News travels fast in our high-speed Internet world. Before any major news organization reported the death of coach Rick Majerus on Saturday, the sad details were flashing across social media sites.
Loyola of Chicago coach Porter Moser, who served as an assistant under Majerus at Saint Louis from 2007-10, tweeted, “RIP to my friend and mentor Coach Majerus. I learned so much about the game and life. ... My heart is heavy tonight.”
Rick Majerus' passion for the game and life was always evident.
College basketball’s collective heart is heavy as well. After a prolonged stay at a Los Angeles hospital, Majerus died of heart failure. The heart disease that followed him from one coaching stop to another and forced him into decisions he never wanted to make, finally took the ultimate toll.
He was 64, not all that old in an age when so many coaches are still working past the age of 70.
His most successful season came at Utah in 1997-98, when the Utes made the Final Four and finished as national runners-up.
Those who ever spent any time around the man from Sheboygan Falls, Wis., would explain that Majerus was an uncommon common man. He was often described as jovial or portly -- kind ways to refer to a weight problem he could not escape. A writer once asked in a story if Majerus “looked like a coach.” Majerus said he didn’t take it personally. He said he was the guy in the XXXL Reebok sweater who liked Italian food.
He knew he looked like the guy “who never got to play,” and that’s really who he was. Majerus made it clear how much he owed to his mentor, Marquette coach Al McGuire. Yet, in the fall of 1968, McGuire broke his heart. Majerus was a 6-foot walk-on guard at Marquette when the legendary coach told him, “You’re one of the crappiest players I’ve ever had.”
Majerus may have left us too soon, but he lived life to its fullest. And while he was living, that same, big heart allowed him to give so much to so many. He was a teacher, a coach, a philosopher and a storyteller who impacted the lives of everyone he met.
His autobiography, “My Life On a Napkin,” included a chapter titled “The Official Rick Travel Guide” where Majerus pointed out he had been to six of the seven continents and all 50 states “at least three or four times each.”
Rick Majerus made his biggest splash with Utah, where he led the Utes to a Final Four. Our Utah site reflects on the impact he had on the school.
“If there’s a good restaurant in town, I’ve probably eaten there,” Majerus said. And he pointed out he’d rather read his monthly National Geographic than The Sporting News.
“I might be the first Final Four coach to go sunbathing on a nude beach in Hawaii,” he said in the book written with Gene Wojciechowski.
It’s also possible he was the most entertaining interview in Final Four history. Press conferences during the NCAA tournament can become mechanical and robotic, an exchange of cliché questions and answers that often don’t merit publication in any stories. But in San Antonio, at that 1998 Final Four, reporters flocked to cover the sessions with Majerus because the interviews were both educational and enjoyable.
“I feel so bad they can’t go out and enjoy it,” Majerus said of his Utah players after they dominated No. 1 North Carolina from start to finish in a 65-59 national semifinal victory at the Alamodome. “They’ll go back to the hotel and play cards and eat pizzas. They are so happy, and I can’t tell you how happy I am.
“I don’t know if I’ll ever get back here or not. Probably not. We’re right there to win a national championship. We’re still playing for it.”
Despite winning 517 games in 25 seasons, Majerus never did return to that place under the brightest lights. In 1989 he underwent seven-vessel bypass surgery to his heart. But the day before the Utes lost to Kentucky in the 1998 national championship game, Majerus was asked about his health and whether he was sticking to his exercise program and diet.
“My health is pretty good,” he said. “I do exercise. All you got to do is look at me and know I’m not sticking to my diet.”
Majerus was a complex man, an emotional man, a man who chose to do everything his way. He cared deeply about his mother, Alyce, and even though he used health problems to explain turning down the USC job in 2005, he later revealed his mother had requested he not take the job because he would be so far from her home in Wisconsin. She passed away in August 2011.
In Utah, Majerus was famous for living out of a hotel room. Some thought that was strange, but it just seemed to add to the quirky, cult-like appeal that so many fans found refreshing.
“There’s clean towels, my bed is turned down every night and there’s a mint on my pillow,” he said.
The irony, at least from a coaching perspective, is that Majerus built his Saint Louis program to win the Atlantic-10 and then advance deep into the NCAA tournament this season. In August, he took a leave of absence. On Nov. 16, the school announced he would not return to Saint Louis because of his heart condition.
Three days later, playing in the CBE Classic in Kansas City, Mo., it seemed obvious Majerus’ situation was dire. The Billikens went about their business, defeating Texas A&M before losing the championship game to Kansas. But it was obvious already that this was a team impacted by the loss of its leader.
Jim Crews, serving in the difficult position of interim coach at Saint Louis, said he had not talked to Majerus in quite some time, adding those closest to Majerus had “closed the circles.” Senior forward Cory Remekun said the players had prepared themselves for the retirement announcement and they would “fight for him and play well for him.”
Junior forward Dwayne Evans might have summed it up best.
“We’re just trying to play with the same intensity Coach Majerus brought to the game,” Evans said. “If that’s a dedication to him, then I guess we are. We’re just trying to play the way he wanted us to play.”
That’s all a teacher could ever ask from his pupils. May they finish the season reflecting all that was good inside the heart of Rick Majerus.