There’s the Tom Crean you see (saw). The energetic man, glasses and a dark tan, feverishly pacing the sidelines at Assembly Hall. The guy Indiana fans loved to hate during the latter part of his nine-year tenure as the head man in Bloomington.
But there’s also a Tom Crean you didn’t see, the guy that would stop to buy food for and pray with homeless people around Bloomington. The man that pulled over at 1 o’clock in the morning to help a teenager whose car had hit an icy spot and spun into a ditch.
Those are two stories that have become public over the years, not because Crean wanted them to be, but because people happened to witness them. It’s not something you often see from someone like Crean, once the highest-paid employee in the state of Indiana.
I’m going to make a third story public now, even though I’m sure Crean wishes I wouldn’t. He doesn’t do the things he does in his private life for recognition. He does them because that’s the person he is.
There are people out there that believe Crean’s act is a facade. I can tell you that it is not. I can tell you that because Crean helped me, too. I can tell you that because Crean changed my life.
The date was September 10, 2016. I was struggling. Wayward. For months I had been trapped under a dark cloud of depression. I didn’t know what direction I wanted to take in my life. I was so indecisive, paralyzed by fear. Stuck in neutral, and unable to shift gears.
Things seemed to be getting better, though. I was close to accepting a job as the Social Media Director at the Beverly Hills Country Club and uprooting my life to sunny California. I was excited about the potential change, about having the opportunity to learn about myself in an entirely different place.
But on this day — Sept. 10, 2016 — the offer came in from Beverly Hills, and the salary offered was significantly lower than what had been pitched to me throughout the interview process. When I questioned it, they told me I didn’t have the experience necessary to demand the salary they had initially pitched.
I was irate. More lies leading to more disappointment from yet another company. I couldn’t understand it. I thought I’d done everything right, working for a daily newspaper when I was 16 years old and never stopping at any point over the next 10 years. I had worked with social media since its infancy — and I didn’t have enough experience to get the salary that would allow me to even survive in a place like Beverly Hills? If I was 40 years old, would I be considered more experienced for a social media job?
Just when I thought I’d found the next step on my path, it slipped away. I was emotional. I was depressed. I was in a vulnerable spot, and I felt a sense of hopelessness. I needed someone to talk to, someone to pick me up.
Normally, that person would be my dad. But for some reason on this day, I reached out to Tom Crean.
Crean and I had grown close over my years covering Indiana, often sharing news and thoughts on recruiting with one another. But we’d never really discussed our personal lives other than the occasional update on the families or a discussion about how my brother, Mark, was playing.
But I felt a pull to reach out to Crean on this particular night, a pull I believe came from God.
I texted Crean and told him the California job wasn’t going to work out. We’d talked about the particular job opportunity before, so he was familiar. I told him that I was tired of searching for a job, that I just wanted to do something. I offered to “break down film, wash uniforms, rebound for players, do leg work on recruiting, anything and everything — and I’d do it for free.”
“I’m going through a rough time, but I know I belong in basketball and I need somebody to take a chance on me,” I told Crean.
Crean asked me what happened with the California job. I told him the situation, that they refused to give me the money they’d offered. I told him I was frustrated that I’d gone two months, done more than 20 interviews, and hadn’t found a job.
“Just really frustrated that nobody is willing to take a chance on me,” I told Crean. “Not your problem, and I don’t mean to bother you with this, I just thought I’d reach out.”
Somehow, without seeing me in person, Crean knew I was in a bad place. He was at the bowling alley with a recruit at the time, but stepped away from the visit and helped me. For the next 40 minutes, he spent time communicating with me.
Crean told me I couldn’t lose faith in myself, that I needed to take deep breath and relax. He suggested I take a step back from all the noise in life and talk to God about what path I want to be on.
But he didn’t stop there. Crean kept speaking to me through text, telling me some of the things that had helped him in the past that he believed could help me as well.
“You need to find your identity,” Crean told me. “Right now it’s too much social media. Too much attention paid to things of no value. You want to lock into what matters and too much social media is just opinions and nonsense for people. You want to set yourself apart. Take time to build your skills.”
My dad had recently warned me about the same things regarding social media, and he doesn’t have a single social media account. But they were both right. I came to realize the person I was on social media and the person I was in real life did not match, and that discrepancy was causing many of my problems.
I developed an ego and I began to equate Twitter followers with self-worth. I got lost, and I couldn’t find my way back. And while I still have my moments on Twitter, I’ve gotten much better with it, and I really do believe it has helped me.
I thanked Crean for his advice, and I expressed how much it meant to me that he took the time to immediately offer help when I probably needed it most. It touched me in such a profound way that a man as busy as Crean would take the time to do what he did for me.
They say character is how you treat people who can’t do anything for you in return. That’s precisely what this was. I was no longer on the Indiana beat. I didn’t have this website yet. I didn’t have any recruiting tidbits to offer. There was nothing I could do for Crean, and he selflessly helped me anyway.
“It’s worth it for you,” he told me.
Five days later, a Social Media Manager job opened with the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers. It seemed like a dream job for me, especially considering I had interest in seeing what it would be like to live in California. Crean offered to let me list him as my lead reference on my resume for the job.
Two days after that, on a Saturday, I received a package in the mail from Crean. It was a devotional journal called “Experiencing God Day by Day“. The book features a bible verse and analysis of that verse for each day of the year, and it leaves space on each page for you to write your personal feelings and thoughts as you read the corresponding passage.
Crean told me he reads a full week of passages at the beginning of each week, and then reads it daily as well. He’s been doing that for the last four years, and I can tell you having read the book — it’s very meaningful.
“I really hope it helps you,” Crean told me. “I know it helps me. You need to learn to let go and believe that God will direct you, Justin. We walk the steps, but God directs the steps.”
Crean shared with me a list of statements that say a lot in only a few words to read daily. I now have each of those statements printed on brightly-colored paper and posted around my Bloomington condo. I also started sharing them with my dad.
My Favorites: (I hope you don’t mind me sharing these, coach Crean.)
“Focus on being the best at where you are, and don’t waste your time blaming others for where you aren’t.”
“Time spent complaining about what others aren’t doing causes us to lose focus on what we should be doing.”
“Don’t get so consumed on what you can’t do that you lose focus on what God created you to do — bring Him glory.”
Crean would text and check in with me every once in awhile after that. He sends me bible verses he finds particularly meaningful some days, and just asks how I’m doing on others. But what he did for me during my time of need absolutely changed my life and my approach to living. I moved out of neutral and into drive, and I’ve never looked back.
Crean treated me like one of his players, one of his children. He saw a person in need, and he helped in every way he could. For as long as I live, I will never forget that.
There are many parts to a college basketball coach’s job. Crean didn’t always win enough games to keep Indiana fans happy, and he lost his job on Thursday for that reason.
But Crean always served as a father to his players, taught them important life lessons, cared for them deeply, and helped them grow as men and as basketball players. In that way, Crean absolutely succeeded.
You see Tom Crean as a good not great coach that couldn’t take Indiana to the promised land.
I see Tom Crean as a special human being that has changed the lives of many young men — including mine.
Thank you Tom Crean. Thank you for your nine years of dedicated service to Indiana University. Thank you for doing things the right way when so many others cheated their way to success. Thank you for your focus on academics and for graduating players. Thank you for taking on the seemingly impossible challenge you did in 2008, and conquering it. Thank you for your motivational speeches, inspirational messages, and relentless energy.
But most of all, thank you for just being there — for me, and for so many others. We will miss you, and we will be forever indebted to you for everything you’ve done.