Colin Powell once said, “Great leaders are almost always great simplifiers, who can cut through argument, debate, and doubt to offer a solution everybody can understand.” This guy was like that, smart, organized and calculating. He was a very unique individual and a heck of a basketball coach. You never had to guess where you stood in his eyes, he’d tell you straight up. Like most coaches of his day, he was known to berate and verbally abuse his players in an effort to help them reach their maximum potential. He poked them in their chests to gain their attention. Of the 80 players he recruited to Utah only 33 stayed for four years. The ones who stayed were incredibly loyal and very successful. He always made fun of himself so you didn’t have to. “Some guys smoke, some guys drink, some guys chase women. I’m a big barbecue-sauce guy,” he once said. He was tall, mostly bald, loved white sweaters, hated ties, and was funny beyond words; the things he said, it was like he had swallowed Don Rickles. He could pass for John Pinette in sneakers or Louie Anderson with a whistle around his neck. People did make fun of him for not being in shape; he thought round was a shape. He also thought pancake syrup was a beverage and candy corn a vegetable. He was a big, heavy-set guy; when he got his shoes shined, he had to take the guy’s word for it.
I don’t think you can pick out a basketball coach from a line-up. They seem to come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. He always thought he looked more like an 18-wheel truck driver than a coach and once said, “I go into my room and find pieces of pizza under the laundry.” This guy started at the bottom as a student assistant. That means he picked up towels, got coffee, and washed jockstraps. He always believed it’s good to have the struggle.
Coach Rick Majerus owned a brilliant mind. He could expound on politics, books, and movies with equal zest. What made him different? He had a “Basketball Jones.”
Rick Majerus was born in Sheboygan Falls, Wisconsin, on February 17, 1948. He graduated from Marquette University High School in 1966 and enrolled at Marquette University the following year. He also walked-on the basketball team, but became a student assistant for $5,000 a year, after being cut from the team. By 1970, Rick had graduated with a degree in history. He found his passion by coaching eighth graders at St. Sebastian Grade School in Milwaukee and then he coached the freshman boys at Marquette University High School. In 1971, he joined Al McGuire’s staff as a full-time assistant coach. In 1983, Majerus became the head coach, taking over for Hank Raymond until 1986, when he left Marquette with a 56-35 record to join the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks as an assistant to Don Nelson. He returned to the college game in 1987 when he became head coach at Ball State University. He left Ball State with a 43-17 record in 1989 and joined the “Running Utes” of Utah as their head coach.
Majerus lived in a suite in one of the downtown hotels in Salt Lake City. When asked why he chose to live in a hotel instead of an apartment or house, he answered, “There are clean towels, my bed’s turned down every night and there’s a mint on my pillow, no matter what psychological or emotional crisis the maid’s going through.” Rick had a passion for coaching and ran excellent motion offense and really defended well.
Utah lost to the Kentucky Wildcats in the 1996 Sweet Sixteen, the 1997 Elite Eight, and the 1998 NCAA Finals in San Antonio, Texas. With all three years ending with losses to Kentucky, Majerus told The New Orleans Times-Picayune, “When I die, they might as well bury me at the finish line at Churchill Downs so they can run over me again.” Utah participated in the Western Athletic Conference (WAC) until 1999 and then joined the Mountain West Conference (MWC). Majerus’ combined record was 323 wins and 95 losses. Even more impressive was his conference record which stood at 152-43. At Utah, Majerus produced ten conference championships in 13 seasons.
I met the man, shook his hand, and wished him luck at the 1998 NCAA Finals. I think everyone there was pulling for Utah against Kentucky. He held court every chance he got. He was a quote machine for reporters. It’s hard to accept that Rick Majerus has passed away.
He was once asked, “How do you plan to stop the Kentucky Wildcats?” in a 1996 NCAA Tournament match-up. “Food poisoning!” answered Majerus. When asked about the difference in talent between his team and Kentucky, he responded, “They have all those McDonald’s All-Americans. We have four guys on our team who don’t even have a McDonald’s in their hometown.” Keith Van Horn, Andre Miller, and Mike Doleac were all first-round draft picks from his Utah teams. He found great success at Utah until 2004. With this year’s Wildcat team currently at 4-3, Majerus would have loved to have played Kentucky.
Rick Majerus was a wanted man. He had been contacted many times over the years about head coaching jobs. UCLA, St. Johns, UNLV, Arizona State, Texas, Wisconsin, Notre Dame, Minnesota, San Diego State, and the Golden State warriors of the NBA, had all made him an offer.
In 2004, the University of Southern California came calling for Majerus. In December, he gladly accepted the job and acted excited. The deal paid 5 million for 5 years. During the press conference he announced “I hope I die here. I hope I coach here the rest of my life.” But life doesn’t always follow the script and within a week he reneged on his commitment and headed to ESPN as an analyst. In a tearful news conference he referred to his health with this statement: “I am not fit for this job by my standards.” A devoted family man, some folks expected that the real reason he stepped aside was that the health of his mother was deteriorating quickly. He stayed at ESPN from 2004-2007.
