Tuesday, April 1, 2003
Crean prepared to build on McGuire's legacy
By Andy Katz
Tom Crean seldom wastes a conversation on idle talk. Every question has a purpose, every answer a possible solution to apply to his own situation.
That's why 24 hours after reaching the Final Four, it came as no surprise that the Marquette head coach was quizzing a fan Sunday night at a Milwaukee restaurant about, of all things, how and why his business is successful.
"Anyone we come into contact with, he's trying to pick their brain," Marquette assistant coach Jeff Strohm said. "He's constantly trying to find out what they do, why they do it, and how they do it. No matter what sport or line of business, he's always trying to meet new people and learn as much as he can."
|Tom Crean didn't have to ask anyone, except maybe his son Riley, how to cut down a net after regionals.|
Crean's arrival into the national spotlight of college basketball isn't a shock to those who have come into contact with him, for those very reasons. He has been a sponge, always trying to absorb any piece of information possible to ensure he's one of the best basketball coaches in the country.
"The reason there are 300 to 400 students standing outside waiting for tickets right now is because of Tom," Strohm said Monday as the students were waiting to get Final Four tickets for Saturday's game against Kansas in New Orleans at the Superdome. "The Bradley Center was averaging less than 9,000 fans before he got here and this year we were at 16,500. He is prepared and works on every aspect of the job."
Crean isn't obsessive, at least by the medical definition, but he does have a compulsive trait that keeps him in constant need of learning. And for that reason, Marquette is back in the Final Four for the first time since 1977. Sure, it helps to have at least one exceptional player, like All-American and Conference USA player of the year Dwyane Wade, and some breaks, like beating Missouri in overtime in the second round. But Crean wouldn't have been in this position if it weren't for his passion to succeed.
Crean's constant preparedness may appear to be a contrast to the late legendary Al McGuire, who guided the then-Warriors to the school's one and only national title in 1977. But in comparing the two, it's only fair to McGuire to look at the result, not their methods. Utah coach Rick Majerus, a former Marquette assistant under McGuire, said the same tools weren't available to McGuire as they are for Crean.
"It was two different eras," Majerus said. "There weren't VCRs in Al's era. If he wanted to, he couldn't do it. There was no ESPN. We had reel-to-reel. We had to budget for four films a year.
"You can't compare this to 1977. That was light years ago in terms of technology. In our own way, we were prepared, but no one prepared back then like they do now."
And that includes Majerus, who today still holds scouting sessions of nothing more than huge sheets of paper hung on the walls of a banquet room, each sheet spelling out the strengths and weaknesses of every opposing player the Utes could face in the next game.
Off the court, Crean and McGuire aren't all that different, either. McGuire was certainly a man of the people, a free spirit with more wit than any of his contemporaries. He loved to talk to people and extract storylines and antidotes. Crean is also quick to engage in conversation, but his search seems to begin and end with information, even in casual conversation.
No Where To Go But ...
So, what can Marquette coach Tom Crean expect now that he has reached a Final Four? Try a lot more pressure in 2003-04.
Just ask Florida coach Billy Donovan, who since reaching the 2000 title game has certainly felt the expectations rise each year in trying to get back to a Final Four.
"The one thing that you realize after you go through it is, it is much more difficult after the fact," Donovan said. "You would think recruiting and everything else would be easier. But it's not.
"You're dealing with everybody's best shot. Everybody wants to get recognition by beating you. Your players have to get ready to play on edge."
Donovan said it's similar to what Duke and North Carolina have to go through every game and in every recruiting situation.
"It's very, very challenging because the trick is to get back that point," said Donovan, who hasn't been past the NCAA's second round since 2000. "From a fans standpoint, they don't understand how hard it is to get back to that point.
"Look at the guys who have coached for 30 years, guys like John Chaney and Gene Keady, who haven't been there. It's hard to do it."
-- Andy Katz, ESPN.com
Crean has spent countless hours going over the organizational plans of those franchises that he's seen succeed in all sporting venues. He spent time with the Montreal Canadiens to see how one of the most fabled franchises is run. Last year, he pushed Oklahoma coach Kelvin Sampson for an invitation to watch practice the week the Sooners went to the Final Four. And he's keen on doing something similar again this spring, even if he's fortunate enough to win the national championship.
