“We will get back on top,” Indiana head coach Mike Woodson said on Saturday during Hoosier Hysteria. “We want to give you something to be proud of.”
As he spoke those words, an echo of cheers and applause swarmed Assembly Hall. Woodson spoke in front of a crowd that included several commits and recruiting prospects. For them, it was Woodson’s attempt to lure them to IU. But, it was also a recruiting pitch for the fans.
The basketball program, one that is tied for the fourth most NCAA championships, has not been to the tournament since 2016. The future seemed bleak until Woodson stepped in. The former New York Knicks coach has rejuvenated a fan base that had become disillusioned with a far too long run of mediocrity. Woodson made his appeal directly to those fans.
“We’re gonna need you (the fans) as we navigate this journey to get back on top.” Woodson said.
Then Isiah Thomas took the mic. First, he embraced Woodson. The two played together during the 1980 season. He framed Woodson as a caring coach that will preach winning but also education– something the parents of the recruits love to hear. He then linked him to his mentor, Bob Knight– which Indiana fans love to hear.
“He is going to lay a foundation here at Indiana,” Thomas spoke of his former teammate. “He’s going to talk about winning. He’s going to talk about getting an education.”
Thomas then told players that even if they left for the NBA that they need to return for “the piece of paper” as he called the college degree. Then Thomas switched the theme of his speech from winning to losing.
Thomas recalled the time that the 1980 team lost to their bitter rival Purdue in the Sweet Sixteen– which stirred some jeers from the fans. As Thomas recalled it, Woodson and his teammate Butch Carter pulled off their jerseys when the buzzer sounded. Neither would wear their cream and crimson jerseys again.
“I was so hurt that day because I felt that I hadn’t given enough to bring this man (Woodson) a championship that he so deserved at Indiana University on this floor,” Thomas explained with a hint of emotion.
The loss fueled a fire in Thomas. He “vowed” to win a championship and not let his teammates or the fans down. And he did just that by winning the national championship in 1981. That year, Thomas averaged 16 points and 5.8 assists per game, which earned him a spot on the All-American First-Team.
To end the pep talk, Thomas urged Indiana fans to stick with the team throughout Woodson’s tenure even obstacles arise.
“They’ll be some ups and downs along the way, and you will have some highs and lows,” Thomas said. “But what you’re going to be a special part of is saying that you were at school when the journey started. And, hopefully, some of you will still be in school when the journey ends with a national championship.”
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