Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Rick Majerus

I'm the kid who stood on the fringes of the playground courts waiting to get picked . . . and waiting . . . and waiting some more, until there was no one left but me.  I'm the teenager who got cut from the high school team.  I'm the guy who walked home heartbroken after being ignored in the CYO open gym night games.  I'm the college sophomore who got dumped from the team.   I'm the fifty-year old University of Utah coach who would think about chucking it all if I could be the last guy on Jazz bench.  Just let me wear a uniform and be part of the team.  Rick Majerus in My Life on a Napkin his autobiography written after his University of Utah team went to the Final Four in 1998.  

Majerus started his coaching career at his alma mater Marquette.  There he succeeded legendary Al McGuire whom he had worked for as an assistant coach.   But Majerus did not do particularly well in his first head coaching stop.  His team averaged 19 wins over his three years there, but the expectations following McGuire were higher.    McGuire had led the Warriors to the 1977 NCAA Championship.  A shocking victory that the alumni felt should be accomplished again.  Majerus recalls feeling that coaching at his alma mater and a school that he had been a student, player, assistant coach and now head coach was not a good situation.   It placed both too much pressure on him and he became frustrated with many of the expectations fans, administrators and the Marquette staff had of him.   Majerus differed from his mentor McGuire in that McGuire used the mantra, "If they have grass in front of their home, we're not going to recruite them."

Majerus' recruits were often projects (see Michael Doleac, Alex Jensen, Andrew Bogut, and Keith Van Horn).  By no means bad players, but players who needed time to develop under the proper coach.

Majerus left after three years for the head coaching position at Ball State in Muncie, Indiana.

I first became acquainted with Majerus in 1989.  I was only a freshman in college.  Majerus had taken this obscure school in Muncie, Indiana to the NCAA Tournament with an impressive 28-2 record in only his second season at the school.  His team appeared in the bracket as a number nine seed and opened the tournament by defeating Pitt 68-64.   From that day forward, Majerus became something of a college basketball icon.  Living a dream that I would never realize, but wished so badly I could.   Majerus had started as a walk on at Marquette, eventually forming relationships with Al McGuire, Al Harris and basketball figures that would last his lifetime.

After his victory over Pittsburgh in 1989 Majerus' team lost in the second round to eventual Final Four participant Illinois.   Majerus' success at Ball State led him to an appearance on Late Night with David Letterman.  Letterman, a Ball State alum loved Majerus.  But Majerus achieved a majority of his success at the University of Utah.  After his successful season in Muncie, Majerus accepted the Utah head coaching position.   He was phenomenally successful at the Utes head coach.  Majerus spent fifteen seasons as the head coach of the Utes, winning 362 games and appearing in 11 NCAA Tournaments.  It took Majerus only two years to take a Utah program that had gone 16-14 to 30-4 and a spot in the NCAA Sweet 16.

Majerus usually found players who were under recruited and developed them into All Americans.   Alex Jensen was a solid recruit who played his high school basketball at Viewmont High School in Salt Lake City, his hard nosed play personified a Majerus team.  In his senior season Jensen was Utah's leading scorer, averaging only thirteen points per game, but the teams he played on went to the NCAA Tournament all four years. 

Majerus is a rotund figure, he doesn't look like a college basketball coach, "In a lot of ways, I'm just like you.  I've got to watch my diet.  I try to find two socks that match.  I go to the dry cleaners.  I worry about my mom. In some ways I think I represent everyman as a coach.  I think people kind of relate to me.  I think there's a catharsis there.  They see themselves, they see me, they think 'this guy doesn't look like a coach.'"

Indeed the attraction of Majerus is that he is so ordinary.   When I met Majerus, I had him sign my book, "To the guys, sorry I missed poker night."  He seemed like the type of guy you'd want to sit around a poker table with.  Not because he'd be a great player, but because he'd make the game more interesting, a great guy to drink beer with.

My favorite Rick Majerus story, however, never received much publicity and only the locals in Salt Lake City really heard it.   As most everyone is aware, Majerus lived in a hotel room close to the University campus.  He remained a batchelor and continues to be a batchelor to this day.

However, during a successful season an unwed youngster was pregnant.  Not feeling that she could provide the baby a proper home upon her daughter's birth, she panicked and had no idea what to do with the child (or maybe she had the best idea).  Knowing Majerus' pull within the Utah and Salt Lake City communities she dropped the child off at the door of his hotel room in a small rocker with a note that just indicated that she had heard a lot about Rick Majerus and she knew that with his connections he would find her new daughter a good home.   Majerus picked up the child, called to the hotel lobby and asked for a warm bottle of milk. 

When the adoption agency arrived they found the rotund Majerus sitting in his chair, nursing the baby with the bottle of warm milk in the babies' mouth, rocking it back and forth watching game film on his big screen television.  Majerus did just as the mother had thought and through his connections with the Utah alumni found the daughter an excellent home.   These are the type of stories not many people hear about Rick Majerus. 

Majerus' best team went 30-4 and advanced all the way to the championship game.  Losing to Kentucky by nine points in the final.   His team pulled several shocking victories enroute to the championship game, beating North Carolina in the national semifinal, Arizona in the regional final, West Virginia and Arkansas as well.   All top tier programs.   His team shot over 50% from the field that season, played stout defense and seldom turned the ball over. His key player was point guard Andre Miller.  In the title game, Jensen went 5 of 6 from the field and scored fourteen points.

St. Louis is Majerus' new home.  He has the Billikens off to a  10-1 start and last week Majerus won his 500th career game.  The Billikens are shooting 49.9% from the field, like the '98 Utah team they are lead by a steady point guard Kwaimane Mitchell, solid defense and physical and steady interior player - Brian Conklin.   Interestingly, St Louis will host a regional in the NCAA Tournament this season.   I can't help but think that if things break right, Majerus may be able to get his team out of the first two rounds and have a home court advantage in St. Louis, making another improbable run possible.

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