Coach's coach: Belleville man got SLU coach off to a good start

News-DemocratMarch 9, 2014 

Dave Coles and Ron Steen have been friends for more than 40 years.

They met on dusty softball fields playing fast-pitch softball against each other. Dave, originally from Alton, was a catcher for the Alton Lancers. Ron, of Belleville, a pitcher.

Now, they're more likely to talk or watch sports.

"My health hasn't been too good the last couple years," said Dave, 65, a medical billing manager. "Ron has come to the rescue when I need someone to take me to dialysis."

"I take Dave to doctors' appointments," said Ron, 66, a retired retail chain general manager who ushers at Busch Stadium. "We go out to lunch. We talk sports."

Cardinals baseball. Rams football. College basketball.

One day, SLU's winning basketball team came up in conversation, along with the team's head coach, Jim Crews.

"I coached him," Dave told Ron.

It was the winter of 1967. Dave, a freshman at Illinois State University in Normal and a work-study student, applied for a job coaching a 7th-grade boys basketball team. Crews was one of the players.

What does Dave remember?

"How well-disciplined those kids were. They were kids of faculty members at the university. All quick learners. It was a pleasure to be around them."

What about the Crews kid?

"He was outstanding. He was like the floor general. No matter what you told him to do, he was able to do it. He played so hard.

"I had him play guard. That's where I believe he should be playing.

The 6-foot-3 Crews was about 5-foot-8 then, said Dave, who has followed Crews' career.

"When he was at Indiana, he played for Bobby Knight. He was on the 1973 National Championship team."

Crews, 60, coached under Knight, moved on to University of Evansville and eventually was asked by Rick Majerus to be assistant coach at St. Louis University.

"I decided I would leave him alone," said Dave. "All I said to Ron was how proud I was of what Jim had accomplished."

Ron wrote a letter on Dave's behalf to Jim Crews, asking if he remembered his seventh-grade coach.

"Ron took it upon himself as he does with a variety of things," said Dave. "He did it without asking me."

Ron got a call from the coach and an invitation to the Feb. 27 game against Duquesne University. Two hours before game time, they were ushered down a hallway past a workout room and practicing cheerleaders to Crews' office.

"You have come into my mind," said Crews, shaking hands. "You made an impact."

Then, to Ron: "He held us accountable. Practices were well organized. There was a purpose to the practices. It was my first organized team."

"That's why I ended up not coaching," said Dave. "I thought I was too tough."

"You prepared me for Coach Knight," said Crews, who played for and later coached at Indiana University. "We kids respected authority then. For example, you are walking down the street and a lady says, 'Take out my garbage.' You did. It's an authority figure."

"I have admired all you have done," said Dave.

They sat across from each other at a round table, reminiscing. Crews leaned back in his chair, his hands clasped behind his head. They talked about the 7th grade team. Names from the past.

"You remember Stew Salowitz? He's been the SID at Illinois Weslyan about 98 years," said Crews. "My dad and sister still live in Normal. He just turned 95."

Crews asked Dave about his life.

Where did you go after Illinois State?

"My grandpa got killed," said Dave. "I went home and tried to help dad keep his business going."

Dave's father had an oil distributorship in Alton. Dave went on to work for General American Life in St. Louis, was drafted into the U.S. Army, married, had two children, divorced. He was a Medicare Part B claims manager from 1971 to 1981, then came to Belleville in 1982 as business manager for Radiology Associates. He and his wife Marge, who have five grandchildren, live in Belleville.

Dave also had refereed high school sports and umpired baseball for 25 years. He played three sports, including basketball, at Alton Marquette Catholic High School.

"I was blessed with a good coach (Ron Holtman) there," said Dave, talking about why he thought coaching might be fun. "And I needed was some money."

"You mean they paid you to do that?" said Crews.

"Four bucks an hour," said Dave.

"No wonder practices were long," said Crews. "I've told many people since, how much I enjoyed that time. That was your freshman year. We were just guinea pigs."

"You were a good group," said Dave.

They talked about aspects of the game, playing good defense.

"Don't reach," said Dave.

"I've got that written down on my card here," said the coach.

Dave's 7th-grade team played six or seven games.

"I don't think we lost," said Crews.

"I am undefeated," said Dave.

"You are the smartest coach ever," said Crews. "You win all your games and retire."

Dave and Ron watched the game that night a few rows behind the Billiken bench, courtesy of Dave's seventh-grade player. SLU lost to Duquesne, 71-64.

"I'm humbled and honored by all of this," said Dave. "You never know if people remember. As I told Ron, sometimes you just don't forget your coaches. Apparently, he didn't forget who I was."

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