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IU basketball alums ‘giddy’ about hire of Mike Woodson

They’ve wanted something like this for a long time, and to varying degrees, they’ve been pretty vocal about saying so.

Former Indiana players, particularly those who played during Bob Knight’s tenure from 1971-2000, have been hoping for years that the Hoosiers would put someone in the head coach’s chair who played his college ball at Indiana, preferably one who had learned under Knight and been around the culture that produced three national titles, five Final Four appearances and 11 Big Ten championships. They started to wonder if it would ever happen, especially considering the bitter ending to Knight’s tenure at Indiana in 2000.

It finally happened Sunday, almost 50 years to the day after Knight himself was hired, when Indiana announced the hire of Mike Woodson, the school’s No. 5 all-time leading scorer with 2,061 points and a two-time All-American in 1979 and 1980.

Woodson’s hire was somewhat of a surprise because he has spent his entire coaching career going back to 1996 in the NBA and until Sunday was an assistant coach with the New York Knicks.

But once the news hit they were ecstatic. Players across generations from Isiah Thomas to Alan Henderson to A.J. Guyton and Verdell Jones posted message of support on social media and they called each other to bask in the glow of the news.

“I know I’m giddy about it,” said Steve Risley, a forward with IU from 1977-81 who spent three years as Woodson’s teammate and was on the 1981 national title team the year after Woodson graduated. “Mike’s been a friend for a long time, both a competitor against in high school and a teammate in college. He always understood the game as well if not better than absolutely anybody.”

Each time there was an opening in the past 20 years IU players held out hope it would go to one of them. It only happened on an interim basis when Dan Dakich took over for Kelvin Sampson toward the end of the 2007-08 season after Sampson resigned for NCAA violations. Mike Davis, who was an assistant on Knight’s last staff, was promoted when Knight was fired, but in every other occasion Indiana looked outside the program and outside the IU family to hire its coaches.

Over time that made less and less sense to players who helped turn the program into a national powerhouse.

“I think it’s very important,” said Ted Kitchel, a two-time All-American and first-team All-Big Ten pick who was teammates with Woodson for two years. “Obviously it’s been a long time ago since I was there or Woody was there, but back in those days we were winning the Big Ten three out of every four years or so. We were playing in the NCAA Tournament each year. We were playing for national championships. You just have to have a little bit of pride about the way you go about things.”

The ex-IU players didn’t see enough of that down the stretch from the 2020-21 Indiana team, which finished the season with six straight losses including four straight to end the year in which they failed to score 60 points.

They think Woodson, out of all the options even among former IU players, is the best fit to turn it around for a number of reasons. For one, he was one of the most intellectual players his teammates played with and one of the best shooters, even at a time when there was no 3-point line. And he knew how to relate to teammates then as they believe he can relate to players now.

“He was a great leader,” Kitchel said. “He was obviously a great player. He was the best player in the country before he got hurt in 1980. He demanded a lot from himself. He demanded a lot from his teammates, that everybody does their job. He’s very role oriented. He believes that everybody has a role and everybody’s role is just as important. The guy who sets the screens is just as important as the guy scoring 20 points per game.”

They like that Indiana is hiring player who learned from Knight and kept in touch with Knight when he got into coaching. Woodson was one of the players who helped engineer Knight’s return to Assembly Hall late in the 2020 season and they clearly maintained some level of a relationship as he got into his mentor’s business.

But they also like Woodson for all the ways that he isn’t Knight. He’s been in the NBA long enough to know that the game is much different than it was in 1976, and he knows that the world is different as well. Knight’s dictatorial style was part of what got him fired in 2000 and it isn’t any more acceptable 20 years later.

“Mike will be able to bring back the best blend of some of the Knight era, but we can’t go back to the Knight era,” Risley said. “If that’s the mentality of this whole thing, then we’re going to fail, and I’m sure Mike knows that. Mike is far too smart for that. He’s going to do things in his own way. He learned and studied under coach, so there’s a lot of principles that I think we’ll be there, but I think they’ll be delivered in a Mike Woodson style. I think there’s a lot of Knight’s principles that will work. Certainly his methodology won’t work. His madness won’t work.”

And Mike Woodson’s style, they say, is much more relatable to modern players. He’s demanding, but wants what’s best for each of his players as much as he wants the team to win, and he’s capable of connecting with people on a personal level without being demeaning. The excesses that led to Knight’s firing simply aren’t present in Woodson.

“He’s just a great person,” Kitchel said. “There’s no better person with no bigger heart than that guy has. That doesn’t mean he won’t be demanding on his players and expect them to win and play tough and be tough minded. But he’s not afraid to pat you on the back and let you know how hard you’re working and tell you about it too. He’s a good person. He’s got a great heart and I think that will go a long way and the people of Indiana will see that.”

And they also like what Indiana is doing with Thad Matta, who played his college basketball at Butler and lives in Indianapolis, but was extremely successful in the Big Ten with Ohio State for 13 years going to a pair of Final Fours and claiming a share of five Big Ten regular season titles. He left coaching in 2016-17 because of complications from a back surgery years earlier which would have made it hard for him to return to the sideline. However, Indiana created a position for him as associate athletic director for basketball administration that will give him a lot of opportunity to influence the program.

“Thad knows the college game and he’s got Indiana ties,” Risley said. “I think between the two of them, they can recruit like hell. Mike is a revered former player and Thad knows how to go out and get the recruiting job done. And Mike is going to have all the help he wants from all of us.”

That is a leg up Woodson has on every other coach that Indiana has hired. The player alumni base has never been as united in the past 20 years as it will be for him.

“There’s nobody not thrilled about this in the IU family,” Risley said. “I think we’re all thrilled to get a Mike in there as a former player, a former member of the team, a member of the family. In 20 years, it’s ridiculous it took this long to do it.”

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