The message was left on Tom Crean's voice mail in March 1999,
shortly after he was named coach at Marquette. It was from Al
McGuire, the New York City savant who had taken the school to a
national championship in 1977 and then tearfully retired to a
life of broadcasting the college game in his own unique
language, while Marquette's program fell into a mediocrity that
left fans often invoking his name. The message McGuire left for
Crean was a hand extended: "Sometime when you've got about eight
hours, let's get together."
So the new guy and the legend went for a drive on an early summer
day almost four years ago, and together they began connecting
Marquette's storied basketball past to its uncertain future. They
ate lunch at a fish fry. They went to an antique shop. To a
comic-book store. To a woodworking factory. They sat by the side
of a lake and talked about life, people and basketball. It was
only the beginning. They would become friends over the next 18
months, an older man falling ill and a younger man trying to
learn a lifetime's lessons. Crean never took notes in McGuire's
presence but always did after he left. "Of all the coaches we've
had here, Tom is the one that Al took to the most," says Reverend
William Kelly, the Marquette basketball chaplain. On Jan. 23,
2001, Crean visited McGuire at a Milwaukee hospice as the former
coach lay dying of cancer. Crean was late for practice that day,
because he pulled his car to the side of the road and wept.
McGuire died three days later.
"The highlight of my coaching career," says Crean, "is the
year-and-a-half friendship that I had with him. He covered
everything. He made it O.K. not to worry about shadows or ghosts
from the past. And he told me this: 'It's gonna take time.'"
It took four years. Last Saturday in Minneapolis, Marquette
dismantled top-seeded Kentucky 83-69 to win the NCAA Midwest
Regional and earn its first trip to the Final Four in the 26
years since the end of the McGuire Era. It took one of the best
performances in NCAA tournament history, junior guard Dwyane
Wade's triple double (29 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists),
combined with a mountainous 24 points and 15 rebounds from 6'10",
260-pound senior forward Robert Jackson and five three-pointers
from freshman forward Steve Novak, a bloodless catch-and-shoot
specialist who stands 6'10". It took a Marquette team that was a
No. 3 seed with a 27-5 record and so many offensive answers that
the Golden Eagles can't be called an outsider at the Final Four
in New Orleans.
April 6, 2003
It took a team that Crean assembled not by shrinking from his
school's history but by embracing it. "He's what you'd call a
very persuasive person," says sophomore point guard Travis Diener
of being recruited by Crean. "He told me Marquette was going back
to the top. He made it sound believable."
Three years ago Crean told Wade, then a lightly recruited senior
at Richards High in the Chicago suburb of Oak Lawn, that he would
take Wade even if the youngster failed to meet the NCAA minimum
on his standardized test. "I was overwhelmed by that," Wade says.
"I'm a very loyal person. My heart is always with people who are
loyal to me." Wade's scores did fall short and he sat out his
freshman year, but in two seasons he developed into one of the
most dangerous offensive players in the country, a 6'5",
210-pound slasher who displayed his range of skills last Saturday
when he blocked a shot by 6'9" Kentucky center Marquis Estill and
drained two deep three-pointers.
Wade is the only Golden Eagles player who does not live in a
school dormitory, residing instead in an off-campus apartment
with his wife, Siohvaughn (a junior at Marquette), and their
13-month-old son, Zaire. He will soon come under intense pressure
to take his game to the NBA. But for now Wade shares the ball--and
his life--with his teammates. "He hangs out with us," says forward
Todd Townsend. "That helps build trust as a team."
Other vital parts of Crean's Marquette machine are as
unconventional as they are essential. Jackson, for instance, came
home to Milwaukee after three years at Mississippi State. It is
rare that a coach takes a transfer with one year of eligibility
remaining, but Jackson's size was irresistible. On the day before
the regional final, Estill was asked if he recalled Jackson from
their SEC battles. "I don't remember him," said Estill. "I didn't
even know he played for Mississippi State."
After his dominant performance last Saturday, Jackson said, "He
knows me now."
