Mike Woodson is in for a rude awakening as the Indiana men’s basketball coach. The NBA to college path doesn’t work. A 63 year old with no college coaching experience can’t recruit.
That’s what they all said anyway.
One national commentator after another seemed all too eager to line up and take their shots after Indiana announced it had hired Woodson in late March. They may all prove to be right. But four weeks in, it doesn’t look that way. Not at all.
USA Today’s Dan Wolken had to be shocked by the procession of New York Knicks players who greeted the near elderly Woodson with hugs earlier this week at Madison Square Garden.
Only a few weeks earlier, Wolken couldn’t comprehend how Woodson might relate to young basketball players
“But the reason Woodson is likely to fail at Indiana, which reached an agreement with him Sunday, has nothing to do with his NBA record,” Wolken wrote. … “Now more than at any other time in the history of college sports, the secret sauce of the job is how well you can connect, relate and motivate — and how much time you’re willing to put in to understanding what makes them tick.”
Wolken has proven to be on the wrong side of logic often over the last year as college sports found a way during the pandemic, and nothing seemed more antithetical to his point than everyone from the 32 year old Derrick Rose to the 20 year old R.J. Barrett treating Woodson like near royalty at MSG. And it’s a video Indiana will no doubt put in front of every 16 year old Woodson is recruiting from here on out.
Mike Woodson started the season as an assistant coach for the Knicks before Indiana hired him to be their head coach in March.
Woodson is back in New York tonight. All love.
— Dime (@DimeUPROXX) April 22, 2021
But will teenagers really be impressed?
Jason Delaney is the head coach at Cathedral High School in Indianapolis, the school that produced Armaan Franklin and is the current home of IU class of 2023 target Xavier Booker. Delaney cites former Broad Ripple High School head coach Bill Smith as one of his mentors. Smith was Woodson’s head coach in Indianapolis in the ’70s.
Delaney has also been a coach of the U17 Indy Heat squad on the Nike EYBL AAU circuit for many years, so he knows a thing or two about how high school kids will view a coach like Woodson.
“If you get to IU, you have a chance to make the NBA.,” Delaney told The Daily Hoosier. “So what better guy to learn from than someone who has coached at that level, has coached a lot of good players, and has those connections. I think for high school guys it is going to be very attractive.
“I think the coaching staff is also very good. Coach (Dane) Fife and Coach (Kenya) Hunter, I’ve known them for a while and both are really good coaches and young guys who can connect with this age level. The coaching staff as a whole, including coach (Thad) Matta, have so much experience that it is going to be really attractive to prospects.”
When Woodson was hired Indiana had several players in the transfer portal and All-American forward Trayce Jackson-Davis was expected to leave for the NBA.
The conditions had another national pundit, CBS’ Gary Parrish, deeply concerned for the billionaire who paid for former head coach Archie Miller’s contract buyout.
“Indiana would have spent $10 million — plus whatever it takes to hire the next coach and his staff — to replace Miller with somebody who is way more of a gamble than Miller seemed at the time he was hired in March 2017, and Miller’s replacement would then likely have a worse roster in Year One than Miller would’ve had in Year Five,” Parrish wrote.
But Woodson convinced Jackson-Davis to stay, along with Race Thompson, Parker Stewart, Khristian Lander, Jordan Geronimo and Logan Duncomb. He also successfully recruited three new players including transfers Xavier Johnson and Miller Kopp, and ESPN top-30 class of 2021 guard Tamar Bates.
Suddenly a roster worse than Miller’s year five squad has become Indiana’s deepest in a long time. That’s in large part thanks to the veteran coaching staff that Woodson has assembled. A high end staff was the only chance Stadium writer Jeff Goodman gave Woodson in his article titled “Sorry, Indiana: Mike Woodson Is No Juwan Howard.”
“Maybe Woodson can persuade a pair of former Hoosiers to join his staff,” Goodman wrote. “Go get one of Michigan State assistant Dane Fife or UCLA assistant Michael Lewis, and make sure you get another big-time recruiter. That would certainly give him a fighter’s chance.”
Woodson did get Fife, and athletic director Scott Dolson had the good sense to retain former Miller assistant Kenya Hunter. Together with Yasir Rosemond, IU now has a national staff with connections far and wide. And Hunter believes the NBA resume of his boss will pay dividends — at least eventually.
“I think most of the guys I talk to are excited about it,” Hunter said of how recruits are viewing Woodson’s 25 year NBA background.
Hunter already has IU involved with several class of 2022 prospects primarily on the east coast. While he believes the change at the top has done nothing to hurt Indiana, there is a natural curiosity to see how Woodson’s teams will play starting in November.
“Everyone is unsure of the style of play,” Hunter continued. “How is he going to acclimate and get adjusted to the college game and style? Sometimes it takes that one year for people to see what the product is and make their decisions from there. We’ve got to bring that to the table with a lot of video with how he wants to play and the style that he wants to implement here. And then once that happens, hopefully because of the relationships we’ve built these kids we’re able get some of those guys.”
Hunter was the lead assistant coach on the recruitment for transfers Stewart and Johnson, along with Bates who said publicly that he wanted to play for a black head coach. That is another aspect of the hiring of Woodson that the national media missed. There has always been a pent-up demand for more black head coaches, but after the last year of social unrest, that dynamic has shifted from desirable to something approximating an expectation. It isn’t time to label Dolson a visionary for this hire, but he was out in front of that rapidly evolving trend.
Rick Bozich of WDRB in Louisville reported that in 2020, 5 of 22 college basketball head coaching jobs (22.7 percent) were filled by black coaches. In 2021 as of April 18, of the 52 jobs that had been filled, half went to black coaches.
But still, Goodman wondered about Woodson’s ability to do the job, citing sources who described the new IU head coach’s low-energy.
“In college basketball, it’s a 24/7 grind,” Goodman said. “And if you aren’t built that way, especially at a place like Indiana which is fighting from behind right now, you’ve got NO shot.”
It isn’t time to make bold predictions about the direction of the Indiana program. But after his first four weeks on the job, it’s fair to say this:
Woodson has a shot.
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