The Oz of IU
Upon revealing his identity to someone new, the man with an audience he never asked for typically poses a question.
“Why do you follow me?” Chronic Hoosier asks.
Chronic’s question is a valid one because without an Internet connection, he’s really nothing special.
He is a middle-aged man, passionate about college basketball and his alma mater, living in the Midwest. Those grow on stalks in Big Ten country (original Big Ten country –not Jersey).
What separates Chronic from the rest are 18,800 followers on Twitter.
So why him?
“Other guys probably have better things to do with their time,” Chronic said.
If Chronic spoke to every one of his followers at his beloved Assembly Hall in Bloomington, Ind., around 1,328 people would be without a seat.
“That kind of tickled me because it’s one of those ‘oh shit’ moments where I just filled Assembly Hall with my followers,” Chronic said. “That’s kind of crazy. It was one of those moments I stepped back and realized this is kind of big, but I try to keep it in perspective. If anything, I just think it’s cool there are that many people who are passionate about IU.”
During a time when the rat race to draw followers to corporate Facebook and Twitter accounts translates to money being poured into hiring social media savants, this Indiana resident with an affinity for Jameson whiskey “gets it” without even trying to.
Chronic said his nights bartending in Bloomington and elsewhere, where quick-witted chatter came natural, influence his popular tweets.
“It’s just our nature to talk Hoosier sports and this is an extension of that part of my life,” he said. “(With Twitter) there are Hoosiers all over the globe who have a chance to partake in the same conversations I’m having every single day.”
A March 31 tweet taking a shot at rival Kentucky amassed 486 retweets. The day before, a tweet about the number of native Hoosiers playing in the Elite Eight was shared 619 times.
“I’ll be sitting there and then something comes across my mind and I’ll tweet it,” Chronic said. “Then I have to put my phone on silent because all it’s going to do is buzz with notifications. My children, wife and whomever else we may be with are just wondering what the hell is going on. I tell them, ‘I just took a shot at (IU coach) Tom Crean.’”
He has more followers than any IU beat writer with the exception of insidethehall.com’s Alex Bozich, who has 2,000 more.
But the difference between Chronic and any media member is that the former doesn’t do this for a living. He doesn’t write articles or columns. He doesn’t contribute to a fan site. The amount of followers Chronic has does not affect his well-being.
He has a personal blog named The Hoosier Chronicles, but he published only five posts in 2013 and none so far in 2014 (Chronic said that since becoming a father, he has not had the time to write much). And perhaps it is Chronic’s last post that helps explain his appeal:
“What he does so well and what gives him credibility –which is an odd thing to say considering he’s a sort of disembodied voice- is that he’s bold, funny and comes off as real,” said Dustin Dopirak, IU beat writer for the Bloomington Herald-Times. “He just says what everybody else is thinking. He has no fear of ripping on the coach or team. And nobody else is as clever to put it the way he does.”
The Pied Piper
He has become a must-follow for anybody within the IU universe (like NBA guard and former IU player Eric Gordon) and some outside of it (like Sports Illustrated writer Luke Winn and the Big Ten Conference).
Does what Chronic thinks actually matter?
“Probably,” said Indianapolis Star IU beat reporter Zach Osterman. “He has a certain level of respect and clout. But there will always be a level of satire and joviality to this. It’s never meant to be taken too seriously. But people would not follow him if they didn’t value what he thought.”
Former H-T IU beat writer and sports editor Chris Korman said Chronic’s influence extends higher than some may think.
“I think unless (IU athletic director) Fred Glass, Tom Crean and the rest of the people in the athletic department are totally out of touch, what Chronic thinks absolutely matters,” Korman said.
But holding the microphone and staring out into such a large audience can be tricky.
Chronic learned the hard way that a message does not always come across the same way to 18,000 recipients. He said that some IU fans have accused him of hurting the team’s recruiting efforts. And during the 2013-14 season, one episode changed Chronic’s entire perspective.
