Accountability must be player-born, player-bred

  • 02/20/2011 7:44 am in

BLOOMINGTON — I’m going to tell you a story.

That’s one of the wonderful options available in writing for a web site rather than, say, a traditional newspaper: I get to be a lot more informal and conversational. So here goes.

For those who do not know, I rode Little 5 for four years for my fraternity. For three of those years, I rode with two guys in particular, very close friends and the best training partners I could have asked for.

We gelled well from my freshman year (their sophomore years, both of them were a year ahead of me) on, and really formed a tight partnership.

In the fall semester of my junior year, burdened with a heavy class load and time-consuming IDS work, I cut back on my training at the same time that the two of them – by that time seniors – were ramping theirs up.

I thought I could make up the time lost, and I convinced myself I wasn’t falling behind, but the truth was that I knew I wasn’t going to be where they were or where I needed to be come spring, when the real work would be done, and I was right. They were immensely disappointed in me, and whether they knew it or not, I was far, far more disappointed in myself.

I broke myself trying to catch up. Trying not to let them down. That was why I trained, why we trained. It wasn’t glorious by any stretch – forcing yourself onto a bike in the middle of the winter is pretty miserable stuff in southern Indiana.

But we were so deathly afraid of letting one another down that we didn’t dare ease up one step, one mile, and we would abuse ourselves to make up for it if we did.

There was scattered criticism tonight of Tom Crean during his postgame press conference, for, as best I can tell, demanding greater accountability from his team while deflecting it from himself.

In some facets of the overall make-up of Indiana basketball, that kind of argument is plausible. The coach is heavily involved, obviously, in the team’s failure, just as much as its success.

But tonight, of all nights, such criticism really was unfounded. The kind of accountability Crean talked about had nothing to do with him, and everything to do with his players.

“It’s not about playing hard,” Crean said, making a point to emphasize that he feels his team gives plenty of effort. “There’s got to be more accountability for one another outside of a coach making a substitution.”

The thing about the kind of accountability Tom Crean is talking about is that it can’t really come from a coach. Players can want to play well for a coach, and they can fear a coach. They can do both.

But a coach can’t be their boss and also hold them accountable, because the latter kind of respect has to be earned, and the respect afforded a coach – probably in any sport – is respect that is expected and demanded.

There has to be a player – or there have to be players – who make certain demands of their teammates, spur them through guilt or example or sheer force of will to be better. Coaches just can’t demand that in the way that teammates can, because a player can leave his coach when the night is over, but he can’t leave his teammates.

A player gets four or five years – his coach will be there when he arrives and remain when he’s gone. It’s his teammates that a player must be most accountable to, because their time is likewise finite.

Saturday night, Tom Crean was beside himself. He was as quiet and as contemplative as I think I’ve ever seen him. There were moments where a man who’s made a reputation for being an energetic, engaging speaker of words simply could not find the ones he needed.

He talked about the specific things he thought his team did wrong. He bemoaned a “wasted week” of practices he said on Friday were encouraging for the competition and even combativeness contained within. He praised Derek Elston for giving a strong effort in rebounding the ball and Verdell Jones for trying “to bring something throughout the entire game,” before adding that he felt no other individual performances merited mention.

And then he related a startling story: One Indiana player, during a game marked by defensive frailty, asked at one point to be allowed to guard one of Northwestern’s best players. Only one.

Crean declined to single out that player in his postgame press conference, but according to Herald-Times columnist Hugh Kellenberger, it was Will Sheehey.

Will Sheehey. A freshman.

Will Sheehey was the only Hoosier to specifically ask for a challenge, to in essence seek out that accountability that Crean lamented was lacking.

The problem, of course, is that there are very few teams on which a freshman can be a team leader. Two years ago, Will Sheehey might have been a godsend. And were he scoring 15 points per game instead of five, Sheehey might well be able to command that kind of role on this team as well.

But the fact remains that Sheehey is a freshman, although one with enormous potential for being, at very least, a primary bearer of that kind of leadership moving forward, provided he continues to ask for that challenge.

But as Hugh points out in the above-linked column, that’s also part of the problem with Indiana. No longer can it lean on the excuses of youth or inexperience.

And the simple truth is that Sheehey’s act was not really noble because it stepped above his station as a rookie, but because he was the only one willingly seeking that role. As Crean pointed out: “It should never be one guy. It should never be one guy wanting those responsibilities.”

For a number of different reasons, comparing my Little 500 team to Indiana basketball is not comparing apples to apples, but the basic premise is the same. We all committed ourselves to a greater, communal purpose, striving for shared success.

When I look back now at the years I spent riding with my teammates, I realize just how much we were all driven not by our competition, or by our desire to be the very best we could be or the very best in the field. We were desperate not to fail one another, because how in the world could we look each other in the eye at that point?

To tell an honest truth, I rarely, if ever, worried about letting our coach or our house down. I didn’t want to fail my teammates, fail my friends.

“It’s individuals holding individuals responsible,” Crean said after Saturday’s loss, “and not wanting to let each other down.”

Exactly. Exactly.

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