Rick Majerus died Dec. 1 at the age of 64, leaving a void in the world of college basketball and a giant hole in the hearts of everyone involved with the men’s basketball team at Saint Louis University. Crews, who had already been named the Billikens’ interim coach during the summer — when the heart problems that would eventually kill Majerus forced him to step aside after five seasons as the team’s coach — had to pick up the pieces and try to put together a season.
It was a Saturday afternoon, and the team was practicing for a game the next day against Valparaiso when Crews first got word that Majerus was near death. It didn’t come as a shock. Even though he hadn’t talked to Majerus in a while, he understood that his longtime friend was critically ill.
Not long after practice ended, Crews was told that Majerus had died. Before they left for the evening, Crews had to tell his players — all of whom had been recruited by Majerus.
“Let’s be honest,” Crews said. “Everyone in that room that afternoon — players, coaches, managers — was there because of Rick. He brought us all together. I told the players I could only think of three things to tell them: that we should honor the lessons that he taught us all; that we should hold onto our memories of him because they’ll often make us laugh; and we should all live our lives like Rick — always looking forward to whatever was coming next.”
The next day, the Billikens, who had struggled to a 3-3 start, beat Valparaiso easily. Since learning of their coach’s death, they have risen to No. 18 in the Associated Press poll and are 23-5 after their 66-58 win at George Washington on Saturday afternoon. Crews and his players have made a point of saying that they want to play the way Majerus would want them to play, but they haven’t “dedicated” their season to him.
“If we go out and lose or don’t play well, is that because we somehow loved him less?” Crews asked rhetorically. “I didn’t want that to be the case or, if we didn’t play well, to have the crutch of Rick’s death as an excuse. I think if you do any of that you do a disservice to the life he led.”
For Crews, who just turned 59, the Billikens’ sterling season has been a revelation because he honestly believed as recently as 16 months ago that he wouldn’t coach again. Which, in truth, would have been fine with him.
He had been a head coach for 24 years — 17 at Evansville and seven at Army after working for eight years under Bob Knight at Indiana. He had known perfection in basketball — he was a senior on the 1976 Indiana team that went undefeated — and he had known struggles, too, especially at Army. When Army Athletic Director Kevin Anderson fired him in September 2009 after the two men had battled for more than a year, Crews was disappointed but not devastated.