December 3rd, 2012
Billy Reed: Recalling Rick Majerus
College hoops loses its last coaching character
He was more than just a splendid tactician who won more than 70 per cent of his games over 25 seasons at Marquette, Ball State, Utah, and St. Louis. What he was, mainly, was the last of the characters who dominated college basketball until the money got so big that coaches morphed from flimflam artists and storytellers into bloodless corporate CEOs.
He was a throwback, in other words, to the likes of Abe Lemons and Ray Meyer and Lou Carnesecca. Guys who loved to win but also loved to laugh. And, of course, he was joined at the funnybone to his mentor, Al McGuire, who rode motorcycles, collected toy soldiers, and talked of “seashells and balloons.”
Of Rick Majerus, who died on Saturday at 64, it cannot be said that he was larger than life. But he was close. In his prime, his weight fluctuated from 300 to 375. As he so aptly put it, “Some guys smoke, some guys drink, some guys chase women…I’m a big barbecues-sauce guy.”
Once Rick Pitino tried to make the case that his Kentucky team deserved to be an underdog to Majerus’ Utah squad. Replied Majerus, “If we were getting into a sumo ring, he and I, then he would be the underdog. I’ll crush him. But on the court, we’re in trouble.”
He was a lifelong bachelor who once said, “Never marry a beautiful woman. A beautiful woman will leave you. An ugly woman will leave you, too, but so what?” He was a good Catholic boy devoted to his mother. After taking the Southern Cal job on Dec. 15, 2004, Majerus reneged five days later for health reasons.
He wasn’t lying. But he also didn’t tell the media that he was talking about his mother’s health, not his. When his mom complained that Los Angeles was too far away from her home in Wisconsin, Majerus backed off his commitment.
Majerus lived for basketball. Literally. During his 13 years in Utah, he lived in a hotel. “I’m like that guy on ‘The Odd Couple’ and not the neat guy,” he once said. “I go into my room and find pieces of pizza under the laundry.”
He coached in sweaters, not suits. He loved people who loved basketball, even sports writers. He once made Sports Illustrated’s Kelli Anderson buy some Mark Twain books and read them. He gave Ben Weixlmann a biography of Roberto Clemente for his 18th birthday. He traded editor Chris Dortsch an NCAA Final Four bag for a stack of Blue Ribbon yearbooks.
He was a perfect fit at Marquette and St. Louis, both private Catholic schools in the inner city. Yet he had his greatest success at Utah, where he was out of his element in more ways than one. But he sustained his Catholic faith in a city dominated by Mormons and he managed to recruit black players to a culture that was almost entirely white. He never got used to the restaurants, though.
“We don’t have an Italian restaurant in Utah that ends in a vowel,” Majerus once said. “In Utah, you’re eating at a place called Olson’s or something, and you’re ordering baked manicotti out of the Chef Boyardee can.”
In 1967 he tried to make McGuire’s Marquette University team as a freshman walk-on out of Marquette University High School. McGuire cut him, but kept him on as a student assistant. While he was completing the work for his history degree, which he received in 1970, Majerus coached eighth-graders at the St. Sebastian Grade School, then freshmen at his high school alma mater.
After his graduation, McGuire hired him for a staff that also included veteran assistant Hank Raymonds. Sometimes the whimsical McGuire would call the assistants and tell them to run practice because he had decided he wanted to drink beer with a visiting friend or take off somewhere on his motorcycle.
McGuire loved to recruit inner-city kids who had more toughness than talent. He wanted players who had street smarts and the hunger that only poverty can bring. He wasn’t unhappy when his players fought in practice. Some of that was absorbed by Majerus. One of his players at Utah, Lance Allred, transferred after three years because, he wrote in an autobiography, he was tired of Majerus taunting him and abusing him because of his hearing disability. An investigation later revealed no wrongdoing by Majerus.
He was on the bench with McGuire that magic 1977 night in Atlanta when Marquette sent Coach Al into retirement – and on to a new broadcasting career with NBC -- with a victory over North Carolina in the NCAA tournament championship game. When Raymonds succeeded McGuire, Majerus served as his No. 1 assistant for six years before replacing Raymonds in 1983.
After three years at Marquette, he accepted Don Nelson’s offer to be an assistant with the Milwaukee Bucks of the NBA. But Majerus found the college game more to his liking, so he took the job at Ball State. In1987 he went 14-14 his first season, but then put together a 29-3 team that stunned Pittsburgh in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
Before the Cardinals played Illinois in a second-round game in the Hoosierdome, Majerus urged Indiana University fans to come out and support the Hoosier state school that gave the world David Letterman.
“I tell the IU fans they already have the red sweaters,” Majerus said, “so just close their eyes and pretend that Bobby Knight got a little fatter and lost his hair.”
At Utah, he built a program that dominated the WAC and was a perennial NCAA participant. He reached the pinnacle in 1998, when his Utes made the NCAA championship game and had a 10-point halftime lead. It seemed inevitable that Majerus, who wore a white sweater that night, would join the college game’s most elite club.
But after some halftime adjustments by Coach Tubby Smith, the Wildcats fought back in the second half behind Heshimu Evans, Cameron Mills and Jeff Sheppard for a 78-69 victory. In the Utah locker room, Majerus lamented the fact that his team got tired in the second half because he hadn’t substituted enough.
After the Southern Cal debacle in 2004, Majerus took a three-year hiatus from coaching. He became a studio analyst for ESPN and frequently showed both the wit that had made him popular with the fans and the coaching acumen that had earned him the respect of his peers.
But he missed the game and the kids so much that, on April 30, 2007, he was announced as the new coach at St. Louis, which had enjoyed some national success under Eddie Hickey in the 1950s and Charlie Spoonhour in the ‘90s.
It wasn’t easy for him in St. Louis. Despite concerns about his health, he had a hard time giving up the bratwursts he had loved since childhood. The Billikens won 23 games his third season, but dipped to 12-19 – Majerus’ only losing season – in 2010-’11. But last season he did some of his best coaching, leading the Billikens to a 26-8 record and the third round of the NCAA tournament, where they lost to Michigan State.
On Aug. 24 of this year, Majerus announced he was taking a medical leave and would turn the team over to assistant coach Jim Crews for the 2012-’13 season. On Nov. 16, it was announced that he would not return to the sidelines. He died of heart failure on Dec. 1 in a Los Angeles hospital.
He was lucky to come along at a time when college basketball produced more colorful coaches than any other sport. Today, sadly, a guy like Majerus probably wouldn’t get hired by a big-time program such as, oh, Kentucky – the school that turned out to be the nemesis of Majerus’ career. Besides the loss in the 1998 NCAA title game, UK eliminated four of Majerus’ other Utah teams.
How did that make him feel?
“When I die,” Majerus said, “they might as well bury me at the finish line at Churchill Downs so they can run over me one more time.”