Why Romeo Langford decided to stay in Indiana after all

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — After Indiana’s season-opening win over Chicago State, freshman guard Romeo Langford stuck around and signed autographs for fans for about 15 minutes.

For most freshmen, it would be a new experience. For Langford, it was like a night off.i should

“It was weird not having to sit down at a table and sign for, like, two hours,” he said one morning earlier this month.

Two hours was the norm for Langford after his games at New Albany High School in Indiana, where hundreds of people would wait for an autograph from arguably the biggest basketball star in the state not named Victor Oladipo. It was something that started midway through his high school career. After a playoff game, a line quickly formed to see Langford. And so after the next game, event staff set up a table and Langford began signing.

The lines grew bigger as his career went on, especially once it became clear Indiana was going to be a major factor in his college decision.

“I just saw it as, like, these people are waiting, taking time out of their day, to watch me play — and they want to get my signature? I see myself as a normal, little kid. I’m going to take the time to sign everything that everybody wants because they’re taking time out of their day,” Langford said. “That’s one of the reasons I play basketball, because I know that I’m making people’s day just from me playing basketball. Sometimes, some fans would be like, I’ve had a bad day at work, bad week at work, but I came here to watch you play, and it put a smile on my face. I like to lift people up and put enjoyment in people’s lives just from what I like to do the most.”

Langford’s biggest gift to Indiana fans happened after his high school career ended, though.

Had Langford committed on any number of occasions before late April 2018, there was a strong chance his choice wouldn’t have been Indiana.

Prior to Archie Miller taking over in Bloomington, the Hoosiers weren’t much of a factor in Langford’s recruitment. It wasn’t anything against former Indiana coach Tom Crean or the Hoosiers’ lack of interest, Langford just wasn’t going to Indiana.

“I don’t think I was planning on coming to IU at that point in my recruitment,” Langford said. “Early on, I wasn’t thinking about coming to IU.”

It was very much a blue-blood recruitment beginning in Langford’s sophomore season. UCLA, Kansas, Duke and Kentucky all offered in April of his sophomore season, and North Carolina jumped in with an offer in the August before his junior season. Growing up a fan of nearby Louisville, Langford had received an offer from the Cardinals in February of his sophomore campaign.

When Miller took over at Indiana in March 2017, many people expected Langford to end up at Louisville, though Langford thought he would play at Duke, Kansas or Kentucky. His father, Tim, told ESPN recently that Duke was the favorite early on in his mind.

But Miller made Langford priority No. 1 when he got the job.

“You say what you mean and mean what you say in terms of being able to recruit the state,” Miller said. “Whether we got him or not, it wasn’t going to be for a lack of trying.”

So Miller began his pursuit. He visited Langford that spring and followed him everywhere on the grassroots circuit. Langford was at a tournament in Las Vegas? Miller was there. Langford was injured and not playing? Miller was still there.

When Langford trimmed his list to seven schools in August 2017, the Hoosiers made the cut — but still had plenty of ground to make up. Had Langford made a decision in the early fall, it wouldn’t have been Indiana.

Things began to turn for Indiana in September for two reasons. One, Louisville was dropped from Langford’s list the day the Cardinals placed Rick Pitino on administrative leave following the FBI investigation into college basketball corruption. More importantly, Miller had an in-home visit with Langford and his family — a visit that opened Langford’s eyes into the possibility of going to Indiana.

“That’s what really sold the deal,” Langford said. “When they finally got to come to my house and I finally sat down, actually watched some of their game play of how he was going to use me and how he plays from when he coached at Dayton.”

According to his father, Langford noticed how much more he could have the ball in his hands in Miller’s offense than at Kansas or Vanderbilt. Indiana began to move up the list.

“How he could use Romeo in that offense. Create open spaces, give Romeo the availability to do what he do,” Tim Langford said. “He really convinced Romeo at that particular time.”

Even after Langford cut his list to three, Indiana still had to delay Langford’s final decision. If he ended up signing during the early period in November, it was going to be Kansas or Vanderbilt. Both programs had been involved for a couple years, and had just landed two elite guards: Kansas with Quentin Grimes and Vanderbilt with Darius Garland. The Jayhawks were the blueblood; the Commodores were looking at Langford as the final piece to their nationally ranked 2018 class.

But Langford decided to wait — another win for Indiana.

“I felt if I was going to commit early, Indiana probably wasn’t my go-to choice,” he said. “Just because of the new coaching staff. If I wasn’t [going] to wait until the last minute or wait longer than normal kids, I don’t think I was coming here.”

Throughout the entirety of Langford’s recruitment, coaches would call his father first, and then his father would set up a time for them to call back and speak with Langford. Once Langford cut his list to three, however, his father allowed coaches to speak directly to his son. According to Tim, that was a boost for Miller and the Hoosiers, as Langford became more and more comfortable with the coaches in Bloomington.

From Miller’s perspective, momentum for Indiana truly picked up after Langford visited Indiana for a game in January against Northwestern. His official visit to Bloomington took place in the fall for Hoosier Hysteria — an event he had also been to when Crean was in charge. But he hadn’t been to a game yet, and hadn’t seen Miller’s coaching up close.

“I thought we made up significant ground after he attended a game,” Miller said. “You could feel the arena knew he was there. And I felt after he left, he had a really good feeling. … I never knew, really, we were going to get him, but I feel we started to make up some ground after he watched us play a game in person.”

