Jim Crews, who took over for Rick Majerus when Majerus died in December, has Saint Louis ranked No. 18 in the country. (Michael Hickey/GETTY IMAGES)

It happened to Jim Crews again on Thursday. He had just arrived at the airport for the flight to Washington when he looked down and noticed mustard on his shirt.

“When I looked down and saw it, the first thing I thought about was Rick — as you might expect,” he said Friday afternoon, a smile creasing his face at the memory. “I mean, he spent his whole life with food on his shirt — and making fun of himself for it.”

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.

“I loved West Point, loved everything about it,” he said. “I loved the kids I coached, the place. I just didn’t get along with my boss. It was that simple. I was sorry to leave but I was fine with not coaching.”

He laughed. “On the day I got fired, my wife [Kim] and I had to tell our kids. My daughter was right there going to Nyack College so we went home and told her. Then we had to tell my son, Todd, who is a pastor at Brooklyn Tabernacle. We decided we should drive in and tell him in person, not on the phone.

“So we drove to the church and found him in the sanctuary. I began telling him the story, what had happened, how it had happened, why it had happened. After about five minutes, I noticed he was looking at his watch. A few minutes later he did it again. Then again. Finally, we finished, we all hugged and Kim and I left.

“As we were walking out she turned to me and said, ‘Did you notice Todd looking at his watch?’ I said I had. She asked me if I knew why he had been doing that.

“I had to think a moment but then it hit me. ‘He wanted to get back to trying to help people who have real problems.’ Kim said. . . . You talk about learning a lesson about what’s important in life — wow.”

That perspective may have helped Crews deal with what this season had been about for his players. Majerus talked him back into coaching in Oct. 2011, when one of his assistants left to take an NBA job. He told Crews he could keep his house in Indianapolis and make the four-hour drive home from St. Louis whenever he felt the need. That was supposed to be the deal this year.

“We all knew he wasn’t well last season,” Crews said, shaking his head. “We did all we could to keep him rested, to make sure he used his energy for what was important. After we lost to Michigan State [in the NCAA round of 32 to conclude a 26-6 season in 2012], we’re walking down the hall to the locker room and he suddenly pulls all of us [coaches] into an empty room.

“Remember the moment in ‘Apollo 13’ when Tom Hanks says just before they re-enter the atmosphere, ‘Gentlemen, it has been a privilege to serve with you?’ That’s what he said to us basically. He never said ‘I’m done,’ but I think we all knew he was done. Nothing that happened after that was really a surprise. Sad, yes; tragic, absolutely. But not a surprise.”

Crews is still carrying the “interim” tag as Saint Louis heads toward the Atlantic 10 regular season title and an NCAA tournament berth. That’s fine with him. “I’ve had nothing but support,” he said. “All we ever talked about was this season. I was asked to paint this house, not the neighborhood. When the season’s over, we’ll talk. Let’s face it, in coaching, we’re all interim.”

He laughed and sat back in his chair. “All I know about next year is that I’ll be happy,” he said. “I love coaching. I love coaching these guys. But my identity isn’t tied up in it. Never has been — win or lose. If all of us have learned anything the last few months it’s that there are a lot more important things in life than winning or losing a basketball game.”

For more by John Feinstein, go to www.washingtonpost.com/feinstein