“I will admit that I have come off as more negative this year than I ever dreamed, wanted or intended,” said Chronic of this past IU season in which the Hoosiers failed to make the postseason. “But there was a moment that came up where it was brought to my attention that somebody who was following me was hurt by something I tweeted. And when you’re dealing with these players, there’s that moment of reflection where I thought, ‘I’m a grown damn man and I said something that really upset a teenager.’
“I stepped back and thought about what that must be like, since I did not grow up in an era of social media when I was that age. It was a weird reckoning for me and things got weird for me after that because it made me think about whose feelings I might hurt.
“I struggled with it for about a month and then came to the conclusion that I should be more fair in the things that I say, but so much of it is opinion. At the end of the day if you don’t like it, then don’t read it. That was sort of liberating for me because before that (conclusion) it was affecting how I was saying things. So I had to come to terms that in order to be true to myself, I have to put that stuff aside at times.”
With curse words, drug and alcohol references and a spirit that is unabashedly honest, Chronic isn’t for everybody, but at the same time, he has become a populist megaphone.
“Now the average person has some say and an audience,” Chronic said.
Dopirak said Chronic has become part of the narrative. The IU athletic department has its version, the media has their interpretation, and then there’s Chronic’s.
“When something happens in the IU basketball universe, people want to hear what Chronic has to say,” Dopirak said. “If two players transfer, people want to know if Chronic thinks it’s a train wreck.”
A practical scenario puts into perspective how Chronic got a seat at the table.
“If you’re a hardcore Indiana fan, you follow Chronic,” Korman said. “And then those people read Chronic’s tweets at the office. And then the people at the office repeat it to five more people. It sort of can become the way people think about Indiana basketball.”
The Right Man at the Right Time
In 2008, 17th Street in Bloomington might as well have been burning to the ground.
Then-head basketball coach Kelvin Sampson and the program were hit with NCAA allegations regarding illegal recruiting practices involving impermissible phone calls. The fallout consisted of a circus involving Sampson, conflicting reports and IU administration.
Chronic was among a group of fans venting their frustration online through blog comment sections.
“There was this little community of people that were contributing and it was the beginning of that whole era,” Chronic said. “There was so much happening on 17th Street and everybody had an opinion about what was happening.”
Korman, who covered the fiasco for the H-T, said Chronic’s passion, well-spoken nature and humor separated him from other online voices.
“The fans started seeing through Sampson,” Korman said. “From the Knight days there was this culture at Indiana of believing the coach and having faith in the program. All of a sudden, people realized that wasn’t the way to go and they needed a voice to say that and lead the charge.
“That’s the thing about Chronic, he’s the conscience of the fans.He’s this funny, dark-humored Jiminy Cricket sitting on every Indiana fan’s shoulder, (who during the Sampson fallout) guided them through this new experience.”
But the comment section version of Chronic was a watered-down one because of the ways he had to censor himself.
“You couldn’t say the f-word on our blog,” Korman said with a laugh. “We’re a family newspaper.”
On a night following an IU basketball game, Chronic introduced himself to Korman. The two established a rapport and one day (neither can recall which) Korman introduced Chronic –a man who never had a MySpace page and rarely uses his personal Facebook account- to Twitter.
“The turmoil is what most made me want to contribute to the conversation,” Chronic said. “I was not a big fan of (then-athletic director) Rick Greenspan and I’m passionate about IU. Then all of a sudden there’s this forum where you didn’t need a byline to get your message across. You just said what you wanted.”
shit, i have followers?!? I guess i should say something. working on a series of posts for the Chronicles right now. — Chronic Hoosier (@ChronicHoosier) May 8, 2009
He can’t really explain why or how it escalated from that first tweet, but Korman offered an explanation.
“He was the one to bridge that gap between the old guard and what the new reality was,” Korman said.
Timing helped Chronic develop his digital voice during the Sampson scandal. But on a larger scale, Chronic’s emergence as an online opinion-leader was also thanks in part to timing, as he came about during a time when the concept of fan-driven content was becoming increasingly popular.
