His legacy intact, Yogi Ferrell remains the most fascinating Indiana player in a generation
PHILADELPHIA -- Yogi Ferrell’s illustrious career at Indiana came to an end with 31 seconds left on the clock, with head coach Tom Crean calling for his team to commit a foul in the back court so he could give his seniors -- so he could give Yogi -- one last moment in front of the fans that made the trek to Philly.
As he left the floor, Yogi untucked his jersey for the last time and embraced his coach.
“‘We’re always going to walk together as brothers. Even with this loss like this,’” Yogi remembered Crean saying. “We overcame a lot, overcame all the adversity, slow starts, we kept fighting for one another, pushing one another. A season like this is a team we can tell anyone we were on.”
Yogi would take a seat on the bench, listening to the crowd behind him chant his name as the final seconds ticked away.
There were no tears after the game, not from Yogi. The pain that comes from a tournament loss gets dulled when the outcome is a forgone conclusion for the final 25 minutes. Yogi fulfilled his media requirements. He spent 15 minutes on the dais answering questions only to return to the locker room to sit in a chair that an Indiana official had set in a spot specifically to allow for the maximum number of reporters and video cameras to crowd around him.
Nearly an hour after the final buzzer had sounded, there were just a couple of reporters left chatting with Yogi when Indiana closed down their locker room. As they left, Yogi stood up to give them a handshake and a hug, a final goodbye for the people that had documented nearly a third of Yogi’s life.
“We’ve been asking that kid questions for seven years.”
To understand the significance of how Yogi Ferrell’s career at Indiana ended you first have to understand how it all started.
Yogi was something of a local sensation dating all the way back to the fourth grade. Hoop Scoop ranked him as the best player in his grade when he was nine years old and the Indianapolis Star ran a follow-up story on that, examining the pitfalls of ranking kids that are that young. He was known as a basketball prodigy in his city before he needed to shave.
He was first seen by Indiana at the team’s Elite Camp when he was still a freshman in high school. A kid that quick, that tough, that talented playing for Park Tudor HS, a prep powerhouse in Indianapolis? The Hoosiers have no choice but to go all-in on them, and they did just that with Ferrell.
During the summer after his sophomore season, when Yogi had joined the Indiana Elite AAU program, the Hoosiers put on the full-court press, and it paid off. The Hoosiers landed commitments from Yogi’s Indiana Elite teammates Peter Jurkin and Ron Patterson in August of 2010. Two months later, Hanner Perea, another Indiana Elite kid and a top 50 prospect, committed to the Hoosiers. Two weeks after that is when the levies broke: Cody Zeller, who is a year older than Yogi but played in the same Indiana Elite program, committed to the Hoosiers, followed two weeks later by Yogi pledging to Tom Crean at midcourt during a high school game his junior year.
Suddenly, Crean had a fleet of in-state kids ready to rejuvenate his program, led by a pair of soon-to-be McDonald’s All-Americans. Remember, this came at a time when the Indiana program was still in the throes of their rebuild. The year that Yogi and Zeller committed to Indiana, the Hoosiers went 12-20, an improvement considering they had won just 16 games total in Crean’s first two seasons in Bloomington.
“They made it OK for big time players from Indiana to come to Indiana again,” said Dan Dakich, a former Indiana player and coach. Dakich currently works as a college basketball analyst on ESPN and hosts a radio show in Indianapolis. He knows the framework of basketball in the Hoosier state as well as anyone, and as he tells it, there’s nothing that Indiana fans want more than to root for kids from the state of Indiana. “That has been one of the raps on Tom. He spends so much on recruiting, it’s double every big ten school. They’re like, ‘What the..? Just keeps kids in state!’”
Yogi would go on to win the state title as a junior, and the following summer he would travel with an Indiana Elite team that started five players committed to play for the Hoosiers. They dubbed themselves ‘The Movement’. They garnered so much interest that Indiana beat writers were sent out to cover their AAU games. A reporter writing a game story at an AAU tournament is unheard of.
Then Zeller arrived at Indiana, and that’s when the hype machine went to another level. As a freshman -- Yogi’s senior season in high school -- Zeller led a crop of unknowns to a 27-win season, a memorable win over Kentucky in the regular season and a trip to the Sweet 16. You couldn’t tell Indiana fans nothin’ at that point. The Hoosiers were back, Tom Crean was the savior and Indiana was going to be back to winning titles and hanging banners in no time.
