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He’s a Perfect Fit for the Bruins

Tom Crean never felt burdened by the presence of an icon or the pressures of tradition.

Granted, the basketball tradition created by Al McGuire at Marquette is not the same as what John Wooden built at UCLA. McGuire coached a single national championship team and retired immediately, not yet 50 years old but exhausted physically and mentally by the recruiting, the travel, all the stuff surrounding the sport. Wooden coached 10 national championship teams and never seemed tired or bored, never was uninvolved, never was tempted by a motorcycle trip or a television booth.

Ever since Wooden, there has been an expectation of further sustained greatness at UCLA. Ever since McGuire, there has been a wistful longing for another brief burst of unexpected greatness at Marquette.

For the first time since McGuire retired after the 1977 Final Four victory, Tom Crean has given Marquette that burst of greatness. Crean, who has coaching ties to Rick Pitino and Tom Izzo, among others, said he could be tempted by the UCLA job.

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He would be an admirable choice.

This is being written by a Marquette grad who cried in the stands in Atlanta that March night 26 years ago when the then-Warriors (now Golden Eagles) outfoxed Dean Smith and North Carolina. This is being written by a Marquette fan who would prefer Crean, 36, stay until he wins his first national championship with the Golden Eagles.

That’s not how it happens now, though. A Tom Crean will be hired by some place bigger and better. Yes, there are places bigger and better than Marquette.

UCLA is one of them and it wouldn’t be a bad fit for Crean.

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Because Crean understands and embraces traditions and excellence.

“The more my players can hear about 1977, the better,” Crean said in Minneapolis, where the Golden Eagles, for the first time since 1977, have reached the Elite Eight. “It’s great when people talk about 1977. There are lot of former players around our program, they have a lot of pride in Marquette and I have them talk to the team.”

When Crean arrived at Marquette in 1999 from Michigan State, where he had been Izzo’s top assistant, he sought out McGuire. Crean wanted to listen to McGuire, wanted McGuire at practice, wanted him in the gym, wanted McGuire reminding everyone -- players, fans, administration -- about what could happen at Marquette.

By all accounts, McGuire, who died two years ago of leukemia, was an enthusiastic supporter of Crean. Pitino has spoken highly of Crean this week. So has Izzo. That’s a great resume.

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And he’s added to it at Marquette.

After McGuire walked away in 1977, his top assistant, Hank Raymonds, took the job. For most of the 1978 season Marquette, with McGuire’s players, was ranked No. 1. But the team was shocked by Miami of Ohio in the first round of the NCAA tournament. This was a painful slap, sudden and bold proof that Marquette without McGuire was no longer special.

In 1983, Rick Majerus, who also had been on McGuire’s staff, took over. Majerus spent three years trying to be Al, then left for fewer memories and less pressure at Ball State. Overwhelmed Bob Dukiet came next, another three-year hire who left with a 39-46 record and who put Marquette on a downward spiral.

Kevin O’Neill followed. In his fifth year, O’Neill brought Marquette back to the Sweet 16 by beating Kentucky. But O’Neill bolted for big bucks at Tennessee and it seemed Marquette had found its place -- a mid-major training ground for men who would be stars at big schools. Mike Deane came from Siena, went 100-55 in five years but struggled when tournament time came around.

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Then came Crean. He built carefully. He had two 15-14 seasons but also cultivated alums. He made a direct plea to former players -- “Please come help us,” he said to men such as Earl Tatum, Butch Lee and Bo Ellis.

Last season the Golden Eagles were 26-7 and went to the NCAA tournament. This year they won the Conference USA regular-season title and find themselves a victory over Kentucky from the Final Four.

Friday Crean told the Golden Eagles: “We are creating memories that will last a long, long time. Let’s don’t stop.”

Crean’s preaching has impressed his players. Marquette standout Dwyane Wade said, “You can’t get tired of hearing about the ‘70s. We cherish that. The legacy Al McGuire left makes it more special to wear the jersey that says ‘Marquette’ on it. Coach Crean embraces it. We all do.”

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From 1970 to ’79, Marquette finished in the top 10. It’s not UCLA tradition, but it was pretty darn good. Crean has never said Marquette shouldn’t or couldn’t aspire to the same excellence.

If, somehow, Crean ends up as UCLA coach, his willingness to accept the past as a pleasure and not a pain will serve him well.

Diane Pucin can be reached at diane.pucin@latimes.com


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