Seniors Christian Watford (left) and Jordan Hulls have been there for every step of Indiana's basketball turnaround.
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (WDRB) -- The conversations are what the parents always remember about the journey. Listening more than talking. Making the pain go away for their children. Encouraging. Listening even more, no matter the hour.
Dads provide the reminder about the urgent necessity to rise up after you are knocked down. Because you will be knocked down. Moms are always there with assurance that everything is going to be OK. Because it will be OK.
That is the way it has been for four years for Ernest and Belinda Watford and J.C. and Joni Hulls as they have directed their sons, seniors Christian Watford and Jordan Hulls, through four seasons of celebration and tribulation at Indiana University.
Not every moment stirred the emotional rush of getting ready to play an NCAA Tournament Sweet Sixteen game like the one Indiana will play against Syracuse Thursday night in Washington D.C.
The first two seasons were dominated by talks about what went wrong against Boston University, Penn State and other teams that were not supposed to be defeating the Hoosiers. They knew life was going to get better. Their faith didn't disappear. But did they wonder? Sure, they wondered.
"We lived by scripture," said Ernest Watford. "I quoted scripture to Christian. You've got to keep fighting. We talked about the endurance of a race. It's a marathon. Not a sprint. Just a daily talk of encouragement. Seeing these fans out when we were getting our butts kicked."
"We had many conversations through that first year where (Jordan) would either come by the house or we'd be on the phone just talking," J.C. Hulls said. "I'd try to tell him, 'It's about perseverance right now. You know it's going to get better. It's not going to stay that way.'"
That was 2009, the start of a 10-21 season. And 2010, which created more grumbling about 12-20. Do not forget most of 2011 – until Indiana finally returned to the Top 25 in December of that year.
Now fast-forward to March 24, 2013 in the East Regional game in Dayton. Watford was there with the unlikely blocked shot in the final 2:20 that ignited Indiana's comeback, 58-52, victory against Temple. Even Ernest Watford was amazed by that one. He knows his son is known as a shooter, not a leaper. Christian Watford has only swatted 15 before Sunday when he got two.
Hulls, barely 6 feet and 180 pounds, has endured a lifetime of being told what he could not do. The previous IU coaching staff thought Hulls could be an all-American -- at the NAIA level.
Can't run. Too small. Can't defend. Can't (fill-in-the-flaw). Those were perfect credentials for Sunday. Hulls is not the kind of kid who was going to let a bruised shoulder stop him from contributing five critical points in the Hoosiers' rally, two on an unlikely, pull-up 12-footer not long after Hulls returned to play the final four minutes. Hulls specializes in deep shots. That one was outside his comfort zone.
I can't prove that surviving the drama and doubts at Indiana are what enabled Watford and Hulls to deliver Sunday. But it didn't hurt. Hulls and Watford were not going to let the season end that way. That's what all those father/son, mother/son conversations were about during their freshman and sophomore seasons.
"For a mother's love, we would go across the country to see our sons play," Belinda Watford said.
"Over four years I've probably driven more than 100,000 miles," Ernest Watford said. "Been through two cars. I wouldn't take one mile off those cars for the journey we've been through."
Watford and Hulls arrived together as part of the six-player recruiting class in Crean's second season, a class put together when the basketball staff was dealing with NCAA probation and limitations on visiting prospects.
Watford grew up in Birmingham, a crazy Alabama football fan who preferred to play at a basketball school. Hulls played at Bloomington South, a three-point jumper from Assembly Hall. But Indiana was missing from his recruiting list – and was going to remain absent as long at Kelvin Sampson was the coach.
Neither was really considering Indiana until Tom Crean arrived in April 2008. Watford was focused on Memphis and Louisville, with an offer from Alabama, too, in case he changed his mind about escaping football dominance. J.C. Hulls said he told Crean not to take his son unless he was serious about playing him.
"Jordan wasn't really coming here," J.C. Hulls said. "It wasn't the right fit at the time. I didn't care if it was Dayton or Western Michigan. I just wanted it to be the right fit."
"The first night Christian said something about that he wanted to go to IU, my wife told him go upstairs and pray about it overnight," said Ernest Watford, a law enforcement officer in Birmingham. "‘Come down tomorrow and let us know how you feel.' He came down resolved that he thought it was the place to be."
"We asked him why. After talking with Coach Crean and meeting with him several times, we knew this was the right place to be in."
The Hulls and Watford class accepted the responsibility of returning Indiana to the Top 25. Two guys transferred. Two others – Maurice Creek and Derek Elston – get limited minutes off the bench this season. Creek endured three significant leg injuries. Staying healthy has also been difficult for Elston.
Watford and Hulls keep going and going and going. They have been as reliable as the pep band showing up in white shirts and red vests. Hulls played in his 134th game Sunday. No Hoosier has played more. Watford has scored 1,717 points. He can move into seventh place on the Indiana scoring list, ahead of Kent Benson and Damon Bailey, with 25 more.
But points or records are not what their coach will remember about this group. It will be the journey.
"I don't want it to end," Crean said. "I really don't. I love being around these guys. They're as smart and cerebral and tough minded as any group I've ever been around."