The crowds clamoring for Langford at each of his high school games could have worked one of two ways: convince Langford to stay home and play at Indiana, or convince him to leave the state for school and get away from it all.

At first, it did the latter. Langford wasn’t planning to stay in the state for school. He didn’t want to be someone who would have the expectations of an entire fan base on his shoulders.

“In the very beginning, that’s one of the reasons I wasn’t really too hot on Indiana. I didn’t want to be that person,” he said. “Having to be known as the savior. I had to do everything at New Albany, they expected me to be the guy to do it all again at Indiana.”

As his recruitment progressed, though, Langford realized it was not going to be that way. Indiana was going to recruit other highly touted prospects, other high school stars. It wasn’t necessarily going to fall entirely on Langford’s shoulders.

So the senior season show for Langford marched on. Nearly 4,500 people at the FORUM Tip-Off Classic chanting “IU! IU! IU!” as Langford left the floor following a 42-point outing. Sold-out gyms of more than 8,000 people. The hours of autographs.

Even though he knew the suffocating spotlight could scare away Langford, Miller realized it was hugely beneficial at the end of the day.

“It was like an Indiana recruiting tactic,” Miller said. “But it wasn’t us. It was just when he went to a game, when he played, it just had that feel. … There was a magnet feel in terms of the state. I don’t know how to explain it other than the fact it had to be a little overwhelming for him over the course of an eight- to 10-month process. Everywhere he turned, he couldn’t get away from it.”

When Langford eventually set his decision date, he decided to do it at his high school — in a public commitment ceremony. Would the state’s favorite son really pick Kansas or Vanderbilt in front of 3,000-4,000 Indiana fans?

A few days before Langford committed, and before he even sat down with his parents to discuss the decision, he knew it was going to be Indiana.

But his parents had a say, too. His father made his case for why one school shouldn’t be in the mix. His mother gave her thoughts on another school. His sister stated her case.

And then Langford told his family where he was going.

“I just felt like Indiana was the one, after replaying every official and home visit that I had,” Langford told ESPN recently. “I felt like Indiana showed me the most. I felt the most comfortable and at home at Indiana. That’s why I went there.”

Miller and the Indiana coaches had seemingly done the impossible: They kept one of Indiana’s all-time best and most successful players home for college. They did it by starting from scratch just over a year before Langford committed, getting a place at the table and then slowly turning his head with in-home visits and campus visits. They convinced him to wait until the spring to sign, outlasting some blue bloods and overtaking Kansas and Vanderbilt in the final months.

“At the end of the day, they were patient enough with their process that we had time,” Miller said. “If it was going to be a November decision or if it was going to be an October decision, if something crazy didn’t happen in college basketball, we would’ve been gone. The fact that there was some patience and it ended up being a longevity thing, we were going to get a little bit stronger and stronger just from the simple fact of the home-state crowds and what was going on.”

The expectations were always going to be there for Langford. The state’s fourth all-time leading scorer, going to the in-state program that hasn’t been past the Sweet 16 since 2002 and has missed the NCAA tournament more often than not dating back to 2009.

Despite finishing 16-15 last season, Indiana was suddenly being mentioned as a preseason top-25 team with serious postseason aspirations.

Mostly due to Langford, the hometown hero.

“I do feel like I’m viewed like that,” he said. “When I first committed, the stuff I was hearing from the fans and stuff: that I am viewed as the savior, that I’m coming to make IU great again.”

“I don’t think there’s a kid in college — in terms of him and what he means to New Albany, Indiana or an Indiana fan of basketball — it’s not comparable to what he is to our fans,” Miller added, also pointing out that Langford has shown no arrogance or ego despite the attention. “It’s that magnetic feel. Everyone wants to be involved, everyone wants to be part of it.”

The comparison most often brought up with Langford is Damon Bailey. Bailey set the state high school record for career points, a record Langford spent his senior season chasing. A known commodity in the state from the time he was 14 years old, Bailey stayed at home to play for Bob Knight at Indiana. He ended up earning All-American and first-team All-Big Ten honors by the time his four years in Bloomington ended, and was drafted by the Indiana Pacers in 1994.

“When you start talking about the savior, he has unrealistic expectations. Extremely unrealistic,” Miller said. “The only comparable recruit to ever come here was Damon Bailey — and a lot of people say he underachieved.

“Whatever he does this year won’t be good enough. I think the thing he has to realize is, ‘That’s not my job. That pressure, me making mistakes, me not being perfect, that’s not my job [to worry about]. My job is to keep getting better, push myself, find a way to help this team do some things it hasn’t done before.’ But he doesn’t walk around and act as if I just saved IU. I don’t think he ever envisioned that in the recruiting process. … He’s like a normal 18-year-old. Yes, he’s a really good player. He’s not Superman.”

Interestingly, the attention Langford is receiving while at Indiana is less than he had in high school.

“Big-fish-in-a-small-pond feel? He’s actually away from it,” Miller said.

No longer are people hounding him for autographs and photos at every turn. No longer are people stopping and asking him questions about where he’s going to school. He’s fitting in as a college kid — or as much as an elite athlete can fit in.

Only one time has a fellow student at Indiana stopped Langford on his way to class and asked for a picture — and it was a female student who told him that her brother would be excited if she took a photo with him.

While that might change as Indiana’s season progresses and Langford’s star grows, for now it’s a far cry from the past couple years of Langford’s life.

“It’s pretty cool not to have a whole bunch of people bombarding me all the time,” he said. “I can just be a kid, a normal kid.”

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