NEW YORK -- On April 30, 2007, Saint Louis University men's basketball opened a new and exciting chapter in program history by hiring legendary head coach Rick Majerus.
Hoping to make a splash in their third year in the Atlantic 10 Conference, the Billikens called on one of the game's sharpest minds to guide them towards a successful future.
Majerus was lured by Chaifetz Arena, the state-of-the-art on-campus facility that had been in the works for some time; showing a true commitment to high-level athletics at SLU. He liked the St. Louis community, the food, and the proximity to his mother, Alyce, a Milwaukee native. But what brought him back into coaching and away from the bright lights of TV was the fact that he truly missed the hardwood. The sounds of balls bouncing, sneakers squeaking, whistles blowing. Basketball was in his blood. Coaching, mentoring, and educating young people was what he lived for.
The reaction upon his arrival was extremely positive, as fans saw the potential for a Utah-like run. Slowly but surely, especially with no professional basketball outfit to contend with, the Billikens attempted to seize the college hoops market in town.
Joel Austin, who grew up in Columbia, Mo. rooting for the Missouri Tigers, figured 2007 was as good a time as any to join the SLU faithful. Having lived in St. Louis for many years, he exchanged his black and gold for blue and white.
"Before Majerus came, I was going to two games a year," he told BillikenReport.com. "When I heard they signed him, I said, 'I'm all in now'. I talked my brother into getting season tickets and it's been a great decision."
While the fanfare came quickly, the on-court product was more of a gradual progression. In Majerus' first two years, the Billikens hovered just over the .500 mark as he worked to install his system with recruits from the previous regime. In his third year, SLU advanced to the CBI Finals before succumbing to fellow basketball upstart Virginia Commonwealth. The 2010-11 season then rolled around and expectations were ramped up. In a blink of an eye though, the dreams of an NCAA Tournament run were shot. His two best players were suspended before the season began, and Majerus' squad limped to a 12-19 record, his only losing season in an otherwise illustrious career. With a much more matured and veteran ballclub at full strength, buying into the roots he planted back in 2007, the 2011-12 edition made The Big Dance. A win over Memphis in Columbus, Oh. further enhanced SLU's status as a team to contend with for years to come. It would mark his last victory, as he passed away on Dec. 1, but the imprint he left behind on SLU remains hard to quantify.
This year's team has pulled together to post one of the school's best seasons. A 27-6 record, A-10 regular season and tournament championships, and a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Interim head coach Jim Crews has adopted many of the principles instilled in Majerus' teams, as not to disrupt the flow.
"Rick had a tremendous impact on the program here," Dr. Richard Chaifetz, the arena's namesake in a Brooklyn interview with BillikenReport.com. "He's responsible obviously for all the players here. He's also responsible for bringing Jim Crews and his crew on. . .I had very good feelings and I was very optimistic that Rick's plan was in line with that. He wanted to build a great program, and it didn't surprise me that we had the success we did under Rick's tutelage."
As the Billikens hoisted the Atlantic 10 Championship trophy at Barclays Center in Brooklyn on Sunday, one couldn't help but imagine how far the team has come since 2007. The throng of national media in attendance. A top 15 ranking. A wealth of nationally televised games.
"Back in '07-'08, we televised nine games," Saint Louis University Athletic Director Chris May said by phone from San Jose. "We had 25 going into the A-10 [Tournament], and 28 games to date.
"The largest piece is growth and visibility," May said of the program's success. "It's grown exponentially. The overall enrollment piece [for the university]. It broadens the reach and it helps bring exposure to the many, many faculty that are doing a great job. That's what successful athletic teams do. It helps everybody."
The overall profile of fans has even evolved in recent years. A home crowd full of elderly donors who spent much of the game sitting on their hands has given way to one of the conference's toughest and most raucous environments.
Chaifetz, a self-proclaimed competitor, doesn't believe this impressive ride has reached its peak yet, either.
"On some level, [Majerus] built for the future here too," he said. "We have a great nucleus now, we need to continue to build on it. I expect us to win a national championship some time. Did I have a view that we'd do it in three years or five years or ten? No. But I knew we'd get better and better every year."
With conference realignment continuing to poach teams left and right, including Xavier and Butler from the Atlantic 10, it remains to be seen what SLU's plan of action going forward is.
"Nationally competitive," May said of his five-year vision. "A player on the national scene like we are today. We're building a foundation for sustained success."
In the immediate future, New Mexico State is the only object of concern for Crews and company. A round of 64 matchup against the Aggies in San Jose, Calif. stands directly in front of the Billikens. The methodical "one game at a time" approach that Crews employs would make his former boss proud. After all, Majerus spent years of hard work in the hopes that days like today would become status quo for a team, program, and university on the rise.