When Calbert Cheaney was hired in 2011, his arrival injected life into an Indiana program that had won just 27 games in the previous three seasons.
When he was hired in June 2011, it was posited Indiana needed Calbert Cheaney. As he now departs the program, that need should no longer apply.
Yes, Cheaney needed Indiana in a basic way too. He wanted into the coaching side of the sport, after calling time on his NBA career and spending some time working in the pros in a less defined capacity. But Indiana was seen as a program beginning to list after a third-consecutive disappointing season under Tom Crean, and Cheaney was an injection of life and new momentum into Crean’s rebuilding project.
This was, of course, not entirely fair, but in the realm of public perception, surface appearance matters, and Cheaney was a solid-gold hire for a program still striving for deeper connections to the tradition that had left Assembly Hall for too long. His senior year was also the last season Indiana had won the Big Ten regular-season title outright.
Now, he leaves the program as he did in 1993, champions of the league, for an assistant’s job at Saint Louis under former IU assistant Jim Crews.
The move is odd only because Cheaney appeared to have every opportunity at a similar job with Indiana last year. His reasons for declining to pursue that position are his own, certainly, and the man it hired, Kenny Johnson, has bolstered Indiana in myriad ways as a program.
Perhaps Cheaney felt his career as a fully vested assistant needed to begin somewhere other than Indiana, that he needed to forge the beginnings of his coaching career at points beyond the one where he would always be known as Calbert Cheaney, Indiana legend, all-time leading Big Ten scorer.
Whatever his motivation, Cheaney is gone, and with him goes the gravitas of his credentials, both to a fan base that still loves him and a sport that must respect his accomplishments.
And while his role was limited, Cheaney’s impact as a member of the coaching staff should not be discounted.
He could speak to recruits, while they were on campus, about Indiana’s tradition in a way no one else was qualified to. Many current players appeared to regard him as something of a mentor, not in the way of a coach but as someone who had experienced many of the same pressures and expectations they had (particularly as those expectations began to soar after the 2011-12 season).
By all accounts, Cheaney has a good basketball mind and the ability to connect with players in ways crucial to his profession. His moving to a program that won 28 games last season ought to be evidence of that.
But while it would be folly to call him replaceable, it is fair to say Cheaney is not needed in the same way that he was two years ago.
Indiana is now, under Crean, beginning to build a new legacy. In the last two years, IU has won a Big Ten title, secured a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and advanced to the Sweet Sixteen twice. This past season’s end was abrupt and jarring, but the last two years are a solid foundation upon which to build toward greater success.
Make no mistake — Indiana must find greater success. This cannot be the high-water mark under Crean, not for a program that holds itself to the standards IU does.
But Indiana no longer needs any sort of talisman either; the roster and the program are creating of that kind of legacy by themselves now. When Cheaney left Indiana in 1993 after his senior season, it fell slowly into a state of mediocrity to which it should not be allowed to return, 20 years later. Too many pieces are in place to foster elite success for anything else to be acceptable.
Cheaney undoubtedly leaves Indiana better than he found it, and he is part of the reason for that transformation. But as IU continues to grow, Cheaney should be free to chase his own career goals as well, because his old program is on solid footing once more.
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