And in turn, the pressure on ‘The Movement’ only built further.
“They were the first generation of twitter kids. They embraced [the pressure],” said Brian Snow, a recruiting analyst for Scout.com based in Indianapolis. “For the most part, these kids, they built it up as much as other people. They’re a very confident group. ‘This is our crew and we’re going to get it done.’ They put it out there.”
When ‘The Movement’ finally arrived in Bloomington, success followed.
The Hoosiers were the preseason No. 1 team in the country and played like it for much of the season, winning the outright Big Ten regular season title and advancing to the Sweet 16 for the second consecutive season. Yogi started at the point as a freshman and had a pretty good, year, averaging 7.6 points and 4.1 assists for a team that needed little more out of their point guard than a guy that was willing to initiate offense and get the ball to their horses -- Zeller, Victor Oladipo, Christian Watford, Jordan Hulls -- where they could do some damage.
Indiana would have some major holes to replace the following season, but with the young talent on the roster, the future still looked bright.
The course of the 2015-16 season changed for Indiana in December. We all know the story by now. The Hoosiers were humiliated by Duke in Cameron Indoor Stadium, putting up the worst defensive performance by a high-major program in five years.
It felt, then, like the end of the Tom Crean era was upon us. Maybe it wouldn’t happen that night, but there was little doubt that the man had resuscitated a program on its deathbed would be out of work come March if he couldn’t turn that thing around, and he wasn’t going to be able to do that.
Well, that changed by the end of the year, and if you talk to people around the team, that change was spurred on by a change in Yogi.
“He was the real leader for this group,” freshman Thomas Bryant said. “Some people thought that he wasn’t at the beginning of the season. He took that personal.”
That wasn’t always the case.
“Ferrel was always seen as a guy that will put up good numbers and wouldn’t defend and isn’t a great leader,” Dakich said. “This year is a 180 degree change. He’s been a terrific leader. It’s his team, everyone understands that and follows that and respects his every word. Previous teammates didn’t respect him.”
It was a mindset for Yogi. He had always been a lead-by-example kind of guy. No one questions his work ethic, in the weight room or on the practice floor. The issue was the leadership that he showed in the locker room. It was his effort defensively. How many players are willing to listen to a guy chirp at them about their defensive effort when that guy’s letting his man go for 20 every night?
“Winning has always been important to him, but to win at this level he had to understand there was a different way to do it,” assistant coach Tim Buckley said. “It wasn’t just him scoring points. It was him making his teammates better.”
“Even early into his senior year, “he wasn’t to the point where he was ready to bring them all in,” Buckley added. “The more coach talked to him about it, the more we emphasized that, the more he started to understand.”
“Yogi is different,” his father, Kevin Ferrell Sr., said. “We’ve tried to play with the mind a little bit to really understand what [leadership] looks like and how it feels going into a game.”
“He takes pride in what he’s done and what he’s accomplished.”
Part of that change is Yogi’s understanding of the moment. He doesn’t always have to call someone out in front of the whole team. Early in the season, when freshman Juwan Morgan was slacking on his responsibilities watching film and doing individual skill work outside of practice, Yogi pulled him aside and let him know that was something that had to change if he wanted to be any good.
He wasn’t just leading by example anymore.
“By force, too,” Morgan said. “It’s something you don’t see that often.”
“I listened to him and that’s the best decision I made since I got here.”
That’s the common thread in the success stories that come out of Indiana this season, and it’s certainly no different when talking about what changed that day in December. On what had to be one of the toughest days of his basketball career -- a season where the Hoosiers were projected in the preseason top 15 had started 5-3, and, with losses already to Wake Forest and UNLV, no answers were readily available -- Yogi was the one that stepped out of the locker room to face the media. He was the one that answered more questions that night than head coach Tom Crean did.
And he was the one that led the conversation in the locker room after the game.
“It wasn’t as intense as this feeling right here, but it was a lot like it is tonight,” Morgan said. “‘We cannot let this happen again. We have to have some pride in ourselves, for everyone that supports us, not to let this happen again.’”
Yogi will leave Indiana as one of the most beloved Hoosiers in a generation, but the biggest reason for that is the disappointment that his sophomore and junior seasons led to.
