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Steve Hurlbut, The Mtn.
Former Weber State coach Joe Cravens, right, laughs with James Bates of The mtn. He likes doing TV, but coaching is in his blood.

You can take the man out of coaching, but you can't ever take coaching out of the man.

So Joe Cravens, the former Weber State University men's basketball boss, watches and waits, hoping for another opportunity to step back onto the sidelines once again and do what, he says, he was "called to do" in this life: coach basketball.

Cravens was canned as the Wildcats' coach in March 2006 — with two years remaining on his contract — following a frustrating 10-17 campaign. In the fickle coaching profession, it seemed like another classic case of "What have you done for me lately?"

After all, just three years earlier, he had guided the 'Cats to an undefeated Big Sky Conference season — only the second 'Sky school to go through league play unscathed — a 26-6 overall record and a berth in the NCAA tournament. In 2003, Cravens was named the Big Sky Coach of the Year, earned a host of other district and mid-major coaching honors, and he was the toast of the town in Ogden.

"The next year, in one of those national preseason publications, it said, 'Joe Cravens has established himself as one of the best coaches in the West,'" he recalled. "I'll never forget reading that, and I thought, 'OK, I've gotten over the hump now.' I thought I'd go 10-12 more years and call it good. How quickly it all can change."

Indeed, just three seasons later, he was out of a job.

Sure, Weber State had to pay him more than $210,000 in salary for those final two years on his contract. But he was shoved out the door and away from the sidelines for the first time in more than 30 years.

"The irony of my 30-year coaching career," says Cravens, 54, "is the most money I've made in coaching ... is the two years I was being paid not to coach. It's pretty amazing.

"I can't understand how a school that would complain about how much you spend on a pregame meal would fire a guy and say now we're going to have to pay him (to do nothing) for two more years."

Cravens spent seven seasons as the Wildcats' head coach, compiling a 116-88 record — more wins than any other program in the league during that span — following two seasons as a WSU assistant. He was also formerly the head coach at the University of Idaho and an assistant at the University of Utah, where he took over as interim head coach in Rick Majerus' first season with the Utes when health issues sidelined big Rick for most of he season.

"We really only had one bad year at Weber State," Cravens said. "Heck, if we would've had another year like my last year, I should've been fired. I thought I deserved a chance to get it straightened out, and that I had certainly done enough to be treated differently than how it all happened."

He was admittedly hurt by how things were handled, and though he still lives in South Ogden, not wanting to uproot his family for other job opportunities elsewhere, he has subsequently separated himself from the school where he spent nine years of his life. He found out that many people who he thought were his faithful friends were simply fans who quickly turned their backs on him.

The only time he has set foot back in the Dee Events Center since his abrupt dismissal as coach was for his daughter Chelsie's high school graduation ceremony a few weeks ago.

Cravens was on the short list for the head-coaching job at Sacramento State this year, and he was also a finalist for an assistant coaching job at the U., where Chelsie will attend school this fall.

"As my dad used to say, being a runner-up in these coaching positions is like being a runner-up in a fistfight — there's not a whole lot of honor to either one of them," he said.

He has become very involved with his church, Community United Methodist Church in South Ogden. "There's so many good things going on with me and my family and my daughters," he said.

He has spent the past two college-hoop seasons working as an analyst for The mtn. television network, as well as doing color-commentary work on University of Utah radio broadcasts.

"We're very, very pleased with the progress that he's shown," said Steve Hurlbut, senior executive producer and director of programming for The mtn. "He has started to develop a real talent for this and is making real positive strides. The coaching part of him is coming out now.

"He's very open to suggestions and constructive criticism; he wants to get better at this, and he's willing to put in the time and effort it takes to get better at it.

"Coaches respect him and appreciate his sense of humor," Hurlbut said. "Coaches are more comfortable dealing with a former coach. Joe has that great 'Aw, shucks' personality, but he can be critical when it's warranted, and he gives an accurate assessment of the game without throwing somebody under the bus."

Indeed, his broadcasting duties have allowed Cravens to stay close to the game he loves — but not quite close enough.

"It's all I ever did," said Cravens. "I played college basketball, and then I coached for 30 years. It's what I've always done. That's who I've been for 30 years. It's all I ever imagined that I would be in this world. I mean, I always thought I would be a coach. I always thought that was my calling. I felt like I was doing what I was called to do.

"And when that gets taken away, I don't how many times I've looked up and said, 'Hey, Lord, where we goin' now? Where are we goin' with this?' I don't quite get this, and I hold onto the faith that someday when I look back on this and I'll realize, 'Oh, that's why that happened.'

"I don't know if that's in the works or not, but I'd like to coach again," he said. "You do something for 30 years, it kind of defines who you are. And I know what comes with it. If I could be a head coach again, by about January of that year, I'd say, 'Why in the hell did I do this again?' because it comes with an unavoidable amount of stress and anxiety. And I know that would happen."

He said he feels very fortunate that the TV gig came along and just tries to be himself on the air, even though he insists his southern drawl and homespun humor makes him sound like some sort of hillbilly hick that just fell off the haywagon.

"To have the opportunity to do this TV thing, I'm very fortunate," Cravens said, "and I've immersed myself into doing my TV stuff. I can't say how much I appreciate what they've done for me. The best thing about broadcasting is you never lose — you win every night.

"But it's like playing minor league baseball. And to make a living at it, you've got to get to the 'show' (a 'major-league' job with a national network). It takes a lot of self-promotion to get there, and that's something I'm not very good at. And there's a whole bunch of guys in this business who are trying to get to that next level.

"I think each year that I'm out of coaching — although I think the TV thing keeps me involved — the window of opportunity to get back in it probably gets a little smaller," he said.

Cravens has great respect for Randy Rahe, the man who replaced him in the Wildcats' coaching chronology and who guided the 'Cats to a conference championship and an NCAA berth in 2007.

"I had mixed feelings about their success that first season," Cravens said. "I didn't wish them not to win. I just tried to remove myself from it altogether, like it didn't exist. To think how good that team was, and how good they could've been, if they had just left me alone. We would've been just fine, and there were three or four kids who left the program that would've made that team even better.

"Randy's a great guy, but trying to be friends with Randy is kinda like trying to be friends with your ex-wife's husband," Cravens said. "It's not that we're not friends, but it's not like I can say 'Hey, Randy, let's meet for lunch and talk about your job.' And I think Randy understands that. ... But Randy is still a friend of mine."

No longer being "the coach" has caused major changes in the Cravens family's lifestyle. His wife, Linda, has since taken a full-time job, and Joe has become "Mr. Mom" — the guy who helps with carpooling his younger daughter Shelby, 15, and other kids to school, or to volleyball and softball practice, or does the grocery shopping, makes out the bills and goes to the video store. Those were among myriad tasks he'd never done before — and had no idea how to do.

"My wife and I have done a complete role reversal," Joe said. "I'd like to change jobs back. I'd like to give her her old job back. When you coach, that's your world. It's a whole new world now, let me tell you.

"The thing I really miss more than anything is the relationship with the kids and feeling like you have a positive impact on their lives. It's very rewarding for me to get calls from my former players, or have guys come by the house ... feeling like a kid was a bit of a knucklehead when you got him he grew into a pretty good man."

That's the part of the job he'll always miss — until he gets another chance to coach again.


E-mail: rhollis@desnews.com