CHAMPAIGN — The easiest people to pick on in sports are the person at the bottom of the pile and the person on top of it.
Tom Crean has been in both places.
When he arrived at Indiana University in 2008, he was taking over a program that had deep bruises and internal bleeding thanks to the mess created by former coach Kelvin Sampson.
The once proud Hoosiers program hired Crean to help it dig out of a major mess and that first season Indiana was 6-25 including 1-17 in the Big Ten.
It looked bleak, and some of the losses were brutal.
“We were trying to claw and fight to have a chance in any game,” Crean recalled.
His second season Indiana was 4-14 in the Big Ten and the third season the Hoosiers were 3-15.
That was Crean on the bottom of the pile.
Former Indiana assistant coach and current TV analyst Dan Dakich was remembering those days last Thursday on a radio show from Indianapolis. The previous night Indiana had marched into Mackey Arena in West Lafayette, Ind., and demolished Purdue 97-60.
“It’s funny to me that just two years ago Purdue fans were laughing at Indiana because they were struggling to win in the Big Ten,” Dakich said. “And now today those same Purdue fans are crying because they say Indiana ran up the score on their team.”
Fours days after the rout at Purdue, Indiana knocked off top-ranked Michigan and on Monday, Indiana ascended to No. 1 in the latest Associated Press college basketball poll.
That’s Tom Crean on top of the pile.
The animated Crean is something of a little peacock — a proud, loud, demonstrative coach who plays to the crowd and has a knack for getting under the skin of opposing fans.
But that’s weak criticism of a 46-year-old man who is one of the least likely highly successful head coaches in college basketball.
Of the 45 head coaches in the Big Ten, ACC, Pac 12 and Big 12 (excluding an interim head coach), only three did not play college basketball.
Crean, who attended Central Michigan, is one. Former Illinois coach Bruce Weber, now at Kansas State, is another.
As an athlete, Weber was a more devoted baseball player. But Crean, who barely played basketball on his high school team in Mount Pleasant, Mich., could be described as a serial schmoozer, a guy who would go to any length to pick the brain of a coach, help at a basketball camp or evaluate an obscure high school prospect.
He gained a reputation as a workaholic who became an encyclopedia of scouting information and he so impressed Tom Izzo that Izzo recommended to former Michigan State head coach Jud Heathcote that Crean be hired as a graduate assistant.
That got Crean’s foot in the door, so to speak, and he quickly moved through the ranks, leaving Michigan State, then returning as an assistant once Izzo replaced Heathcote.
In 1999, Crean got his big break and was hired as head coach at Marquette. His 2003 team, led by Dwyane Wade, reached the Final Four.
And in 2008, when Indiana desperately needed a fiery coach who could help recruit his way out of Sampson’s mess, the school hired Crean.
Now ranked No. 1 in the country, Indiana visits Illinois on Thursday (6 p.m., ESPN2).
The game comes during one of the craziest weeks of Crean’s life.
On Saturday his team defeated Michigan to set the stage for its rise to No. 1.
By Sunday he was in New Orleans for the Super Bowl, there with his wife, Joani, the sister of Baltimore coach John Harbaugh and San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh.
By Monday morning he was flying back to Bloomington, watching game film on the plane and organizing notes he’d been making all weekend.
But while in New Orleans, Crean did what he does best — he networked, watched and listened, gleaning from highly successful people little nuances that might help him and the Hoosiers down a road he hopes leads to a national championship.
“Having the vantage points that we had — access behind the scenes — I got to watch how the Ravers and 49ers do it, how they prepare,” he said.
“Pat Riley was down there. I spent about 90 seconds with (new NFL Hall of Fame coach) Bill Parcels. Both are coaching idols.
“When you get a chance to pick the brains of leaders — political leaders, business leaders — it inspires you to think more creatively, to look at things differently.
“I was in the box with my family when the power outage came and to watch the commissioner (Roger Goodell) deal with that with grace was amazing. That’s incredible and there’s no question you take things from situations like that and it can only make you better.”
Indiana still has nine regular-season games including the finale on March 10, which is a rematch with Michigan in Ann Arbor.
Then there’s the Big Ten Tournament in Chicago with the NCAA Tournament revving up after that.
No one knows what fate awaits the Hoosiers, but Crean is now enough of a veteran to rightfully claim he’s ready for whatever obstacles come his way.
He knows what it’s like to be on the bottom of the pile.
This week, after a long fight back, he’s the guy on top.