By OnMilwaukee Staff Writers   Published Mar 25, 2007 at 5:28 AM

When Tom Crean blows out the 41 candles on his birthday cake today, he won't be the only one making a wish.

Once again, Crean's name is being linked to a high-profile job opening. It's nothing new for the Marquette head coach, who in the past has been mentioned as a candidate for positions at Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, and even Michigan State when the Spartans' head coach was being wooed by the National Basketball Association.

This time, though, it's Kentucky that is rumored to have a serious interest. The Wildcats said goodbye to their coach of ten years, Tubby Smith, on Thursday when he agreed to take over the Minnesota program.

While it may be hard for even the most unabashed Marquette, hating, cardinal-and-white wearing, UW alum to admit it; a guy like Crean is good for the game of basketball in Wisconsin.

He's elevated the quality of basketball at Marquette, not to mention the university's profile. His ability to recruit is impressive and while his NCAA Tournament record isn't exactly legendary (three first-round exits in four trips), he still took the 2003 Golden Eagles to the Final Four for the first time since 1977.

Elevating the program to the point that it can not only compete with, but hand it to traditional and established Big East Conference powers is an accomplishment. Few coaches would have been as confident as Crean, starting three freshman in what eventually was a thorough demolition of the nation's No. 2 team in the school's first-ever Big East game.

His success at Marquette has helped to change the image of this state as a place where a plodding, methodical ... boring ... brand of basketball was played. The Golden Eagles' rise in the rankings coincides with the continued development of the program at Wisconsin - which was also going nowhere fast until the Stu Jackson/Dick Bennett regimes laid the foundation. What was once an annual intra-state matchup has become a full-blown and passionate rivalry.

Crean has often said that he is happy in Milwaukee and that he wants to build something here that is similar to what Tom Izzo built at Michigan State, where Crean spent four years as an assistant before taking the MU job. With the way things have played out over the years; it's not hard to believe him.

Along Wisconsin Ave., he's the King. He makes fans happy by winning, the athletic department happy with revenue, and the university happy with the exposure the team generates. They've done everything in their power to keep him in Milwaukee; his salary was reported recently in the $1.68 million range. That figure puts him high on the list of best-compensated coaches, and backs up his claim that his program is among the nation's elite.

Not having a football program at Marquette puts him at the top of the heap. Other programs at the school have enjoyed their fair share of success, but its men's basketball which pays the bills. While Crean would still be the top dog as the head coach at Kentucky, there would also be a lot more pressure and second-guessing that he never had to deal with here.

Look at Smith, who won a national championship, took the Wildcats to ten consecutive NCAA Tournaments, and carried on the Kentucky legacy. He's been on the hot seat for years thanks to a zealous fan base that questions any season that doesn't end with a championship trophy.

Crean, like just about anybody in coaching, has an ego. The money Kentucky would offer is probably pretty good (Smith was collecting about $2.5 million), but for a guy that's used to being at the top of the heap, would it be a smart move?

When it comes to Crean, there is no reason to beat around the bush; you either love him or hate him. The line of demarcation for those feelings is pretty much drawn around the five-county area of southeastern Wisconsin.

He can come off as an arrogant, holier-than-thou despot who sees no evil in his reflection. He runs a tough practice, and demands perfection at all times. That approach has rubbed some the wrong way, but it's worked.

Others see him as a savior of sorts, having restored the pride to the Marquette program. His fans pledge their blind loyalty to him, filling the Bradley Center to the rafters for big games, and all but worshipping the ground he walks on.

Both views are fair, and even justified. Crean has made basketball here better, and has Marquette in a position to be a perennial contender. Should he leave, Marquette would have a hard time finding the right candidate to continue what he's started.

When he blows out those candles today, Marquette fans are hoping their wish is the same one he makes.