Forgive Jim Crowley, head coach of women’s basketball at tiny St. Bonaventure University in upstate New York, if he’s rooting a little harder for Moneyball to win the best-picture Oscar on Sunday night. After all, the 2003 Michael Lewis book about the financially-strapped Oakland A’s unlikely winning seasons (on which the Brad Pitt film is based) saved his livelihood — and produced one the most unlikely turnaround stories in all of college sports.
In 2005, St. Bonaventure had just finished its fifth straight losing season with Crowley as coach. That year, the Bonnies won just nine games, as they had the season before. The season before that, St. Bonaventure finished 6-22. Crowley had started thinking about what he could do once he got fired. Bartending, maybe?
He would not have blamed St. Bonaventure for booting him. “It was bad,” Crowley says. “We were unorganized, and I was all over the place as a coach. We were not where we needed to be as a program.” There was little reason for optimism. St. Bonaventure, a school with just 2,000 undergraduate students, located 70 miles south of Buffalo in Olean, N.Y., was never a women’s hoops hotbed. The team had finished with a winning record in just 11 of the previous 33 seasons. “We weren’t a huge draw,” Crowley says.
That off-season, Crowley starting reading books about coaching legends like Bear Bryant, Vince Lombardi, and Jimmy Johnson, seeking some kind of spark. “I was desperate,” he says. An Oakland A’s fan since his childhood near Binghamton, N.Y., Crowley picked up Lewis’ Moneyball, having heard it offered some leadership lessons. He started reading it on the exercise bike — and did not stop for two hours. He took it back to his St. Bonaventure office, and then home, where he fell asleep with it. The next day, Crowley woke up early to finish it off.
The challenges facing both tiny St. Bonaventure and the small-market A’s were nearly identical, Crowley thought. Oakland couldn’t outspend the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and other richer clubs to pick up star players. Colleges can’t pay their athletes—at least not legally — but there is definitely a marketplace for promising high school prospects, and St. Bonaventure still struggles to compete. Its recruiting budget would be a rounding error for many larger schools’ programs. College kids dream of playing before huge crowds, in state-of-the-art facilities, in front of cameras from national television networks. St. Bonaventure’s cozy gym, small size and lack of women’s hoops tradition conspired to crush that wish.
But Oakland’s success story inspired Crowley. “The book is about ideas,” he says. “It transcends baseball. How can you be successful in any situation, no matter how bad it might be?” The A’s sought out underpriced players no one else wanted. For basketball players with few other scholarship options, St. Bonaventure could be a draw. “When we’re all out recruiting in July, and a couple of coaches come over to watch a player, Jim leaves,” says Jim Jabir, the head women’s coach at the University of Dayton, like St. Bonaventure a member of the Atlantic 10 Conference. “July is the loneliest time of the year for him.”
Crowley was still on the hunt for talent, but he needed to find talent competing coaches couldn’t see. In Moneyball, many of the A’s decisions came down to one key statistic — on-base-percentage, which is quite simply a measure of a player’s ability to get on base. The more feet Oakland could put on the basepaths, the better chance they had to score. So players who could draw walks — even if they looked like bar-leaguers — were celebrated in the A’s system.
In thinking along the same lines, Crowley began to focus on a stat that football coaches obsesses over, but basketball largely ignores: time-of-possession. The longer St. Bonaventure kept the ball in its hands — and, importantly, away from its opponents — the better their chances. Just as Oakland relished walks, St. Bonaventure would come to loathe turnovers.
Kids who simply held onto the basketball aren’t usually flooded with scholarship offers. So while his competitors chased the high school girls who could run the fastest and jump the highest — the ones with “upside,” one of the more tired clichés in coaching — Crowley looked for subtler talents. If you want to keep possession of the basketball, hand strength helps. But how does someone measure hand strength, like you would a player’s vertical leap? It’s simple, actually. “When someone’s double-teamed in traffic,” Crowley says, “do they lose the ball?”
St. Bonaventure has surrendered 11.7 turnovers per game this year, the lowest total in the nation. The result? Crowley’s team owns a 26-2 overall record, and is a perfect 13-0 in the Atlantic 10. For the first time in school history, the St. Bonaventure women have both cracked the Top 25 national rankings — the Bonnies are 19th — and will make the NCAA Tournament. Before he read Moneyball in 2005, Crowley was 44-96 as head coach. In the first post- Moneyball season, St. Bonaventure finished 9-18, as Crowley gathered his first class of recruits tailored to his new philosophy. Since 2007, however, St. Bonaventure is an astonishing 127-62. The Bonnies have won more than 20-games in each of the last four seasons. Total 20-win seasons before this streak: zero.
Of offense, the Bonnies try to work the shot clock down to the last 10 seconds, in order to wear down the defense. The team scores just 2.5 points a game on fast breaks: in 10 of its games, the team did notscore a single fast-break point. Their grinding game “puts you to sleep,” says Jabir, the Dayton coach. That fatigue helps St. Bonaventure outrebound its opponents, even though the Bonnies are usually the smaller team (their roster has only two players six feet tall or taller; top-ranked Baylor, by way of comparison, has nine). Not all turnovers are created equal. Crowley does not mind shot-clock violations, for example, because play stops, giving his defense a chance to organize. But letting someone steal the ball from you and dribble down court for a layup can earn a player a seat on the bench.
On defense, the Bonnies play a half-court man-to-man and rarely try to steal the ball or block shots. St. Bonaventure averages 6.1 steals per game, 313th out of 342 Division 1 schools. The Bonnies block 1.8 shots per game, 323rd in the country. Steals and blocks get you precious possessions, right? Sure, when you get them. If you go for a steal and miss it, your opponent now has a clearer path to the basket. When you swat at a shot and whiff, you’re out of rebounding position. “They keep themselves in front of you — nothing is easy,” says Jabir. “It’s like they’re building a shield.”
Crowley’s Moneyball poster-child is Jessica Jenkins, a 5’8″ guard from Marion, Ohio. (Crowley also turned his recruiting eye westward, to Ohio, where fewer schools compete for prospects than they do on the dense eastern seaboard). In high school, Jenkins played point guard, but she was too slow to attract any scholarship offers. “I didn’t even know who she was,” says Jabir, from nearby Dayton. Crowley saw that not only could Jenkins take care of the ball, she had a pure shooting touch. So Crowley made her a shooting guard — a position many coaches would consider her too small for. He noticed that while Jenkins wasn’t running or jumping over everyone, she had good balance and coordination. “There’s more than one way to be athletic,” Crowley says. With that body control, Jenkins can quickly come off a screen, catch the ball, stop, and quickly fire up a shot: some of world’s best dunkers have trouble executing this skill. Jenkins, now a senior, is averaging 14.8 points per game, tops on the team. She has 93 three-pointers his season, the fourth highest total in the nation.
For Crowley, it was easier to adopt an unconventional philosophy after all those years of losing. “One big lesson from the book was, have faith in your ideas,” he says. “We were changing things every game — press against this team, play zone against this other team. I was not a good enough teacher to explain the differences each time out. When I first started with the Moneyball stuff, I knew if we went down, if I got fired, at least I got fired doing what I believed in. I was content with that.”
If the small-school Bonnies made a March Madness run, it would be a Hoosiers-like Hollywood tale. So who would play Crowley in such a Moneyball sequel? “Forget about Brad Pitt,” says Crowley. He’s more Philip Seymour Hoffman, who shined as A’s manager Art Howe in the film. Maybe Crowley keep should clear his calendar. And keep Oscar night, 2015, free.