Martin Luther King, Jr. once wrote “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
Mike Woodson’s low point of his first year as head coach at Indiana pales in comparison to the trials that King faced.
It’s just basketball, after all.
But it was in that low point, deep in the bowels of Mackey Arena last weekend, that IU Athletic Director Scott Dolson saw confirmation of the man everyone told him a year ago Woodson was.
Indiana had just lost another tough game on Saturday in West Lafayette. They gave away another late lead, this time to rival Purdue. It was their seventh loss in nine games, and for all practical intents and purposes, the season was a lost cause. It would take a minor miracle for the Hoosiers to reach their first NCAA Tournament since 2016.
But in that moment, Woodson was at his best.
Or as Dolson has come to realize, he was just Mike Woodson.
“We lost the game at Purdue, I walked with him after the press conference, tough loss, and we were walking just the two of us and there were several stadium workers, security staff from Purdue that were sitting along the way and he stopped and said hi to all of them,” Dolson recalled on Friday.
“And they were all saying, ‘hey good luck the rest of the year’ and he’s got that engaging personality, it says a lot about Purdue’s staff, how nice they were to him, but also at the same time it says so much about him, after a tough loss you won’t find too many coaches saying goodbye to the staff and thanking them for their efforts.”
Dolson was seeing firsthand the man described to him by the people that know him best when he was being considered for the IU job. The IU AD already had a good sense for Woodson’s character, but his due diligence confirmed everything.
“I knew him but the reality is I spent so much time on the phone talking to so many people, I mean, all over the gamut of college basketball, pro basketball, people all over the community,” Dolson said. “Every single person I talked to said you will never find a better person than Mike Woodson.”
Somewhere in the back of Woodson’s mind as he walked the halls at Purdue had to be Trayce Jackson-Davis, his star forward who came back to be developed by the former NBA coach, and play in the NCAA Tournament.
Woodson and Dolson celebrated when Jackson-Davis decided to return for the 2021-22 season.
But there hadn’t been many celebrations over the last month of the regular season.
If Jackson-Davis was disappointed by any of it, he’d be the last one to create locker room drama.
In the junior superstar, Dolson sees many of the same qualities exhibited by Woodson.
“Trayce is one of the nicest kids we’ve ever had here, and I’ve been here a long time,” Dolson said. “I’m not just saying that, I love Trayce as a person.”
There was a time during the late season losing skid when Woodson had no choice but to show another side of himself.
Until Indiana’s upset win over No. 1 seed Illinois on Friday, it appeared a loss to Northwestern might be what kept Woodson, Jackson-Davis and the Hoosiers out of the NCAA Tournament.
And that was no ordinary loss. And Woodson, no Mr. Nice Guy.
He suspended five players, leaving Jackson-Davis and just five others to figure out how to get a win in Evanston. They didn’t get it done.
Although it was a choice that put the season on the brink, Dolson liked what he saw.
“I hated he (Woodson) was in that situation but it made me feel really confident that he’s the right guy because part of building the program is you have to set standards, and you have to set standards during the tough times, not just during the times that it’s easy,” Dolson said.
“Sometimes the hardest thing to do is the right thing to do and I’m proud of him that he did that.”
Woodson was able to make that decision in Chicago in part because he knew he wasn’t on the clock.
If it cost his team their postseason goal — that’s a shame — but so be it.
Woodson and Dolson reflected on that Northwestern game and all of the other challenges of the last month as they walked together to meet the media on Friday in Indianapolis.
Just a week later, this was a walk with a much different feel than the pair experienced at Purdue. But it also served as a reminder.
“It really was never a timetable (for success), and Woody and I were talking about this on the way to this press conference, just sticking to the plan and not getting too high or too low.”
But it would be understandable if Woodson allowed himself to get a little too high after he led Indiana to its first Big Ten Tournament semifinals appearance since 2013, and locked up an NCAA Tournament bid in the process.
The win also snapped a four-game losing streak against Illinois and ended a five season March Madness drought. Just yesterday, Indiana ended a nine-game losing streak to Michigan.
But perhaps best of all for Woodson is seeing his players reap the rewards. The 63-year old coach had hugs for everyone in the post-game locker room.
And Dolson made sure to let Jackson-Davis know these wins were not only season-changing — they were legacy defining.
“I said this to him (Jackson-Davis) after the game (against Illinois), he could have jumped in the portal, he had lots of options and he stuck with us and he stuck with me and I thanked him after the game and I thanked him several times, I said ‘Trayce, you are always going to be remembered as a person who really helped get our program back.’”
Some day Jackson-Davis and Woodson will have a moment of comfort and convenience to let this week in their hometown of Indianapolis sink in.
But for now, the nice guys still have work to do.
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