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College Basketball

Coach Rick Majerus led with his heart on and off the court

Rick Majerus was at the top of his game in the spring of 2000, so it was a coup to get him as a speaker for the Chicago Tribune's annual Preps Plus banquet honoring high-achieving scholar-athletes from the Chicago area.

I was the Tribune's sports editor then, and truth be told, all I had to do was ask. We'd been friends for a long time, and I don't know that I ever had a better one.

Rick loosened up the crowd with his trademark humor, then deviated from prepared remarks to address a scene that troubled him on his way into the hotel ballroom. A self-absorbed teenage jock, feeling typically entitled, had berated his mother in full view of a tableful of strangers, quite put out by her request that he check her coat or fetch her a Coke or perform some other small favor.

Majerus didn't embarrass the brat by identifying him, but the incident was clearly the impetus for an impassioned, 20-minute speech on the sacred role of parents in their kids' lives. None of you would be here if it weren't for your moms and dads, he reminded the honorees, and love, honor, respect and loyalty are your part of the bargain.

Five hundred people sat in rapt silence. Maybe it made Rick uneasy, because he closed with more humor, including a Don King joke that was borderline lascivious. But his message got through. A line of people approached him afterward to thank him for one of the best speeches they'd ever heard.

It was remarkable insight from a confirmed bachelor with no children of his own, but it didn't surprise me. Basketball coach would be the occupation listed on Rick Majerus' resume, but he'd been committed to the process of developing boys into men his entire adult life.

And he was quite good at it.

That, I think, is his true legacy, more than the 500 wins, the 13 NCAA tournament trips, the Final Four run, the inimitable personality and yes, the legendary appetite. The basic decency of the man. The kindness.

I was teary-eyed last Saturday when word first came that his remarkable heart had finally given out. Then I smiled. Nearly all of my Rick Majerus memories are good ones. I was honored to be his friend, for 40-plus years.

He was a graduate assistant coach at Marquette when I was a student journalist there, two naïve dreamers just getting started, and we hit it off. As wild and raucous as Marquette practices could be, wild and raucous Al McGuire kept them open to the public, and I was a frequent visitor. Majerus sensed that my interest was sincere, and he became a go-to guy as the interpreter of what was going on amid the chaos.

You wouldn't know it from the bulk he acquired and never managed to shed later in life, but Majerus was a good athlete as a young man: tough, smart and competitive, surprisingly agile for a guy who had always been, well, "stout." He had made Marquette's freshman team as a walk-on, and a near total lack of playing time didn't dissuade him from trying out for McGuire's nationally-ranked varsity. He had no chance, but McGuire and assistant Hank Raymonds were taken by the pudgy kid's obvious love of the game and embrace of its fundamentals. They kept him around as sort of an apprentice coach, knowing each drill would be run to perfection any time Majerus was told to jump in and run it.

He never forgot their faith in him. He was like a son to both of them.

Majerus had been promoted to full-time assistant and lead recruiter by the time I graduated and landed my first newspaper job in Freeport, Ill., an aged town of 27,000 people located in the northwest corner of the state, 100 miles by car from Chicago or Milwaukee and a lot farther removed culturally. As I departed, Majerus urged me to keep an eye out for players. "Like I'm going to find any in this Godforsaken outpost," I thought.

Well, one year there was one, a 6-foot-4 guard from a neighboring farm town with a live body and a nice jumper. He needed work, but I suggested him as a possible antidote to the zone defenses teams routinely threw at Marquette in those days. Majerus came down for a look on what turned out to be the worst shooting night of the poor kid's life. The harder he tried, the worse he got -- it was pretty clear Marquette wouldn't be recruiting him. But Majerus, ever gracious, talked to the kid and mentioned some things he should work on, and chatted up his mother about schools he might consider.

On the drive back I was mortified by this waste of his time when he could have been out looking at real players. Majerus was having none of it and insisted he enjoyed the trip.

"Just remember," he added, "we're trying to win the national championship, not the Stephenson County Ag League."

Not the beginning of a beautiful friendship, perhaps, but at least an understanding.

Years later I was working in San Francisco when Majerus brought his Utah Utes to the West Coast as a favor to Stan Morrison, who was reinventing himself as San Jose State's coach after being fired at USC. My son Matt, a sports-minded 10-year-old, jumped at an invitation to be Utah's ball boy.

He attended the pre-game meal and meeting, shagged balls at the shootaround, retrieved warm-ups, handed out towels and water and had an eye-opening view of the game from the Utes' bench. They won fairly easily, and as Matt recounted his glorious night on our drive home, he paused for some 10-year-old reflection.

"Boy, dad," he said, "Rick talks to his players a lot different than he talks to us."

No doubt. Jovial public persona aside, Majerus was a tough guy to play for, requiring total commitment, and not all of his recruits could handle the demands. Neither could some of his assistants.

