INDIANAPOLIS – Jim Crews sat back in his chair, crossed his legs and stretched his long, lanky arm over the one next to him. He appeared to be as relaxed as a guy from Normal (Illinois) could ever hope to be.
Perhaps that is what a basketball coach who just handed No. 15-ranked Butler (22-6, 9-4 Atlantic 10 Conference) only its second defeat (and first with a full complement of players) this season at Hinkle Fieldhouse should act like.
Saint Louis knocked off the Bulldogs 65-61 in front of a sold-out (10,000) Hinkle, which kept the Billikens (21-5, 10-2) in sole possession of first place heading into the final weeks of the A-10 season.
Perhaps – no, most definitely – it is what a guy who is orchestrating his career with house money, so to speak, should be doing.
“We don't really worry too much about the outcome,” Crews said. “We're more focused on the input. What's really been pleasing to me is what these kids have put into the program, before I got there, and certainly now, under a very difficult and adverse situation.”
Crews came to Saint Louis prior to the 2011-12 season after being let go amidst controversy following a seven-year stint at West Point. Nearing 60 years of age and having nine consecutive losing seasons on his resume, serving as an assistant to a longtime friend is more than likely the best, make that only, opportunity that Crews could have probably hoped for. However, life takes turns and presents opportunities, and that is what Crews has taken advantage of – an opportunity.
Once upon a time, Crews was every athletic director's “boy wonder.” He was young, a Bob Knight disciple, and more importantly, a winner. He took over the Evansville program shortly after turning 30 years of age and guided the Purple Aces to nine seasons of .500 or better in his first decade on the job.
He had annual opportunities to climb the coaching ladder, but he and his family liked Evansville, he liked his job, and he chose to stay.
“I had a good job,” Crews said. “I don't care if a guy in Idaho thinks that I have a good job or not. It really doesn't make any difference to me. In sports, it's just like a family, and each family knows what the truth is in those homes.”
Let that be a lesson to young coaches, loyalty in the coaching profession is most often a one-way street.
In his 17th season at Evansville, Crews' team struggled to a 7-21 record (just the third losing season in his tenure) and despite excelling on the on the court (four-time Missouri Valley Coach of the Year) and off of it (52 of 53 Purple Aces graduated), he felt compelled to resign.
He took over at West Point and, though he eventually achieved a degree of success (double-digit victories in three of his seven seasons), he was fired in September of 2009 due to a “personnel matter,” and spent the next two seasons in coaching purgatory as an unemployed coach with a (recent) losing history.
The late Rick Majerus brought him to Saint Louis in 2011 to serve as an assistant, but when the coach's health declined (ultimately passing away last December), Crews was named as interim head coach of this talented squad, which has set the Atlantic 10 on fire.
“Whatever I am,” Crews joked in regards to his title, “this is true: I'm on the bus, but I'm not driving the bus. Everybody thinks that I'm driving the bus, but I'm not driving the bus. These players are driving the bus and a lot of other people are driving the bus. I might have to tell them to take a right (turn) or left once in a while, but I am dead serious, I am not driving the bus.”
That amount of humbleness is refreshing to hear in the world of athletics, but let's be quite frank here, a group of 19 to 22-year-olds can only “drive the bus” so well. At some point, it has taken the steady hand of a veteran coach that has seen everything to figure out how to dismantle Butler and VCU in a period of three days.
It was difficult to get a read on Crews regarding his future. Was his lassiez-faire demeanor due to his knowing that he isn't going to be hired following this season as the permanent coach of the Billikens? Or was it due to his knowing that he is?
Hard to tell. But what is clear is that Crews is relishing the moment.
“I'm not trying to be whatever,” Crews said. “What our strength (as a team) is, tomorrow doesn't come until midnight tonight. Today brings enough problems today, so we don't worry about tomorrow. That's just life. We're pretty simple.”
Crews and his team are pretty good, as well.