After Firing Jim Crews, SLU Reaches a Pivotal Moment For the Basketball Program

Jim Crews is a good man, and I’ll never forget his quiet strength and amazing grace during an agonizing time for Saint Louis U. basketball. A team that coped and survived and thriving during their many haunting days and nights spent in basketball arenas. Led by Crews, the Billikens inspired everyone with an unwavering determination to finish the work of Rick Majerus, the legendary coach that lay immobilized in a hospital — thousands of miles away, but always on their minds — as he fought for his life. That massive Majerus heart slowly faded, beat by beat, in a desperate struggle that ended with his death on the first day of December, 2012. The very next day the Billikens took the court at Chaifetz Arena and defeated Valpo by 13 points. They kept winning, the tough-minded Sons of Majerus. Winning so often they established an unprecedented level of sustained success for a program that knew all about hard times.

In 2011-2012, Majerus’ final season in the arena, the Billikens went 26-8 and beat Memphis in a first-round NCAA Tournament game. They lost in the round of 32, scrapping with Michigan State down to the final minute before succumbing. It was the final game for a proud but exhausted Majerus, who wearily spoke of getting back to work on the recruiting trail. He probably knew that he was destined to head on a much different journey, one that would lead him to a hospital suite in Los Angeles.

Crews took over — though officially an interim — for the roll-out of the 2012-2013 season. And for the next two years, Crews was the perfect coach to lead a gutsy, experienced squad at a most unusual time. Unflappable, enriched with wise and but low-key perspective, equipped with an appealing self-deprecating manner that lightened the mood, and a master of teaching the basketball principles installed by Majerus, Crews won consecutive Atlantic 10 titles, posted a two-season 55-14 record, and won NCAA games in 2013 and 2014.  Crews won National Coach of the Year honors in 2012-2013, a warranted reward for his superb work in dealing with a delicate situation. No one — and I mean no one — could have handled this unique challenge with more dignity than Crews.

Thursday afternoon, SLU fired Crews after the team’s second-round loss to George Washington in the A-10 conference tournament. The timing seemed abrupt, harsh and cold. The Billikens were still at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, having just completed a second consecutive miserable season. But Crews — always the class act — was informed of the decision to terminate before the SLU delegation left for the trip to New York, and he did what he was hired to do. He coached.

Crews was aware of his fate — and at peace with it — as he coached his final two games for Saint Louis. If you think about this, and go back to how Crews dealt with the Majerus tragedy and the responsibility of guiding a group of players that had to bury their late coach during a season — no one should be surprised by Jim’s final display of benevolence as SLU’s coach.

“I’d like to apologize for some things because when you don’t win, you make other people’s jobs harder,” Crews said in a post-game press conference. “And that’s the last thing that I would want, to make some else’s job harder.”

Yes, Crews actually said this. He apologized for not getting the job done.

After the 2013-2014 season SLU athletics director Chris May made it official by hiring Crews as the replacement for the late Majerus. May gave Crews a five-year contract. The coach had earned it. I didn’t question the decision to stay with Crews then. And I don’t question it now.

Crews came out of a brief retirement to help Majerus, but this was no ordinary assistant-coach hire.

The ailing Majerus knew what he was doing: putting his successor in place at Saint Louis.

Majerus chose Crews.

May retained Crews.

SLU owed that to Majerus.

SLU owed that to Crews.

Moreover, how do you dump a coach that went 55-14 and won two NCAA Tournament games after all that SLU and the players had endured? 

May was always a shoulder for Crews to lean on, so it had to be painful for the AD to remove the coach.

The reality: major college basketball is a business, and athletic directors have to take care of that business. May gave Crews a shot to keep the job and maintain SLU’s success, and it was up to Crews after that. And the program deteriorated rapidly. There is no way to finesse our way around that. Crews and SLU went 22-42 over the last two seasons; the record includes 37 losses in the last 51 games and a two-season 8-28 record in the A-10. Majerus had raised a depressed SLU program, making it matter again, and the Billikens reappeared in the polls and gained a share of national prominence. But everything collapsed on Crews, and it was his responsibility to prevent the walls from tumbling down. It’s as straightforward and simple as that, and Crews knows this. Which is why he expressed his regrets on Friday.

Coaches never should take all of the blame when SLU basketball slinks into a familiar rut, returning to the non-entity classification. It’s a team effort at SLU, all the way up the chain, all the way up into the administrative offices. Until the SLU administration proves otherwise, I’ll continue to question the university’s commitment to having a consistent winner in men’s basketball. And this is longstanding mystery. There is no justifiable reason for SLU’s failure to compete at the same level as Xavier, Gonzaga or any other Jesuit or Catholic university that plays brilliant basketball without sacrificing core academic principles and ethical values.

Crews wasn’t alone in this failure, but coaches have to go get the players that keep the talent flowing in to keep a program strong and healthy. And if the coaches can’t recruit talented players, they’re doomed and assured of an unhappy ending. That’s just the way it is. The time for Crews to reinforce the foundation was during the 2012-2013 season, when juniors Dwayne Evans, Jordair Jett, Rob Loe and Mike McCall Jr.  were amassing an impressive victory count. By the time they entered their senior season, Crews needed to have a good recruiting class in place at SLU, learning and practicing and ready to take over when the SLU core graduated. A mid-major program has to “stack” classes and have the next group ready to plug-in. Crews didn’t land that new nucleus to build around, and SLU spiraled.

It was a major blow for SLU to lose so many outstanding assistant coaches in recent years: Porter Moser, Jim Whitesell, Alex Jensen, Chris Harriman. Their departures were a substantial factor in the recruiting decline, as Crews and staff struck out in filling the roster gaps to remain competitive. Thursday, the Majerus-Crews era officially came to a close, and SLU will start all over again. May will lead an important coaching search. Fans, donors and media will be watching carefully to gauge SLU’s aggressiveness and financial commitment to getting this right. And keeping it right.

May has the opportunity to make a coaching hire that will signal SLU’s true ambition and goals. Is Saint Louis ready to get serious about having the men’s basketball program reach its potential? Or will we see May hire an inexpensive lightweight that can’t pull the sunken Billikens from the bottom of the Atlantic?  I’m told that May is “absolutely driven” to make this a “statement” hire and will get it right. I really want to believe this. This is a pivotal moment for SLU. Perhaps a defining moment for SLU. It is a moment that can change this program — for the better, and forever.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie