitude for give-and-take than Woodson, who needed everyone on the same page during Year 1.
Jordan Hulls an ideal rebound
In hiring Jordan Hulls as Indiana’s new recruiting director, Woodson is going back to the well with a greater chance of success.
Hulls is a full decade younger than Fife, having just wrapped up his playing career in Europe. The game has changed dramatically in that decade, with floor spacing taking precedence over assembling a bruising frontcourt.
Despite his youth, Hulls also has an all-important Knight connection. His grandfather, John Hulls, was an assistant on Knight’s first IU coaching staff in 1971.
But this is more about the future than the past. And the biggest reason for Indiana fans to get hyped about Hulls is that he knows what shooters look like. The former Indiana Mr. Basketball award-winner was a 44% 3-point shooter and 86% free-throw shooter in college.
Indiana’s failure to find players who could shoot like Hulls is how Woodson ended up replacing Archie Miller, period. Now Hulls is in charge of finding, well, himself.
A potential long-term solution
Even the manner in which Woodson is hiring Hulls feels clever. This is an apprenticeship.
Hulls was hired to replace Brian Walsh, whom Woodson promoted from recruiting director to fill Fife’s vacancy as a bench assistant.
Walsh, who helped identify a 2022 class that’s currently ranked No. 8 nationally, earned a justified bump. And he’ll continue to be an asset for Woodson in recruiting. Doubly so now that he can go out on the road.
If the Hoosiers continue to land top-10 classes, the wins will theoretically follow. Someone from Woodson’s staff may find their own program to run, and in turn, open a spot for Hulls on the bench.
At that point, Indiana will have the dynamic it was originally hoping for out of Woodson and Fife.
Like any chemistry experiment, it’s about combining the right elements. Woodson and Hulls figures to be a tandem with potential for a bit more staying power.