PHILADELPHIA -- If the climb up the coaching ladder is tough, it's not too easy moving down, either.
That was the situation Porter Moser found himself in in 2006, after he was fired from his job as head coach at Illinois State four years into a seven-year contract and after a 15-16 season. "I know some coaches go back to being an assistant, they're ready to go to the funny farm," Moser said.
Which is why Moser was about to become the head coach at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, which while a very small player in college basketball circles, would at least make him a head coach again. Then, he got a phone call from Rick Majerus, whom he had never met.
Majerus had just been hired at SLU and needed an assistant who knew the Midwest. In the process of learning names, Moser's name came up several times. Moser now had a choice: be a head coach and run a program, or be an assistant at SLU.
"I talked to a couple of coaching friends," Moser said, "and they said, 'How many times can you take a sabbatical from being a head coach and learn from one of the best minds in the game?' I thought about it a lot, and Father (Lawrence) Biondi (SLU's president) called me, and those were two powerful recruiters. We visited and my wife and I said, 'Let's do it.' It was an opportunity to learn."
Now, for a while at least, he's once again the man in charge. With Majerus immobilized by an infection in his leg after being run into by one of his players, Moser is coaching SLU. He led the team against Dayton on Wednesday and Sunday against Temple and will lead them Wednesday at Duquesne. Majerus isn't sure when he'll be back, so it's possible that Moser could be running the team for a bit longer. On Christmas Eve, Moser also served as coach when Majerus was out with food poisoning and he took over when Majerus had to leave the court for much of the second half against Bowling Green after his leg injury.
The move has gone about as smoothly as it could go. Majerus had already given Moser, who carries the title associate head coach, a great deal of responsibility, more, he has said, than he's ever given an assistant.
"Coach refers to him all the time as a co-coach," guard Paul Eckerle said. "If he could give him the title of co-head coach, he probably would. He does so much for the team, he sacrifices so much being away from his family and wife. He provides a lot of energy and enthusiasm and he's on top of all the scouting reports. ... We rely heavily on his basketball knowledge and input."
"He's been a conscience for me," Majerus said last week, "an alter ego. ... He's in a very awkward situation. He's handled it superbly."
Because Moser's been a head coach before--first at Arkansas-Little Rock, then at Illinois State--Moser said coaching a game isn't awkward, but other parts of the situation are.
"If I said it wasn't tough, I'd be lying," he said. "We're a young team, without our two stars, playing a tough stretch here. ... You're one mind short on the bench during a game, and that mind carries a lot of weight. Coach's mind is obviously one of the better minds in college basketball. We've got three games with one less person.
"Sometimes when you're head coach from Day One, it's a different way," Moser said. "Coach has been so good to me from Day One. There's no question he's given me authority from Day One as a co-coach. He's given me so much freedom, so much leeway to coach. Looking back, it's the only way I could have gone from being a head coach to an assistant."
Though he was fired at Illinois State, Moser has been successful as a head coach. He was the second-youngest coach in the nation, just 31, when he took over UALR in 2000 and took a team that had gone 4-24 the year before to an 18-11 record, the biggest turnaround in Sun Belt Conference history. At Illinois State, he inherited a team that had gone 8-21 and two years later went 17-13. The year after Moser was fired, with a team made up mostly of his players, ISU went 25-10. "Life threw me a curveball," Moser said of his firing in Normal. "Some of the best things happen after the worst things in life."
Moser, 42, was a finalist for the job at Green Bay after last season, but he withdrew from the running, deciding he wanted to stay at SLU, which, before the suspensions of Kwamain Mitchell and Willie Reed, looked like a real contender in the Atlantic 10. Also, his wife and four children have taken to the city.
"I had an opportunity to be a head coach," Moser said. "I felt so vested in what we've done, in the recruiting, in where we're going. Did I envision this being the circumstance, that I would be coaching St. Louis? Absolutely not."