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Atlantic 10 Preview: Saint Louis interim coach Jim Crews has big shoes to fill

Jeff Eisenberg
The Dagger

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Jim Crews (Getty Images)

Two years after being fired at Army just weeks before the start of what would have been his eighth season at the school, Jim Crews had no intention of reentering the coaching industry.

Crews, 58, had moved to Indianapolis with his wife and had begun dabbling as a TV analyst for the Big Ten network. About the closest he had come to coaching was working a few basketball camps and clinics for girls in elementary school.

All that changed days before the start of practice for the 2011-12 season when Saint Louis coach Rick Majerus called and told Crews he had an unexpected late vacancy on his staff because one of his assistants had left for an NBA gig. A hesitant Crews initially insisted he was content in retirement, but his longtime friend Majerus wouldn't take no for an answer.

"He tried to make it sound as short as possible by saying it would only be for 4 1/2 months," Crews recalled with a chuckle. "He said, 'There's no dress code, all the food you can eat, we'll laugh a lot and I think we can really win.' What else do you want in a job besides that? Eventually, I told my wife, 'What the heck, let's do it.'"

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Turns out Crews' breezy 4 1/2-month gig has become a bit more demanding than he originally expected. First, he accepted Majerus' offer to remain a second year as an assistant. Then Majerus had to abruptly step away from the program in late August as a result of health problems, leading Saint Louis to ask Crews to accept the title of interim replacement because he had the most head coaching experience of anyone on staff at the time.

Suddenly, Crews had to decide whether to accept the task of leading a Saint Louis team considered the most talented of the Majerus era, quite an undertaking for a man content in retirement only a year earlier.

The Billikens return four starters from last year's 26-win team that spent a portion of the season in the Top 25 and beat Memphis in the opening round of the NCAA tournament. One publication ranked them as high as No. 9 in its preseason poll, though that was before Saint Louis lost starting point guard Kwamain Mitchell to a broken foot that will likely sideline him most of November.

"I had to think about it because if you do it you have to be all in. You can't dibble and dabble," Crews said. "But first of all the staff is really fun to be around. We all get along great. The players we have coming back are enjoyable too And the administration was very, very honest. When you know exactly what the truth is, it's easy to get things done."

And the chance to coach a team with so much returning talent? That's "pretty good icing on the cake," Crews admits.

There was a time in his life when Crews thought he'd be much more likely to work for a Fortune 500 corporation than a Top 25 college basketball team.

Even though his father was a college coach and he played for the legendary Bob Knight on Indiana's undefeated 1976 national championship team, Crews had no interest in going into coaching during his playing days. He graduated from Indiana with a business degree and turned down an offer from Knight to join his staff immediately after college, instead going into the business world.

"In my way of thinking, which was not the correct way of thinking, athletes had a bit of a "dumb jock" stigma back then," Crews said. "I was dumb enough to probably believe that a little bit. If you went into coaching there was a stigma with that too, so that would have been a double whammy. That's not the right way to be influenced, but I let that influence me. I didn't want to be stereotyped. I knew Indiana had a great business school and I wanted to prove I could do it, so I did it."

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One year out of college, Knight again had an opening on his staff and he called Crews. By this time, Crews missed basketball and he agreed to return to Bloomington to begin his coaching career at his alma mater.

Crews spent eight years as an assistant under Knight before branching out on his own as a head coach.

He had some very successful years at Evansville in the 1980s and '90s, leading the Purple Aces to six NCAA tournaments. He also was fired after seven mediocre seasons at Army in Sept. 2009 amid reports alleging verbal and physical abuse of a player.

As a result of that up-and-down history, many consider Crews' ability to replace a top technical mind like Majerus to be the biggest question mark about this year's Saint Louis team. Crews understands the skepticism, yet he's confident in his ability and he doesn't think the transition will be as difficult as others think.

He has known Majerus since his playing days, recruited against him for years and coached with him last season and with USA Basketball. He has many of the same philosophies as a coach, from spacing and sets on offense, to fierce man-to-man defense, to the importance of being meticulous.

"We're not changing a whole lot," Crews said. "Defensively, it's 98, 99 percent the same. Offensively, big picture, it's the same. Player ball movement, spacing, rhythm. Rick prefers ball screens and my offense was screens away from the ball, but we're going to do what the players are invested in.

"Rick and I are very similar. I'm very detail-oriented. He is detail-oriented on steroids. He probably slows it down more in practice than I do, almost puts on a little clinic with things. We have more of a rapid-fire practice style now compared to him. But we're very similar in a lot of ways."

Once Mitchell returns to the Saint Louis lineup in a month, the Billikens will have the core of last year's ultra-successful team. The loss of leading scorer Brian Conklin will force others to shoulder a greater offensive burden, but few teams nationally will be better on defense.

In the backcourt, Mitchell averaged 12.4 points per game last season, played solid defense and distributed the ball capably to his teammates. Jordair Jett is a defensive stopper who needs to take his scoring up a notch, while Mike McCall will provide more of an offensive lift.

Highlighting the frontcourt is Cody Ellis, a sharp shooter who is also adept at taking charges in the paint. Center Rob Loe provides capable perimeter shooting, while forward Dwayne Evans is perhaps the best athlete and rebounder on the team.

Typically an interim coach will be worried about winning enough games to win over his administration and land the full-time gig, but that's not Crews' focus. Of course, he wants to win as many games as he can next season, but he'd have no problem returning to semi-retirement if Saint Louis chooses not to invite him back.

"My wife told me a long time ago, 'If you worry about next year, you can't enjoy this year,'" he said. "I think that's really a good way to put coaching. I don't care where you are, who you are or how long your contract is for. I've always kind of done that."

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