A Look Back at the Coach Who Helped Revive the Marquette Basketball Team

With the NCAA win drought now at 6 years, we look back on the coach who helped revive the program, including a trip to the Final Four.

In his first head coaching job, at Marquette University, Tom Crean had a habit of singling out one basketball player at practice, focusing on his every move and calling him out for a perceived lack of effort. Players recall this routine as a psychological masterstroke. Crean claims it was pure spontaneity, based on what he saw on the court that day.

Whatever the case, at one particular practice it was sophomore Steve Novak’s day to be picked on. Crean told the team, hours into practice, that their work would conclude when Novak dunked. Novak, who later played in the NBA and now is a TV commentator for the Milwaukee Bucks, was a six-foot-ten forward, but he had trouble dunking consistently, especially when he was already tired from a long practice. Attempt after attempt,  Novak tried without success to slam the ball through the hoop as the rest of the team looked on, prisoners in the Al McGuire Center.

“That just made for an extra-long day right there,” says then-guard Joe Chapman.

“It was funny, but we know he can’t [expletive] dunk,” adds former Golden Eagle forward Scott Merritt.

Eventually, Crean relented. “I probably went a little too far that day,” Crean recalls with a laugh. “That was painful.” 

The moment spoke to the larger picture of what Crean built during his tenure as coach at Marquette: a culture of intensity and competition that created everlasting bonds, ultimately helping revitalize a program steeped in tradition and passion. With the Golden Eagles on Thursday extending their drought of victories in the NCAA men’s basketball to six years, it’s worth looking back at their rebirth under Crean.

Prior to hiring Crean in 1999, Marquette had seen just mild success after winning a national championship in 1977 (though Coach Kevin O’Neill had made it to the Sweet 16 in 1994).

“I don’t want to say it was dead in the water, but it was middling along” said former Chicago Tribune Sports Editor and Marquette alumnus Dan McGrath, who covered Crean. “It was not the Marquette program that those of us who grew up with it remembered.”

When Mike Deane was fired after five seasons as Marquette’s coach, Crean immediately took an interest in the job. He had grown up in Michigan and remembered watching Al McGuire win a national championship in 1977. The attraction was mutual. Marquette Athletic Director Bill Cords asked Michigan State, where Crean was an assistant coach, for permission to talk with him. When the Spartans came to Milwaukee to play in the first round of the 1999 NCAA Tournament, Crean, his wife, Joani, and Cords all met at the Hyatt hotel downtown.  Crean and Cords talked for a few hours, and Cords followed up their conversation by watching Crean coach at Michigan State’s practice at the Old Gym. Several weeks later, just before Michigan State played in the Final Four, Crean accepted the job to become the head coach at Marquette.

Marquette was a basketball school, but at the time interest in the program had waned. The team practiced at campus’ Old Gym, which mimicked a high school gym with one tightly packed court, poor lighting, bad ventilation and a track hanging above the hardwood. To make matters more interesting, the team shared the facility with ROTC.

“I wasn’t concerned about facilities,“ Crean said. “I’ll never forget them asking the question how I felt about the Old Gym because we [Michigan State] had practiced there when we were at the NCAA tournament. I said, ‘I love it. It has six baskets.’”

 Crean wanted to engage with the student body immediately. The marketing department arranged an event called, “Coffee, Crean and Doughnuts,” where students could get a coffee and talk with the new basketball coach.  Only 17 people showed up to the event. The lack of enthusiasm surrounding the program was noted beyond the Marquette campus.  Crean was told by two coaches in Conference USA when he accepted the job at Marquette that the Bradley Center posed no home court advantage. Along with hiring his assistants and preparing his team, Crean placed a priority on getting students excited about Marquette basketball. Crean and his staff marched around campus, hanging posters and placing flyers in cafeterias, dorms and other student gathering places to promote upcoming games.

“They said the only time [the Bradley Center] is filled is when Cincinnati is there and every other year when Wisconsin comes,” Crean said. “That is the kind of thing that really resonated with me because I wanted to prove that wrong.”

Despite these factors working against Crean and his new program the young coach had a charm and ability to sell young players on how they would become better basketball players and the vision he had for the program.

“There was no Al McGuire Center, there was none of that. You had the Bradley Center, but you couldn’t get into the Bradley Center to practice,” said Todd Townsend, who played with Crean from 2001-05. “It wasn’t the Marquette that it is today. What Marquette is today, that is what he sold.”

On the court, Crean was also making changes. Influenced by his time as an assistant at Western Kentucky and Michigan State, Crean wanted to create intense, competitive practices that almost resembled combat training.  The coach arrived last to practice, signaling it was ”go” time. The entire session would have drills focusing on just a few aspects of the game, such as rebounding, or transition defense. Physicality was encouraged with players fighting for rebounds and loose balls.

