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Indiana Just Gambled Big on Mike Woodson

Ryan Phillips
Mar 28, 2021, 7:29 PM EDT
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Indiana has finally hired its new basketball coach and the decision is a head-scratcher. Indiana alum and current New York Knicks assistant coach Mike Woodson has agreed to take the job after a meandering coaching search that saw weeks of rampant speculation about which direction the university would go. It's safe to say the Woodson hire is an enormous gamble for a university that can ill afford another basketball coaching failure.

Two weeks ago when Indiana athletic director Scott Dolson shelled out more than $10 million to fire Archie Miller and essentially claimed he had a blank check to bring in a replacement, fans were dreaming big. They can be forgiven for being underwhelmed by a 63-year-old NBA assistant who has never coached in college at any level. Dolson has to know that his job is almost certainly tied to Woodson's performance, which makes this a high stakes pick.

Sources have told me repeatedly over the past two weeks that several successful college coaches would have taken the Indiana job had it been offered. Some of them were never contacted by Dolson, who clearly had a shortlist he stuck to. Instead he's gone in a different direction, while also pandering to a segment of the fan base which has clamored for an "IU guy" since Bob Knight was fired. The eventual results will speak for themselves.

Woodson has a great reputation around the NBA. Those who know and have worked with him rave about his ability to connect with people. But inn two stops as a head coach he failed produce wild success -- though circumstances may have made that impossible. He took over a rebuilding Atlanta Hawks team in 2004 and led them to three straight playoff berths starting in the 2007-08 season. After six years his contract expired in 2010 without an extension, despite a 53-29 record. The Hawks disappointed in the playoffs and Woodson was blamed.

When Mike D'Antoni resigned as the Knicks' head coach midway through the 2011-12 season, Woodson took over. He steered New York to a record of 18-6 and a playoff berth. He remained as the head coach and in 2013 the Knicks won the Atlantic Division and a playoff series. He was fired in 2014 when the team failed to reach the postseason.

His track record is decidedly mixed, with a record of 315-365 (.463) but he did that with two terrible franchises. He returned to the Knicks as an assistant this season.

Let's be real here: if Woodson hadn't gone to Indiana and hadn't played for Bob Knight, he wouldn't have even gotten an interview for the IU job. On the surface this feels like an impulsive, incestuous hire that disregards his actual resume. It's an extremely high-risk move that carries with it a lot of questions.

Perhaps the saving grace for the Indiana fans who weren't begging for a name from the past, is the announcement that Thad Matta is being hired along with Woodson. Matta will be named associate athletic director for men's basketball administration. Essentially, he's coming in as the school's "basketball czar" and will ostensibly be there to help Woodson run his program. This looks like a shrewd hire by Dolson to get an elite program builder on board to oversee everything related to Indiana basketball. But, again, even that hire comes with questions.

If Matta is planning to stay around for a few years and really dig in to helping Woodson build something special, this combination could be a home run. But Matta could always decide he's healthy enough to coach again and bolt. If that happens, this could be a temporary stop before he finds his next job and it might just really be window dressing.

In the end, regardless of who is around him, the job will come down to Woodson. He'll be the one recruits commit to, he'll be the one setting lineups, making substitutions, crafting a system and he'll be the one making late-game decisions. The hire ultimately comes down to whether he can be better in college than he was in the NBA.

Woodson undoubtedly loves Indiana and will give his all to the job. He helped IU win the NIT in 1979 and, along with Isiah Thomas, led Indiana to a Big Ten title and the Sweet 16 in 1980, while being named a second-team All-American. He was a driving force behind reuniting Knight with Indiana last February and bringing to two fractured sides of the Indiana family back together. There are a ton of emotional ties here that should help bring support from certain important sectors of the fan base -- and the donor base.

I feel fairly confident Woodson will be better at Indiana than Archie Miller was. That said, Hoosier fans aren't looking for "better than Archie Miller" they're looking to compete for championships and be nationally relevant. Whether that happens again is now up to Woodson, a guy who no one else in the NBA or college was looking to hire as a head coach.

Scott Dolson and Indiana are taking on enormous risk with this hire. Everyone associated with the school had better pray Mike Woodson is the right guy. If not, the program may actually become as irrelevant as some rivals believe it already is.

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