A Tale of Two Programs

Sunday's game in Iowa City will feature two programs looking to take another small step in their rebuilding processes. The past decade has shown both programs just how hard making that next step can be.

In the spring of 1999 Dr. Tom Davis walked off the Carver-Hawkeye Arena court for the last time as head coach of the Iowa basketball program, ending his illustrious association with the university. He walked away as the winningest coach in Iowa basketball history.

Unbeknownst to all at the time, Bob Knight walked off the Assembly Hall court the very next spring for the last time as head coach of the Indiana basketball program. He took with him three national championship rings and 661 career victories at Indiana, achievements that most likely will never be approached again in Bloomington.

Since the departure of both icons, the two programs have been steering their ships in choppy waters. Both yearn for a return to the glory days of their history and yet both are preaching patience to their fan base as they try to recover from the wreckage of the past few seasons.

It's two different tales as to how these programs found themselves in full-scale rebuilding mode, but it doesn't change the similarity of their current situations.

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In an ironic twist of fate, it was the Hawkeyes who immediately turned to an all-time Hoosier great to lead their program through the transition. While Indiana's hand was somewhat forced into selecting former Alabama standout and Knight assistant Mike Davis as their next head coach, the Hawkeyes were quick to anoint former Knight player Steve Alford as their leader.

The better part of the next decade was filled with surprising highs and staggering lows for each program. Alford got off to a quick start by knocking off top-ranked Connecticut in his very first game on the Iowa sidelines and won a Big Ten tournament title the next year thanks in part to Indiana transfer Luke Recker. The Hawkeyes went on to lose in the second round of the NCAA tournament to Kentucky to end their 2001 season, but quietly and not-so-quietly Hoosier fans were already wondering if they let the proverbial "big one" get away in Alford.

Luckily for Davis, that talk was largely silenced the very next spring thanks to a magical run through the 2002 NCAA tournament. Indiana's eventual loss to Maryland in the National Championship game didn't take away from the jubilation the Hoosier faithful felt during that season of returning to national relevance and the chase for a sixth banner.

Little could both coaches have guessed that they had reached their pinnacle at their respective schools so soon.

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Alford struggled through his final six seasons on the Iowa sidelines never winning another NCAA tournament game. In the spring of 2007 he walked away from the growing unrest and rumbling at Iowa to accept the head coaching position at the University of New Mexico.

Davis would suffer a much more painful exit. He would only collect two more NCAA tournament victories over the next four seasons and by the time his final season at Indiana rolled around he missed a home game against Iowa, which many rumored to be due to the stress of his tenuous job status. Eventually, Davis too chose to walk away from the job before the flames engulfed him.

What happened next at both programs sounds like an old Johnny Cash song—the flames grew higher.

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Iowa turned to the state of Indiana once again and hired Butler Head Coach Todd Lickliter in 2007. Just a year before Indiana had gone against the grain and selected Oklahoma's Kelvin Sampson as their head coach. Both decisions would prove to be unfortunate, disastrously so in Indiana's case.

Sampson-gate would eventually tear the proud IU basketball program down seemingly brick-by-brick. By the time the Sampson fall-out was completely over only one scholarship player remained on the team, a former walk-on in Kyle Tabor.

Lickliter simply struggled through three seasons by winning an average of 13 games and never making the NCAA tournament. But when Iowa decided to break ties with Lickliter and hand the reigns over to Siena Head Coach Fran McCaffery this season at least their was a team in place for him to take over.

When Indiana named Marquette Coach Tom Crean their new leader in 2008 they had to offer him long-time job security because of the magnitude of the project ahead of him. Crean would basically be building a team from the ground up. It marked the beginning of one of the biggest rebuilding jobs ever faced in the history of college basketball.

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While Crean is now in his third season and battling desperately to earn his first winning season on the Hoosier sidelines, McCaffery is just 18 games into his own rebuilding project. Each coach has seen their share of heartache this season. Iowa has yet to win a Big Ten conference game and the Hoosiers have already been humbled by the likes of Colorado and Northern Iowa, a team that McCaffery's bunch held to just 39 points in a 12-point home victory just two weeks earlier.

Thanks to a head start and three recruiting classes already in the program, Crean has the jump on his Iowa counterpart and will bring the more talented team to Iowa City this Sunday. However, talent hasn't meant much in the Hoosiers most recent games against Iowa. Last season the Hawkeyes swept the teams' two meetings by a total of 31 points.

This year the Hoosiers seemingly have momentum on their side as they are coming off their two best performances of the season, while the Hawkeyes are re-grouping from a string of four consecutive double-digit losses. Whether seeing a similarly young and rebuilding team enter their gym will build their confidence and turn things around for the Hawkeyes remains to be seen.

For McCaffery the game represents a chance to get his team's legs back underneath them and past a very big milestone, his first conference win. For the Hoosiers it's a chance to claim their first conference road win of the season, but more importantly show that they have grown into a team that can handle their business against a lesser opponent.

But for both programs it's really just another solitary game, a brick in the rebuilding project, as they try to put an arduous decade behind them and secure the promise of better days ahead.

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