“There are really no words to describe how hard [practices] were,” said Merritt, who played for Marquette from 2000-05. “You don’t really understand unless you lived it at the time. … A lot of what [Crean] based practice on was challenging guys to get over and fight through fatigue. A lot of practice you were so tired and couldn’t get over it. It was tough, it really was tough.”

“[Crean] does a great job of partnering people up, making it as competitive as can be. Whether it is your best friend, your roommate, it didn’t matter. It was competition and you didn’t want to lose,” added Townsend. “Crean was amazing at this.”

From start to finish the practice was full of intensity and competition no matter if you were a superstar, potential pro, starter, or a walk-on.

“I got kicked out of practice before,” says Dwyane Wade, in town this week with the Miami Heat. “I had a practice one day where we had a walk-on, Jared Sichting, and he kicked my butt. Coach Crean was letting me hear it the whole practice. I couldn’t get out of my frustration. I just kept doing everything wrong. It taught me a lot, because I had to learn to play through frustration. … Coach Crean pushed us to certain limits that we didn’t know we could succeed at. He’s not just a coach; he is a teacher of the game.”

One time a recruit was watching practice at the Old Gym when he was forced to jump out of his seat because Dwyane Wade and Travis Diener came crashing into the sideline, fighting over a loose ball. The recruit ended up choosing another school.

“People aren’t used to that,” Crean said, referring to losing out on the recruit. “That’s how we were winning, and we were confident in what we were building. … Still to this day if the practice is not good it affects the rest of my day.”

Crean’s style yielded some success in his first season with the team finishing 15-14 and a National Invitational Tournament appearance, but the next season things started to change because of the addition of a recruit from Chicago named Dwyane Wade.

Marquette assistant Tim Buckley learned about Wade through Wade’s high school coach, Jack Fitzgerald. Although Wade was only a junior and still unproven, both Buckley and Crean were impressed by the young guard.

“We needed to get more talent and athleticism in the program and I felt he could do that,” Crean said.

At every one of Wade’s high school games, a Marquette representative was there watching, tracking his performance. Once Marquette could contact Wade, representatives  called to inform him of their interest. Even though Wade would be academically ineligible to play basketball right away, Crean and the Marquette staff still wanted him to come to Milwaukee and sit out a year. For Wade’s home visit, the Golden Eagles’ coaches put together a packet of all the games they charted, created a model of the Bradley Center with Wade in it and brought a cap and gown to show that Wade could become a college graduate.

Crean walked into the living room where Wade was sitting with his girlfriend, the  girlfriend’s mother and his high school coach. The group was ready to hear Crean’s vision for the Marquette program, the culture he had created and, most importantly, how Wade would become a better basketball player, but Crean barely uttered a word before the meeting almost fell apart. Wade was handed a packet of information and right on the cover someone had spelled Wade’s first name incorrectly as “Dwayne.”

“I thought I was dead,” Buckley said with a laugh.

“Man, we were embarrassed, but we got through it,” Crean recalled.

 They did get through it. “Everyone spelled my name wrong,” says Wade. “It really wasn’t something to say, ‘Oh I’m not going there because they put the “a” before the “y.”‘”

Wade decided to come to Marquette and soon changes started happening in Milwaukee. In Crean’s third year, and Wade’s first year of eligibility, the team opened the season against Chicago State and Loyola Chicago in front of a packed house at the Bradley Center.

“People were coming, and it wasn’t about the time of game and it wasn’t about the opponent,” Crean said. “It was the fact that we were playing.”  

That was the turning point. A program with the culture Crean created was morphing into shape. The 2001-02 team won their first ten games and finished with an appearance in the NCAA tournament. In the next season, Crean would go on to guide Marquette to their first Final Four since 1977. Attendance numbers rose with the Bradley Center packed for almost every game. Starting in 2005, Marquette joined the BIG EAST conference, further elevating the competition they faced. Crean also developed multiple NBA players, including Wade, Novak, Diener, Jerel McNeal and Wesley Matthews. Ultimately, through those long, grueling practices that seemingly had no end, Crean had created something special.

“I think you leave that kind of situation where it is intense, and you are together so much, where he is like another dad to you, or you hate him for some reason,” said Novak, who played high school ball for Brown Deer. “I love him. He will be someone in my life forever. He had as big of an impact on me, only second to my parents.”

Marquette basketball was once again appointment entertainment and the program had entered the modern age of college basketball with a state-of-the-art training facility, but in 2008, after almost ten years in Milwaukee, Crean left Marquette to become the head coach at Indiana University, where he spent nine seasons. He just completed his first season as the head coach at the University of Georgia.  

“I’m the one who chose to leave. Good, bad, or indifferent. I’m the one who chose to leave,” Crean said. “I didn’t leave for any other reason than I looked at Indiana as a pinnacle of coaching. I never had at Indiana the administrative support, the relationships with your athletic department or university president like we had [at Marquette]. And that’s how you build it. You build things through your togetherness.”