As the incredible run of the University of Utah basketball team continues, there is one man who is doing his best to keep it in perspective, to guard against unbridled euphoria, to enjoy the triumphs one at a time and live for the present.
Because if Joe Cravens knows anything, it's that things can change in a hurry.That has been particularly true for Cravens at the University of Utah. Less than two years ago he knew virtually nothing of the Utes, or the city they lived in, or the league they played in. Since then, he's been the team's interim head coach for almost an entire season, and, as an assistant coach, been an eyewitness to this year's winning streak and ascension to the national rankings.
"Basketball is a crazy business," said Cravens Saturday via telephone from Colorado Springs, where Utah was preparing for Saturday night's game with the Air Force Academy. "Things can change so quickly. Your whole world can change in no time at all."
It was just a little over 13 months ago that Cravens, barely acquainted with the Utes as an assistant hired by new head coach Rick Majerus, was named interim head coach because Majerus had to have emergency heart bypass surgery and take the season off.
He guided the Utes to a 16-14 record - a remarkable feat considering the circumstances.
Cravens got to do all the things head coaches do: Mold team chemistry. Establish a playing philosophy. Deal with the media. Deal with the administration. Deal with the referees. Worry. Worry. Worry.
"Everything was about what I expected it to be except for the stress," he said. "When the season ended I looked like I'd been through the Bataan Death March."
He remembered back to late last February, when the Utes beat Air Force in the third-to-last game of the regular season to register win No. 15.
"We went to our house and opened a bottle of champagne," he said, "it meant we'd clinched a winning season."
This season, the picture has changed. Majerus returned with a much keener appreciation for cholesterol. Nine newcomers are among the 15 squad members. And Cravens is back to his old job.
He said it hasn't been a difficult transition.
"It might not have been such an easy thing if I wasn't working for a head coach I respect so much," he said. "It's not hard taking a backseat in this situation. Rick Majerus has forgotten more basketball than I'll probably ever know. I like where I am and I like what I do. I want to let him drive the car and let me ride in it somewhere.
"If I have one strength I feel like I recognize where I fit into the staff relative to the head coach. I think it's important that the players hear one voice, both literally and figuratively. They have to be focused on one man. I try to stay in the background and do my coaching on an individual basis."
Still, there are those times when he is still deferred to in the manner of a head coach. Like, for instance, in last week's game against UTEP. Majerus, in the emotion of the second half, was forgetting to stay inside the coaches' box.
The referee came by and yelled at Cravens, "Better keep him behind that line."
"Like I had any control over him," said Cravens.
Cravens and Majerus never met until Majerus was hired for the Utah job in the spring of 1989. Cravens was out of work because the head coach he worked for at Washington, Andy Russo, had resigned. A strong recommendation from a mutual friend got Cravens an interview with Majerus, who hired him almost on the spot.
"He's a standup guy, he knows basketball, and he is extraordinarily loyal," said Majerus.
Cravens is the first to stress that the Utes he coached last year and this year's Utes are entirely different. But with one exception.
"I thought we had good chemistry last year, that we were unselfish and that we got along," he said. "And that's certainly true this year."
Oddly, despite his banner debut as a pinch-hit head coach, the 36-year-old Cravens was not bombarded with job offers at the end of last season. He went after one job - an opening at Drake University - and was unsuccessful. He was offered another job - at Eastern Washington University - but turned it down because the program didn't appear to be in the best of health.
Coming back to the Utes looked a lot healthier; and so it has been. Being nationally ranked and racking up the school's longest winning streak in a decade hasn't been hard to take for anyone, least of all Cravens, a man whose fingerprints are on just about everything the Majerus Era Utes have done.
"But it's too early to call this a great team," he cautions. "You have to know that the wheels can come off of any operation pretty quickly."
Spoken like a true head coach.