"I want to be around championship-type people and coaches and see how it applies to us," Crean said.
Crean is as prepared as any staff sergeant, but his mindset doesn't come from a military background. No, his approach to detail is instilled by coaches he's served with from high school through Final Fours. Men like Denny Kuiper at Mount Pleasant High (Michigan); Ralph Pimm, a Division III coach at Alma College who gave Crean his first coaching job at age 20; Ralph Willard, who hired Crean at Western Kentucky; and of course, Tom Izzo, his trusted mentor at Michigan State.
It also comes from a deep sense of needing to prove himself, since Crean never played the game past high school. There was a time, maybe it's still with him, when Crean felt like a number of Division I coaches that if you didn't play in college that you had to be even more prepared as a coach.
"I didn't play because I wasn't good enough. And, you do always worry in the back of your mind that you better be prepared," said Strohm, who is making his second Final Four appearance as an assistant coach in his first season at a new school. He went with Rick Majerus and Utah in 1998. "I can't speak for Tom, but that's how I feel."
Crean said he had those thoughts as an assistant, but not now as a head coach.
"When I first started out that's true. But I grew away from that," Crean said. "That comes from the confidence you get from the players that you can help them get better. You know, when they know, by them buying into what you're saying."
And what Crean preaches every day in practice prepares his team more than his players ever could imagine. For instance, preparing for the NCAA Tournament -- in February.
That's right. Crean took a day in late February to put in a few plays from Kentucky and Arizona, just in case the Eagles ran across either team in the tournament. (Guess who the Golden Eagles beat to get to New Orleans?) Crean isn't into predicting the future, he just wanted to make sure his team was confident it could play with anyone in the country.
"So we took the top two teams in the polls and worked on their stuff," said Crean, whose forethought three weeks before the bracket was announced paid off when Marquette beat Kentucky in the Elite Eight. "I'm not sure we guarded them any better than we would have without going over it, but it certainly helped our confidence."
Crean's penchant for trying something different doesn't just apply in preparing for games. His practices are some of the more unique among his peers. The reason? He doesn't do the same thing two days in a row.
Organizers for the AT&T Wireless Coaches vs. Cancer couldn't get over Crean's gameday practice this past November. Instead of the staid walk-through at Madison Square Garden, Crean gathered five offensive players around the perimeter with five defensive players in front of them. Similar to Izzo's "War" rebounding drill, without the rebounding aspect, Crean just bounced the ball high in the air and had the defensive players box out while the offensive players dove for the ball by going around, over the top, or to the side.
Organizers stood around stunned, as Crean did it a few more times until Wade came up lame, hobbling a bit on his ankle. As if Bear Bryant were running the drill, Crean set his players up again -- including Wade -- but mercifully just rolled the ball to Wade. End of practice. Marquette beat Villanova in the season opener later that night.
"You've got to make the year interesting," Crean said. "College basketball is very regimented and I never want it to be where we start the practice the same way more than two days in a row. (Monday) we did a ton of shooting drills. You can't let their intensity peak at the wrong time."
The quirky drills are a bit more McGuire, adding some levity during the mundane days of the season. But what Crean is trying to do is coach to his personality and trust his instincts, something he was told recently that he hasn't forgotten. That, more than anything he has been told, was like McGuire.
Crean said he'll make sure "Al" remains on the Marquette uniforms as long as he is head coach of the Eagles. "Until there is a rule that says I can't," Crean said. A new practice facility will be finished in October that will have McGuire's name on it, too.
"Al would have appreciated the deference to him," Majerus said. "Crean has done a good job of embracing the past. Other Marquette coaches since I was the coach have tried to separate from the past, and I understand why. But Al was done with TV when Crean got the job, and he was older then."
And, like everything Crean has done, he tried to gain knowledge from McGuire. Conversations that clearly helped Crean and Marquette get back to the Final Four.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.