When Mike Woodson took the Indiana basketball head coaching job in 2021, he didn’t mince words.
His goal for the program was quite clear. Win and bring back the ‘Indiana family’ that had been missing for quite some time.
How would he do that? For starters, it was ‘bridging the gap’ between generations young and old. Fans who grew up seeing three National Championships in a nine year span have now gone 36 years since a new banner has been added to Assembly Hall. For young fans, they haven’t seen an Indiana team in a Final Four since 2002. As a matter of fact, since that last Final Four, they’ve seen more NCAA Tournaments without Indiana involved (11) than with the Indiana basketball program in the tournament (9).
So, it wasn’t an easy path forward for Woodson, but one that he was going to make sure would happen.
“It’s going to be my job to bridge the gap between young people who don’t know who coach Woodson is and the old-timers who don’t know who I am. I’m going to bring all the old-timers back like the old days, and we going to bridge the gap between old and new,” Woodson said in March of 2021 at his introductory press conference. “At the end of the day, it’s about two people or two things, and that’s the fans and our basketball program and our players.”
After back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances — after five years without an appearance — Woodson has the program back heading in the right direction.
So for now, goal number one is heading in the right direction.
For number two, well he’s doing exactly what he said as well.
The ‘bridge the gap’ phrase that Woodson explained two years ago has resulted in numerous former Indiana players back in Bloomington as part of the staff or his advisors.
It started with Randy Wittman who has been a non- official staff advisor to Woodson since he returned to Bloomington. Then, last year it was Jordan Hulls who returned as the Recruiting Director. He acts as a a valuable member of the on-campus recruiting efforts as well as a de-facto fourth recruiter if and when Woodson is not on the road at recruiting events.
Then, earlier this week it was announced that Calbert Cheaney was returning. After numerous years on the Indiana Pacers staff, Cheaney is returning as Director of Player Development.
So why is there a major uptick in the Indiana basketball family returning? Well it’s simple — the love and passion for the program. And, the shared vision they have with Mike Woodson.
“I have nothing but love and passion for this program and I can’t wait to return and start working with our players and staff,” Cheaney said. “Helping them get the most out of themselves is something that I enjoy and brings me great satisfaction when they see their work pay off on the court.”
“Indiana University has been a part of me my whole life and I couldn’t be more excited to come home and work with Coach Woodson, the entire staff, and our players in the program. The relationships built during my time at IU with my teammates, coaches, and community helped shape me into the person I am today,” Hulls said upon taking the position. “… For me, it was something that if I was going to give it (professional basketball) up, it would have to be for a situation to come back home, that is really the only way that I’d ever do that… For me, this was something I couldn’t pass up.”
Not only was it an easy answer for Cheaney and Hulls, it was also an easy decision for Woodson.
“Anyone you talk to who has spent any amount of time with him has the utmost respect for him,” Woodson said of Hulls. “With his experiences, I believe he can be a tremendous asset to our players and staff and we are excited for he and his family to come back home.”
“Our players can ask him, how do you become successful when you get to college? What can I do to help my team win championships? What do I need to do to be an All-American or National Player of the Year? How did you become a first round draft pick who played 13 years in the NBA,” Woodson added of Cheaney.
The gap hasn’t ended there though.
After two decades of absence and a strained relationship between the Indiana basketball program and its legendary coach Bob Knight, his return to Assembly Hall in 2020 was a nice homecoming.
But since then, Knight has come around more … and more. He has been a frequent visitor at practices over the last two years.
“All I can talk about is the days when Coach Knight was here and how you know, he had everybody come back every year, and that was a beautiful reunion, man. I miss those days. And I’m going to bring those days back because I think it’s important,” Woodson said. “A lot of these old-timers, they probably look at me as an old-timer. We laid the groundwork for where we are today and those players should never, ever be forgotten and in my heart they won’t ever be forgotten.”
A reunion is something that Woodson has been working on ever since he took the head coaching job.
While reunions typically don’t take place everyday — that’s what he’s currently building in Bloomington. Some of the most recognizable former Hoosiers are now back and here to stay.
They’ve been winners wherever they’ve been. Now, it’s about making sure that they can ‘tie it all together’ and bring Indiana basketball back to its historic roots.
“Mike certainly gives us a bridge to our past. But more important than what he did as a former Hoosier player, he’s someone who shares my vision for what Indiana Basketball is about, and I’m thrilled about what this day means for our program,” IU Athletic Director Scott Dolson said at Woodson’s introductory press conference.
“At the end of the day, I’ve been chosen to be the coach here,” Woodson said. “I’m going to try to tie it all together to make it all work, and we all be one big family and win basketball games.”
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