Mike Woodson at Indiana? It feels like a reach
Mike Woodson is the new coach at Indiana.
The same as he could have been any time over the last 20 years. But Indiana thinks now is the right time to bring the longtime NBA coach and former Hoosier player back to Bloomington to be IU’s head coach.
The question is an easy one: Why?
A rational answer, particularly one that makes Indiana fans feel good, is harder. As much as Indiana will spin this as so, there’s no chance that Woodson was a top choice for the position. If he was, the transition from Archie Miller would have been announced days ago. He wasn’t Option A, likely wasn’t Option B, probably wasn’t Option C or D. Perhaps E? (Option F would seem like a bad omen).
It’s illogical to suggest otherwise.
Woodson, who starred for Indiana in the late 70s through 1980 for Bob Knight, maintains close ties to the university. He was a great player, scoring more than 2,000 points, turning that into a professional playing career, then a long and respected career as an assistant — and twice head — coach in the NBA.
He was the head coach of the Atlanta Hawks from 2004-10 and then the New York Knicks, where he had played during the 1980s, from 2012-14. Although the two franchises have been mired in extended periods of mediocrity, he guided both to the playoffs, perhaps showing an ability to generate wins from limited means. But within a year-and-a-half of guiding the Knicks to a 54-win season and a No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference Playoffs in 2013, Woodson was fired. He’s been an assistant since, having never ascended to being in charge of leading one of the NBA’s premier franchises.
Now, he’s Indiana’s coach, reportedly signing a 6-year deal to help turn around an Indiana program that longs for its glory days. But those years — the last of its 5 national titles was in 1987 — get farther away with each passing day.
Indiana is hoping to follow a Juwan Howard model, but replicating what Michigan did isn’t easy. When Howard, who had only assistant coaching experience in the NBA, was hired at Michigan, it was met by at least some hesitancy, perhaps skepticism. After all, Howard had never been a head coach.
But the former member of Michigan’s Fab 5 had a bunch else going for him. For one, he was inherited the remnants of a roster that John Beilein had taken to the national title game. Under Beilein, the Wolverines had turned into a consistent winner in the Big Ten and on the national stage. Not a bad starting point.
And the Michigan community was galvanized around Howard. Although Michigan itself can’t really recognize those seasons due to NCAA sanctions, the Fab 5 still means a lot, both to Wolverine fans and even to recruits. They were like the Basketball Beatles, a must-see road show starring Howard, Chris Webber and Jalen Rose. ESPN has a whole documentary about them.
Mike Woodson, age 63, last played at IU in 1980. Most current high school recruits’ parents don’t remember anything happened 41 years ago. Heck, some of them probably weren’t even alive.
Indiana’s move to hire Woodson won’t capture magic the way Michigan’s did. It’s a poor facsimile.
The Hoosiers will try to make it work. They’ve hired former Butler and Ohio State head coach Thad Matta, who was probably Option D, as an Associate AD for men’s basketball, with his main charge to help guide Woodson into NCAA basketball. But OK; Matta’s role will be largely ceremonial. He can’t coach in games or practice. Woodson will need to hire a veteran staff, much like Howard did at Michigan, to help him jump into recruiting immediately. Indiana had a talent deficit last season, aside from forward Trayce Jackson-Davis, but will face a bigger one now. How quickly can it establish a recruiting base?
Indiana wanted to make a hire that would unite its fans and make them feel like the future could be as bright as the past.