A former Indiana University assistant coach was at Bankers Life Fieldhouse over the weekend for first- and second-round games of the 2016 NCAA Tournament. In a slick, slim black suit was Kenny Johnson, who headed up recruiting on former IU coach Tom Crean’s staff for two seasons (2012-14).
Johnson, who was promoted to associate head coach in March of 2016 by Louisville coach Rick Pitino, helped IU land East Coast guys like Noah Vonleh, Troy Williams, and Robert Johnson.
Following the Cardinals’ 73-69 second-round loss to Michigan at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, VigilantSports.com talked one-on-one with Johnson in Louisville’s locker room. Read the Q&A below.
What is your reaction to IU firing Tom Crean last week after nine seasons?
First thing you do is reflect upon the full length of the tenure. Then you look at the good things and you reflect upon on things you probably could’ve done a little bit better and hoped they had gone differently.
When I reflect on Coach Crean’s tenure on Indiana, I see a lot of positivity. Everyone knows the story of what he inherited coming into the door (in 2008) and the pressures that come with the job, especially with a fan base that expects excellence and deserves excellence with the type of support they give at Indiana.
It’s a high-expectation job and I think he did an admirable job of accepting that challenge and working hard every day. That’s the one thing — whether you agree with the things that he’s done philosophically on the basketball court — you’ve never heard anyone say is that Tom Crean doesn’t work hard. He’s a hard-working coach. He’s a guy that’s very passionate about his career and the university that he is representing.
His time at Indiana ran its course and I think that both him and the university are hoping to move on to greener pastures. I’m sure they’ll find the right guy, whether it’s someone who has Indiana ties [or not].
How important is that?
I think winning is more important than having somebody with Indiana ties. I think that the year that they were number one for 13 weeks and the number one seed in the tournament, everyone was pretty happy with the way things were going. I think winning cures all ails, and when you are not successful for long enough, it’s time for change.
Everyone is opinionated. The ball goes up and — how many does Assembly Hall hold, 17, 18 thousand? — there’s 17 thousand coaches in that building and they want to see a victory when the clock hits four zeros.
I think they’ll find the right guy. I don’t necessarily believe it has to be someone with Indiana ties. I think there’s a great pride in the Hoosier state for basketball so that would make a lot fans happy initially. But, after the honeymoon, they are going to expect to see some ‘Ws’.
You felt it for several years. What is the pressure like, not only for the head coach, but also for the entire coaching staff down in Bloomington?
I mean it’s a great experience. When you come in, you know the house is going to be packed every night. You have a fan base that cares and loves basketball. That’s the reason why you coach. The energy that you draw from the crowd is tremendous. It’s definitely a big advantage. You know you are representing something much larger than yourself. It’s a privilege at a place that has that type of support.
You were dominant on the recruiting trail. Speaking strictly about Indiana, how much do you weigh national guys versus local guys in Indiana because that’s been a knock the last four years with him?
You definitely want to close the borders if at all possible. But you want to recruit the right guys.
Every coach has their own style of play, philosophy, and the type of players they are looking for. I think that people tend to forget following up the Cody Zeller, Victor Oladipo, Will Sheehey, and Christian Watford classes, was “The Movement,” as everybody labeled it. So you had Yogi Ferrell, Indiana. … Peter Jurkin, Hanner Perea, Jeremy Hollowell, Ron Patterson. It didn’t work out. He closed the borders down.
Sometimes you close the borders down and then you don’t close the borders down, for whatever reason, if [they aren’t] the right type of players for your style of play. Certain mistakes happen with players’ lives. It’s a double-edge sword. You want to close the borders down but who is going to be great, who is willing to work, who is focused, who is bleeding Hoosier like you are bleeding Hoosier. Things happen. The state is so chock-full of talent that it’s an easy fix to say ‘Hey, let’s close down the state to Indiana’ and you want to definitely recruit your home base for a variety of different reasons.
In recruiting, is an AAU coach more important or is the high school coach more important, in terms of having a relationship with those guys?
I like to think that the parents are most important. I know that there is a stigma that is attached to AAU basketball or guys that are handlers, as you want to say. I think when you recruit somebody, you want to understand who they are responsible to first and foremost. You want to have an understanding of a player’s background and upbringing, and you would hope that there are some good AAU coaches that are great for them, and there are some high school coaches that are great for them.
There’s plenty of households where the grandmother, the mom, the dad, the uncle, the whoever is in charge of that player’s upbringing. You really want to identify who is most important in that regard.
If it’s solely a scholastic coach and that scholastic coach doesn’t have the kid’s best interest at heart, then it’s probably not a situation you want to be involved in honestly because you don’t have that accountability that you are going to need because you are going to coach him hard at a place like Indiana. You are going to coach them hard at a place like Louisville, so you want for them to have high character and good values.
When it comes to Coach Crean, do you think there is an area where he is misunderstood?
He cares. I’ve never seen him come to office and not care about the player, the coach, the individuals that he interacts with. I think he’s a caring person. The pressures of the job, people handle it differently. I’ve known him to be a man that adjusts. Anything that may be perceived as a mistake, he’s going to own it, make adjustments, and move forward. He won’t let that one bad day turn into two.
I feel that he’s definitely a type of person who is a self-made guy, who is going to bounce back and do great things in his career. I know he is a God-fearing man and it’s easy to be critical. When you are being paid a lot of money to get wins, it comes with the territory.