In 2007, Rick returned again to college basketball by joining Saint Louis University. “His last name, Majerus, means ‘great’ in Latin,” explained the President of Saint Louis University in 2007. Rick had just accepted their offer to become the new head men’s basketball coach. After the press conference, Majerus told reporters, “I think it really means ‘sausage-eater’ in Latin.” On August 24, 2012, he announced that he would take a medical leave of absence and would not coach in 2012-2013. His assistant, Jim Crews, took over the Saint Louis University program. His record at Saint Louis stood at 95-69.
Rick Majerus experienced only one losing season in 25 years as a head basketball coach (2010-2011). He won more than 70% of the games he coached, winning 517 games while losing only 215. He collected fifteen 20-win seasons and two 30-win seasons. Majerus took twelve different teams to the NCAA tournament and four teams to the NIT. “His Utah team beat us in 1991 in the NCAA Tournament. He was a very good coach, very demanding; he knew basketball,” said South Alabama Coach Ronnie Arrow. Only twice did his teams lose to a lower seed in 31 NCAA Tournament games and, in all but three of those appearances, it took a No. 1 seed to send them home. Eleven times out of twelve his teams won at least one game in every NCAA tournament. “I love coaching. I have a great passion for it. I still have a ball in the back of my car. I love to play,” said Majerus. He never got fired from a coaching job.
The title of this piece, “Basketball Jones” refers to the Cheech and Chong hit song. The song was released in September of 1973, and reached #15 on the US charts. Cheech Marin sings in falsetto and anyone who has heard the song recognizes it immediately. Other musicians who collaborated on the song included, Carol King, Billy Preston, George Harrison, and Ronnie Spector. The word “Jones” used in the title, song, and parody is slang for craving or addiction. Anyone with a Basketball Jones had an undying love for the game. That was Rick Majerus. Basketball Jones became an animated short film in 1974. The main character is “Tyrone Shoelaces,” who receives a basketball from his mother at an early age and cannot stop dribbling. The cartoon version was released in 1976.
Majerus began to have heart problems in 1989, after joining Utah. At the age of 41, he underwent coronary bypass surgery six games into his first season. Even though he swam one mile every day he continued to fight his desire to over-eat. He had a stint placed in his heart in 2011. Coach Rick Majerus died Saturday, December 1, 2012, at the young age of 64. He had been in a Los Angeles hospital for several weeks with heart issues. Rick Majerus ate life and food in large quantities. “Like I told Bobby Knight, nothing good happens around a salad bar,” said Majerus. He had lost his father Raymond in 1987 to a heart attack. Raymond was the former secretary-treasurer of the United Auto Workers. His mother Alyce passed on August 6, 2011. Rick is survived by two sisters, Jodi and Tracy. He was briefly married from 1987-1989. Utah will honor Coach Rick Majerus by hanging his trademark white sweater from their rafters.
Rick was named WAC Coach of the Year five times, UPI National Coach of the Year in 1991, Basketball Times National Coach of the Year in 1992 and 1997, and won the John Wooden Award in 1998.
CBS Sports analyst Clark Kellogg said when he heard the news, “He sees it (college basketball) and explains it in a unique way, which I have always enjoyed.”
There I sat at the same table in the Houston Hilton with Norm Stewart (Missouri), Ronnie Arrow (South Alabama), and young head coach Sean Woods (Mississippi Valley State). The 2011 NCAA Tournament was underway. On a napkin, these coaches were drawing up a high-low screen off an inbounds play from the baseline underneath their own basket. It quickly reminded me of Coach Rick Majerus’ 2000 autobiography, My Life on a Napkin. I wondered how many games over the years had been decided just like that, on napkins in restaurants, bars, and at coaches’ clinics across the country. They asked me why I was smiling. When I told them, they all nodded.
Comedian Jerry Lewis once said, “There is nothing better than being nine years old.” Majerus was a big kid at heart, teaching a young man’s game. He once said, “I love the fans and the college students. I like the alumni association. I like the rah-rah and all that. I like the band rather than that fabricated music. I like the fact that we have students that are cheerleaders that really care, as opposed to a dancing girls’ team of hired mercenaries.” I hope Saint Peter is ready for a little one-on-one. Coach Rick Majerus, an off-color guy if there ever was one, will be spending his first Christmas in Heaven.
Andy Purvis is a local author. His books "In the Company of Greatness" and "Remembered Greatness" are on the shelves at the local Barnes and Noble, at Beamer's Sports Grill 5922 S Staples, and online at many different sites including Amazon, bn.com, booksamillion, Google Books, etc. They are also available in e-reader format. Contact him at www.purvisbooks.com, or firstname.lastname@example.org.