Diener, says a rival assistant coach, "looks like an
eighth-grader." He is 6'1" and weighs 165 pounds. Yet Diener
played for his uncle in high school and is hardened by battles
with two cousins who also play college ball. Playing with a
skinny little man's toughness, the farm boy from Fond du Lac,
Wis., kept Marquette in the tournament with a combined 55 points
in first- and second-round wins over Holy Cross and Missouri.
"I've been hearing that I can't play since as far back as I can
remember," Diener says. "I know better."
Novak looks like he should be posting up, but instead he pops
outside off screen-and-rolls and bottoms treys like layups.
Crean's staff first contacted Novak when he was a 6'7", 190-pound
high school freshman in the Milwaukee suburb of Brown Deer. Novak
made friends with Marquette players during pickup games on
campus. "The players and the coaches kept talking about winning
championships," says Novak. "I felt like I was part of the team
long before I signed."
They are all bound together by Crean's relentless energy. He is a
remorseless, lifelong gym rat. By his own description he was an
"average, at best" high school player from Mount Pleasant, Mich.,
who, while attending Central Michigan, was an assistant coach at
Division III Alma College and Mount Pleasant High. "By the time
he came out of college [in 1989], he was probably the first guy
who was ever recruited to become a graduate assistant, because he
had already made so many contacts," says former St. John's and
New Mexico coach Fran Fraschilla. The school that landed Crean
was Michigan State, coached by Jud Heathcote. Crean worked his
way up to full-time assistant's posts at Western Kentucky, at
Pittsburgh and then back at Michigan State, under Tom Izzo,
before Marquette gave him his first head job.
He married into a football family; his wife, Joani, is a
Harbaugh, sister of former NFL quarterback Jim and daughter of
former Western Kentucky coach Jack. Crean revels in the type of
motivational tools that football coaches use. After the Golden
Eagles' back-to-back road losses to East Carolina and Dayton
early this season, Crean screened Saving Private Ryan for the
team on the night before playing at Saint Louis. After the movie
Crean brought out a custom-made black baseball bat inscribed with
the words CHARACTER, UNSELFISHNESS and TOUGHNESS. Each player
signed the bat. Marquette beat the Billikens 60-54 and took the
bat, a hewn-wood Excalibur, on every subsequent road trip.
Before the Golden Eagles' second-round NCAA game against
Missouri, Jack Harbaugh arranged for Indianapolis Colts vice
president and former strength coach Tom Zupancic to speak to the
team. Zupancic used a black plastic lunch pail as a prop in
talking about blue-collar work ethic and gave the lunch box to
the team. In Minneapolis it sat in the middle of the locker room
before games, another motivational tool. If all this is not
enough, Marquette also draws daily inspiration from special
assistant Trey Schwab, 38, who suffers from idiopathic pulmonary
fibrosis and is awaiting a lung transplant that could save his
life. He sat on the Golden Eagles bench in Minneapolis, tethered
as always to a small oxygen tank.
After his team beat Pittsburgh in the regional semifinals, Crean
immediately began watching tape of Kentucky with his assistants.
He slept just one hour, and when he awoke from that nap, his
daughter, Megan, 7, and son, Riley, 3, were among those watching
Remember the Titans on the VCR in his hotel suite. Crean joined
them, because "the Titans were just about to win the state
title." No lie. "Corny, I know," says Crean, smiling sheepishly.
Early on Saturday evening a school shared his unembarrassed joy.
The Metrodome was swathed in yellow, as Golden Eagles fans
chanted, "We ARE ... Mar-QUETTE," and readied themselves for a
delirious trip to New Orleans. University president Reverend
Robert A. Wild stood nearby, bewildered. "We have a wonderful
tradition," he said, "but it's been 26 years since we were here.
We hoped to get back, but we never knew." Behind him, Golden
Eagles players snipped pieces of nylon from the nets, new strands
to weave into a storied history.
The women's Final Four was set after SI went to press. For Kelli
Anderson's preview and scouting reports, go to
"He's what you call a very persuasive person," Diener says of
Crean. "He told me Marquette was going back to the top."