“In the IU market, when you’re talking about influence, you’re talking about Mike Pegram (peegs.com), Alex Bozich (insidethehall.com) and whatever the (Indianapolis) Star and H-T write, but Chronic is right up there because he’s one of them (a fan),” Korman said. “That’s something that the Internet Age has allowed, where fans can get their coverage from other fans. It’s such a taboo thing in the media, but now there are sites that purposefully deliver news from a fan perspective. And Chronic is the perfect personification of an IU basketball fan. He’s not just a Knight guy and he’s not just a guy who wants to scrap all history and go to a one-and-done system.”
Although Dopirak is the one at the press conferences, working sources and trying to break news, Chronic has double the followers on Twitter.
“Well, he’s funnier than me,” said Dopirak as to why. “To an extent, people are more drawn to entertainment than news.”
Upon revealing his identity to someone new, the man with an audience he never asked for gets a strange look.
“Whenever I reveal myself to somebody there’s always a little disappointment because they have this idea in their mind of what I should look like,” Chronic said.
Chronic said that maintaining anonymity is one of the smartest things he has ever done because of potential conflicts of interest.
“I do business with a lot of Kentuckians and they would be aghast if they found out how I felt about their team,” Chronic said.
But what began as a way to keep his life online separate from his real life, has enhanced Chronic’s brand and popularity.
Korman points out that when you type “chronic hoosier” into a Google search bar and then hit space, the first result in the dropdown menu of suggested searches is “chronic hoosier identity.”
“The mystery adds something to it,” Dopirak said. “You talk about Chronic and it’s like Fight Club when they’re talking about Tyler Durden, ‘I hear he only sleeps one hour at night and he does this and he does that.’ That’s sometimes what people think of with Chronic. If he didn’t have a character to create, it wouldn’t have taken off the way it did.”
Unlike Durden, Chronic said he does not have an identity crisis. The Chronic Hoosier persona doesn’t define him. He’s still a father and husband.
But he added that it is still strange when he meets people in-person who only know him from Twitter and they call him Chronic.
“When people talk to me about him, they ask, ‘do you know Chronic Hoosier?’” Osterman said. “They don’t ask if I know a specific person who is behind it. They see that person as Chronic Hoosier. People who know him personally still just call him Chronic. He’s not representing a person so much as a presence and a personality.”
The bizarre nature of all this is taken to another level when you think of Chronic’s avatar, a photograph of a younger Bob Knight. For an entire generation of fans who follow Chronic on Twitter and are used to seeing Knight as an older man, the knee-jerk reaction to that picture is not , “that’s Hall of Fame coach Bob Knight,” instead it is, “that’s Chronic Hoosier.”
“He hit on a time and place that has never existed before,” Dopirak said. “If you go back 10 years, somebody would not be able to take ownership over a 30-year-old picture of Bobby Knight and make it theirs.”
Chronic admits he has thought about it.
It would be a decision that most of us would probably succumb to. Most of those with some clout on the Internet already have.
But Chronic’s response to the idea of making money off his online success is part of what makes him successful online.
“I’ve often thought about monetizing what I do,” he said. “It would be fun in the sense of making your profession your passion…But keeping it free of those commercial masters also kind of liberates you at the same time where you don’t have to worry about blowback from sponsors.”
He wants to keep it to barroom talk. Just him slinging –and perhaps taking- drinks while his customers grumble about IU’s inability to close the state’s recruiting borders, or how inexperience is no excuse for failure, or –well, you get the idea.
“It’s a force of personality thing,” said Korman on why Chronic has so many followers. “If you asked me the 10 people I would want to have a drink with right now, Chronic would be on the list.”
Chronic doesn’t have to worry about a quota of webpage hits. If he pisses off some people, whom does he have to answer to? The freedom allows Chronic to deliver a message void of any outside interests tampering with it.
“It’s amazing how much honesty works,” Dopirak said.
While companies spend millions trying to crack the social media code, Chronic plops down on his couch, flips on the IU game, maybe pours himself a glass, opens his laptop and then joins the conversation.
“I like to have fun with it and I think that’s what it’s all about,” Chronic said. “It’s called social media for a reason.”