ST. LOUIS -- If there was a better story in college basketball last year than the St. Louis Billikens, I'd very much like to hear it.
Rick Majerus was the revered, well-traveled coach of St. Louis who talked his old friend Jim Crews into taking a job as his assistant, when a job opened up just before practice began, in 2011-12. Crews had to make the decision to come coach at St. Louis in 24 hours.
"We had just played golf," Crews, 59, recalled of the afternoon his life changed, as we sat in his office on Monday. "An absolutely beautiful day. And I check my phone -- there's a message from Rick. And he goes through this spiel" -- here, Crews snapped three times for emphasis -- "and, oh, yeah, I need to know in 24 hours. So it certainly gets your head moving fast.
"My wife and I, we just talked about it. And Rick has been a great friend for so long, and he's kind of in a pinch. And Rick and I had been talking for two years, about coaching and stuff. And my wife and I, well, she said, 'Just do it.'"
They did, living out of a hotel that first season. Let no one doubt: This was Majerus' team.
"Rick was awesome to us," Crews said. "Just say whatever you want to say, put in whatever you want to put in. He just gave us carte blanche ... but we'd go say something to a kid, you'd say something. And their first response is, they'd just kind of look over at Rick, like, 'I'm not moving until that guy tells me. Which was great, because that means they were so well-schooled."
But it was also Majerus' last team. In August, he got sick. Suddenly, Majerus' team was Crews' team. And Crews remembered what moments like the one he mentioned and what they represented.
"It also gave me an insight into that these guys know what they're doing, they like what they're doing, they're dependent on what they're doing. And so unfortunately, when Rick got sick last year, and he wasn't gonna be here, I just felt that we'd been successful, and these guys had a belief in it."
In December, Majerus died. Crews was the head coach of a grieving team, dealing with loss in-season. Players that Majerus had recruited served as pallbearers at his funeral, and Crews had a job to do with arguably a more significant emotional component than a basketball one. It's the kind of thing that bonds teams together forever -- and Crews knows a little something about that bond.
"My teammates in college, I met first day of class, 40 years ago," Crews said of the people he played with at Indiana University, eventually playing for Bob Knight's undefeated Hoosiers in 1976. "And I've talked to all of them the past three weeks."
So if an undefeated season could give Crews and his teammates that kind of bond, what did last year mean?
"I knew it was very unique, right from the get-go," Crews said. "One advantage in a very negative situation we had was that all of us were thrown into the same emotional circle. I had known Rick for 35 years, and everyone on the staff had a relationship with him. Every one in that locker room came because of Rick. So that was, in a very tragic and emotional situation, a silver lining."
But if the common grief defined things for Crews at some level, the unlikeliness of the season Crews had with St. Louis, from on-court strategy to off-court approach, were notable even in an already difficult job.
Jim Crews kept the St. Louis Billikens together, playing a Rick Majerus style of grinding defense and opportunistic offense -- but consider that before all this, he was Jim Crews, coach of the mid-major Evansville Purple Aces, who made four NCAA tournaments under his watch. To college basketball fans of a certain age, Evansville was Gonzaga before Gonzaga.
And there was that one year, 1988-89, when Crews' Evansville team, seeded 11th, beat a sixth-seeded Oregon State team, featuring a dynamic point guard named Gary Payton. Then Evansville took third-seeded Seton Hall down to the final minutes, before ultimately falling short against P.J. Carlesimo's national runners-up.
About that Evansville team: It was nothing like a Rick Majerus team. At all. That 1988-89 team shot 44 percent from three-point range, averaging 82.6 points per game. The 2012-13 St. Louis team shot 34 percent from three, averaging 68.2 points per game.
Crews won 25 games then, 28 last year.
"I think, defensively, Rick and I thought 98 percent the same way, in terms of the fundamentals," Crews said. "How to scout, that was almost spot-on, as they say these days. In terms of offense, big-picture, we were almost the same in terms of ball movement, player movement, timing, all that. However, the total opposite was, our system of play was screening away from the ball, and doing a lot of reading, whereas his was screening on the ball. And so that was diametrically opposite from what I'd known and been used to."
So Crews decided, last year, he'd just go along for the ride.
"First of all, we'd had a heck of a year last year. And we had a lot of guys back ... and I told 'em right off the bat, 'You know it better than I do. And I'll learn it, I'll learn it fast, but you guys need to interject, if we're a little off-center here, or not making the teaching points we ought to make. And that's really one of the most enjoyable things of the year, is, not only practice, but the games -- and they would never do it, like, we get it, you don't get it -- it wasn't anything like that. It was all about getting better. And they did it with themselves, but they did it with us as coaches."
And that's the other aspect of what makes Crews' story such an unlikely one: the extent to which he has let go, becoming a different kind of coach than he'd ever been, by his own estimation.
Crews is very much a product of the Bobby Knight school. It's how he coached at Evansville; it's how he coached at Army from 2002-2009, where things never came together on the court. The Army job ended, according to the Times Herald-Record, over accusations that he'd been physically and verbally abusive with a player.
"It's very different," Crews said of his approach now. "To be truthful, I grew up in a different generation -- some of it's good, and some of it's not good -- I grew up in the generation, if I'm walking down the street, and some lady tells me to take out her garbage, I took out her garbage, because she's an authority figure. So I had great parents, and sometimes, the answer to why can't I do that was, because I said you can't do that ... So that's probably how I started out coaching. Why should you do it? Because I said it, that's why you do it.
"But, and I can't tell you what point in time, [that changed], and I wanted our guys to know, why why why why why. Why do we do things. And why do I do that? Because we're in the people business, teaching basketball. We're either dealing with old boys or young men. So, to get the why -- we want to serve those guys. It's your team; it's your program. We'll hold you accountable, don't get us wrong, but I really want -- it is their team and their program. I'm just an instrument, part of that."
More than most teams, this one is probably asking "why" an awful lot, and not just on the court. It is, though, a huge change for Crews.
"The players, the ORs at Army, the assistant coaches, they know the truth," Crews said, "and they're the only ones I've got to answer to. Everyone knows what happens in your house. You can fool the world. But everyone knows."
Really, though, it's hard to think of a larger rebuke to the way his tenure at Army ended -- which most expected was the end of his career -- than what he's doing now at St. Louis. If the allegations were true, he's clearly changed and grown exponentially since then. If they weren't, he's getting a chance few in his position ever receive. Between the losing seasons and the bad publicity, many schools wouldn't have given Crews a chance.
But he's not only the head coach; he's at a school that looks to be on the rise. St. Louis' Chaifetz Arena opened in 2008, seats 10,600, and gets very loud. The Billikens are now 73-17 there in five years. Last season's 28-7 team returns nearly everybody and expects to challenge for the Atlantic 10 title this year, while making national noise.
The Big East has 10 teams and a large financial incentive to grow to 12 teams. It's hard to think of another program that makes as much sense for the league's expansion as St. Louis. If the two sides aren't talking, it's an astonishing failure of imagination on both ends.
So Crews could coach for another ten years, building St. Louis into a national power. And for now, he'll do it largely with Majerus' offense, making "tweaks any coach would make," and with the players he managed through a largely unprecedented situation.
But after eight years in Bloomington as an assistant to Knight, 17 years at Evansville, seven at West Point, he's given up on looking that far into the future. St. Louis lifted the interim tag in April. But as Crews said to me, "We're all interim."
"I've been blessed to be surrounded, throughout my life, by great people," Crews said. "My mom gave me a piece of advice: 'Get lost in a crowd of very good people.' I listened to her. 'And wherever that pack takes you, you're gonna be fine.' And I don't think she gave me any better advice than that."