I always viewed Majerus' drill-sergeant approach as well-meaning compensation for his own athletic limitations. He wanted to be a great player, but he lacked more essentials than a bottomless reservoir of drive could overcome. He saw in the kids he recruited the talent he never had. It was his mission to bring it out of them, to get them to achieve things he never could, sometimes against their will.

He cared about them. As people, not just as players.

One of the more poignant moments from last year's breakthrough season at Saint Louis occurred in an NCAA tournament interview room, after the Billikens extended Final Final-bound Michigan State to the final minute of their third-round game. Senior forward Brian Conklin, a member of Majerus' first recruiting class, wept unashamedly, not because Saint Louis lost but because he'd never play for Majerus again.

That's not the reaction of a young man who has been bullied, browbeaten and humiliated for four years, which some critics would have us believe was Majerus' m.o.

If he couldn't be a great athlete, he'd be a great coach -- physical attributes didn't matter as much as the knowledge, energy and effort he could put into it. He flourished with kids who shared his passion, were receptive to his teaching and saw basketball as a means to an end -- their education. He found enough of them to win more than 70 percent of his games at his four coaching stops, not one of them a "Cindy Crawford-level" program.

Rick never needed an excuse to come to Chicago, even when he worked in Utah, and we'd get together whenever he visited. Harold "the Show" Arceneux, fresh off his star turn against North Carolina in the NCAA tournament, was here for the NBA pre-draft camp when we ran into him outside a restaurant. Rick knew Harold from Weber State, and after saying hello he reminded him that everyone knew he could shoot, so he should stay down on ball fakes and show the evaluators that he could and would play defense if he wanted to improve his draft stock.

Ever the coach.

TV had made Majerus a national figure, but he was such a commoner that total strangers would approach and tell him of a shooting guard from Lisle or a power forward from Deerfield he should check out. He would take their names and try to follow up or ask me to, since I was in the area.

Ever the recruiter.

He once threatened to ban me from his dining circle because a burger joint I'd recommended was too greasy -- "Not just the cheeseburgers, but the pork tenderloin," he complained, and he had to have sampled both before reaching that conclusion.

He discovered a small sandwich shop on the Northwest Side that became a mandatory stop on the way to O'Hare Field. We'd eat one sub sandwich in the store (well, I would) and then he'd throw several into his carry-on bag for "the girls in the office."

It wasn't worth fretting how the bag's contents would smell by the time it reached Salt Lake City. I'm not sure how many sandwiches survived the trip.

Food had been Majerus' weakness for as long as I'd known him, and if you ate with him, you felt like an enabler. But to decline was to deny yourself great company, wonderful stories and many, many laughs.

Self-deprecating humor was his favorite kind. Recently back from a vacation in Southern California, he said he'd been lolling on the beach in Santa Monica when some Greenpeace activists approached and tried to roll him into the water, mistaking him for a beached whale.

He took to favoring a cream-colored sweater with a circular red stripe as his game-night attire and wouldn't change it during a Utah winning streak. "Makes me look like Uranus," he declared.

On a recruiting trip to see a shooting guard in St. Paul, he became enamored of a teammate who defended, blocked out, set screens ... did all the little things Majerus valued as much as life itself.

"He's a little undersized, but I'll take the power forward right now," he told his host.

"Well, that kid has a scholarship to play quarterback at Florida State, and he's probably going to be the first pick in the baseball draft, but I suppose he might go to Utah to play basketball for you," he was told.

Joe Mauer immediately became Majerus' favorite ballplayer.

He had one shot at a Cindy Crawford-level program when Notre Dame called after years of mediocrity prompted John MacLeod's dismissal in 1999. Rick had some issues with his church, but a Catholic upbringing and a decade of Jesuit education had shaped his life, and he saw Notre Dame as an ideal fit for his own beliefs.

Mike Wadsworth, Notre Dame's athletic director, was reciprocally smitten by an ethical coach with the right values and a graduation rate higher than his winning percentage. But Wadsworth had to rescind his offer when some image-conscious tight collars in the Notre Dame administration were put off by some slightly raunchy doings described in Majerus' recently released autobiography, "My Life on a Napkin."

I'm not sure he ever got over that disappointment.

Years later he had a chance to build the program of his dreams when Southern California offered and he accepted, only to have concerns over his ailing mother and the reality of his own health prompt a change of heart four days later. Majerus was ridiculed for his indecisive waffling, but in the end he was true to himself.

And he wasn't through with coaching, as Saint Louis happily discovered when it approached him for a recommendation in 2007 and he wound up taking the job himself. Within four years the Billikens were in the NCAA tournament, and Majerus was at his masterful best in shutting down high-flying Memphis in their opening game. The ride ended against Michigan State two days later, but Majerus clearly relished being back on college basketball's big stage. And with four starters back from a typically tough, smart, overachieving 26-8 team, he gave every indication that he'd be there a while.

Not happening. The game is lesser for it, as are all of us who knew him.

It's ironic, but not at all surprising that his great heart finally gave out. Rick led with it all his life.

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