‘The Movement’ ended up being a fitting name for Yogi’s recruiting class, as four of the five players that committed to Crean eventually found their way out of the program. Ron Patterson never made it in due to an academic issue. Peter Jurkin was never healthy enough to be a contributor at this level and transferred after his sophomore season. Jeremy Hollowell transferred out of the program after his sophomore season, and whose idea it was for the move to be made is up for debate. Hanner Mosquera-Perea got a midseason DUI as a sophomore and was dismissed after he was cited for possession of marijuana last May.
And all that happened while the Hoosiers couldn’t find a way to avoid legal issues. Underage drinking. Marijuana possession. Yogi wasn’t even immune, as he was popped for using a fake ID at a club. All of that paled in comparison with the incident involving Devin Davis and Emmitt Holt, when Davis nearly killed himself by jumping into the path of a car that was being driven by Holt. Both players, who were underage, had been drinking at the time.
“Indiana, like many elite programs, places themselves a cut above,” Snow said. “You’ve got a kid, Yogi Ferrell, from Park Tudor High School, elite prep school in Indy. Never had problems in high school, everyone will tell you he’s a good kid and all of a sudden he’s getting in trouble. Jeremy Hollowell never really got in trouble and now he’s getting into trouble. Hanner never had any problems and all of a sudden he’s getting in trouble.”
During that time, Indiana missed the tournament one year and got bounced in the first round the next, all while a number of kids from the state -- Gary Harris, Ronnie Johnson, Glenn Robinson III, Mitch McGary, Zak Irvin, D’vauntes Smith-Rivera, R.J. Hunter -- were playing starring roles elsewhere, and, far too often, on teams that beat the Hoosiers.
“The fan base has an unrequited love for that team and they were left wondering whether it was reciprocated,” Dakich said. “People were glad when they got rid of [those kids] because in Indiana, they want love the kid as much as they want to love the team.”
In other words, they want the players to value the right to wear that uniform the same way that they, as fans, would if they were good enough to don the crimson and cream.
It took a while for Yogi to earn that trust back from the fan base, but he did. Carrying this team to a Big Ten regular season title -- the second of his career -- and to the Sweet 16 with a win over Kentucky? He’s now a legend at a school full of them, something that wasn’t guaranteed prior to the turnaround, regardless of where his name falls in the history books: sixth all-time in points, the career leaders in assists, games played and starts.
Because that turnaround gave Indiana fans a ride they never expected.
Instead, they’ve got themselves a Big Ten title and a trip to the Sweet 16 -- plus a win over Kentucky, which may be the most valuable chip in a rivalry that’s been too dormant for too long -- with a future that looks far more promising. James Blackmon Jr. will be healthy next season. O.G. Anunoby suddenly looks like he’s on the Victor Oladipo career path. With Robert Johnson and Colin Hartman expected to return, the Hoosiers should finish in the top half of the Big Ten next season, and that’s assuming that neither Troy Williams or Thomas Bryant return, which is anything but a given at this point.
Yogi gave them that, his senior season mirroring the arc of his career at Indiana, and while the Hoosiers more or less accomplished what they were projected to accomplish in October, that it happened after the way the season started made it unforgettable.
The most fun a sports fan can have is rooting for a team that wasn’t supposed to be nearly as good as they end up being.
“It’s not my place to determine [my legacy],” Yogi said. “It’s what the people think and what the people say. I feel like I did everything in my part that I possibly can. I want to be successful, but for me to be successful, the team had to be successful.”
“I just want them to think about me being a winner.”
And they will.
But his real legacy could end up being determined by what happens in the near future.
Did Yogi really make it cool for Indiana kids to end up in Indiana again?
Because in Indiana, the Class of 2017 has five top 75 prospects. Romeo Langford, a top ten prospect in the Class of 2018, plays in the Hoosier State. The second coming of ‘The Movement’ is right there for Crean’s taking. Has Yogi’s emergence this year done enough to repair the rift that has formed between Indiana kids and the biggest school in their home-state?
That will be Yogi’s real legacy.
And don’t think for a second that doesn’t matter to him. He loves his state. He loves his school. He’s a kid that didn’t know how he was going to bring himself to take off that Hoosier jersey for the last time:
“I might take this thing and keep it on to the hotel, that’s how bad I don’t want to take it off.”