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 tide." 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.