ED HIRT is a psychology professor at Indiana, but you might say that he moonlights as an anthropologist. Hirt has devoted years of research to the characteristics and customs of an idiosyncratic tribe: sports fans.
For one of his studies, Hirt observed fans watching their preferred team play a road game on television and then asked them a series of questions. He found that the subjects' moods were deeply affected by the performance of their team. No surprise, that. But Hirt's research also indicated that after a victory, fans were more confident about their social skills and sex appeal. They even had more faith in their ability to perform tasks, from shooting free throws to solving word puzzles. "The identity is so powerful," says Hirt, that "fans often see themselves through their team."
If that's the case, then Hirt is suddenly surrounded by self-styled lotharios and beauty queens, and his campus is crawling with boundlessly confident puzzle masters. To the delight of Hoosiers Nation, Indiana is the unlikely darling of this college basketball season. After winning at Penn State on Sunday, the No. 7--ranked Hoosiers stand proudly at 15--1. Greater still, this better-than-the-sum-of-its-parts collection of overachievers combines traditional Indiana basketball sensibilities with contemporary hoops—Hickory High meets the AAU summer circuit.
With the Indianapolis Colts coming off of a miserable 2--14 season (a mark still superior to the Indiana football team's brutal 1--11), the status of Peyton Manning in doubt and the Pacers improving but failing to captivate, the rebirth of IU basketball has been particularly welcome. As no less than John Mellencamp, the state's unofficial poet laureate, put it to a friend while sitting courtside for a recent Hoosiers game, "We're back, baby."
The Hoosiers play in a dowdy 41-year-old building quaintly named Assembly Hall. The players still wear those familiar candy-striped sweats as they go through the pregame layup line. From Albany to Zionsville, fans without tickets listen to the radio broadcasts of Don Fischer, who has been the voice of the Hoosiers for 39 years. Put simply: This is a tribe that values stability and tradition, a culture that doesn't do volatility well.
Which is why the saga of the past decade was particularly jarring. The whipsawing began in 2000 with the exile of longtime paterfamilias Bob Knight. Knight's successor, Mike Davis, was a thoroughly decent man who took Indiana to the NCAA championship game in '02, but his record was uneven and he came to resemble a politician never quite able to win over the base. Next came Kelvin Sampson, a down-market Jerry Tarkanian, who won plenty of games but whose reign was marked by players' drug use (according to former star guard Eric Gordon), abysmal academics and abundant "character issues." Sampson left in disgrace in '08 after his recruiting misconduct resulted in the first major sanctions against the Hoosiers by the NCAA since 1960.
The team lost fans in droves—student ticket orders alone fell by about 3,800, almost half the inventory. Former players disassociated themselves from the program. Even in Indiana, top recruits instinctively looked elsewhere. Broom and dustpan duties fell on Tom Crean, a Hercules (albeit a well-compensated one) tasked with cleaning the stables. Asked how he would restore the program's reputation, Crean parroted a two-word response as if it were a test-marketed catchphrase: It's Indiana. Translation: The program's lowly status was violating a law of the college basketball universe. "Looking back, we were in crisis mode," says Crean. "But the fans, the players, the base, they weren't going to let it stay down."
Still, Crean discovered that it's hard to rebuild without a foundation. Though he was careful to set low expectations, his teams failed to meet them. In his first three seasons the Hoosiers were a combined 28--66 and, as if they'd signed a noncompete agreement with the Big Ten, went 8--46 in the conference. This was almost unfathomable for a venerated program with five national championship banners hanging above the court. It's Indiana?
Hampered at first by fallout from the Sampson era—a raft of players transferred out, and recruiting was restricted under the NCAA sanctions—Crean fielded glorified jayvee teams with no credible center and with backcourt players who had the lateral quickness of chain-gang members. "That first year it was like, What's going to happen next?" recalls Crean. "I mean, we had walk-on tryouts in December, over Christmas break, again in January. 'Hey, you can get us a bucket? Maybe help with a defensive stop? You're on the team!' That was the reality."
On the recruiting trail there were modest successes but also tantalizing maybes that became painful nos. (Kyrie Irving, who would become the No. 1 pick of the 2011 NBA draft, flirted with IU but chose Duke.) Adding injury to insult, swingman Maurice Creek, a top Crean recruit, broke his left patella as a freshman in '09 and suffered a stress fracture of his other patella as a sophomore. Then, in October, negotiating the stairs of his apartment, Creek slipped and ruptured his left Achilles tendon. He hasn't played since. "Every time we were close, something bad would happen," says Crean. "When you're not winning games and you're working hard, you can get wiped out. Any leader who says he doesn't have self-doubt from time to time isn't telling the truth."