SAN JOSE -- When your head coach dies during the college basketball season, there is no manual to follow. The Saint Louis Billikens had to write their own.
They wrote well. When the Saint Louis players showed up at Wednesday's practice session at HP Pavilion to prepare for their Thursday NCAA tournament opener, they arrived as an unofficial "sleeper" pick for the Final Four. This, despite the No. 4 seed next to their bracket line.
And there's no question why. Rick Majerus passed away from heart failure last Dec. 1. He was 64 years old. This put interim head coach Jim Crews in charge of the team. But the basketball principles of Majerus from his five seasons with the Billikens -- the school's mascot is a fantasy good-luck doll -- might as well be sewn into their uniforms.
"We think about Coach every day," said senior guard Kwamain Mitchell. "There's no second that he's not with our team. We run the same offense, the same philosophy that Coach has been teaching us since I've been here. He's still there. He's always going to be there."
That would include Thursday morning against New Mexico State, the day's first game at HP Pavilion. The building is one that Majerus loved. Of course, he loved most any building that had a hoop and a backboard.
Majerus was the basketball lifer of basketball lifers. When he coached at both Utah and Saint Louis, he lived in hotel rooms, the better to avoid any nonbasketball distractions.
Sadly and ultimately, it was Majerus' own body that would not let him continue. After too many of those hotels and restaurants -- he battled an unyielding obesity problem that led to multiple-bypass heart surgery -- he announced last August that he was taking a leave of absence for medical reasons. Three months later, Crews gathered the players after a practice and told them the horrible news. A few days later, some of them served as his pallbearers.
At that juncture, Saint Louis was struggling along as a 3-3 team, including an upset loss to Santa Clara. But after Majerus' death, the players suddenly coalesced. They rolled out nine straight victories. The Billikens bring a 27-6 record to San Jose. Their only defeat since Jan. 19 has been an overtime loss at Xavier.
You can credit it all to that improvised manual. Crews and his players decided to honor Majerus' coaching words relentlessly. But they resisted against any maudlin "dedication" of this season to him because (A) they believe he wouldn't want that; and (B) if they happened to have a bad game or off night ... well, would that mean they somehow loved him less?
"I don't know if Coach has ever been a motivational part of this," Crews said Wednesday. "We have not beat that drum because I think his life -- I shouldn't say 'think,' because I know -- that his life and anyone else's life is far more important than a basketball game or a championship or a season. However, Rick's imprint on this program, the lessons are permanent."
And now it's fitting that the Billikens will begin their March Madness journey here in San Jose, where in 1997 Majerus brought one of his better Utah teams to town for a West Regional semifinal matchup against Stanford. The teams clawed at each other for 40 minutes until Cardinal guard Brevin Knight's 3-point jumper with seven seconds left sent the game into overtime.
The Utes appeared to be cooked when their best player, Keith Van Horn, committed his fifth foul just 30 seconds into the extra period. Yet Majerus somehow guided his men to an 82-77 victory. Afterward he called it "as good a game as I've been involved in at any level."
Majerus suffered morose moments of depression, according to those who knew him well. But most of the stories are about how he made sure that his players earned degrees, or how he came to the assistance of others when they needed a morale boost. Bernie Miklasz, the longtime St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist, wrote a perfect line about him: "As a human being, Majerus was help defense."
So that's what you will see in San Jose this week, every time a Saint Louis player does a little thing in the service of winning -- say, setting a perfect screen, or diving for a loose ball, or adjusting a defensive assignment on the fly. Whenever that happens, Crews admitted Wednesday, he will smile inside and say to himself: Rick would really like this.
Thursday morning, in a structure where Majerus once had a memorable triumph, you can expect the Billikens to keep following that manual.