If you have followed college basketball for any stretch of time, you have or know of a Rick Majerus story. There was the time he smacked one of his Utah players in the groin while imploring him to have some balls. Or when he'd invite his players up to his hotel room and show up in a towel, which sometimes fell to the floor. Or the one where a Salt Lake City woman dropped a baby off at his hotel residence, figuring Majerus would be better positioned to find someone who could properly care for the child. Or how he compared Ashley Judd favorably to watching porn during a segment as a studio analyst.
But when news broke Friday afternoon that a heart condition was going to force Majerus yet again from the sideline, this time for the duration of the 2012-13 season, my first thought was to a colleague's random brush with Majerus in 2005 at Wake Forest's Lawrence Joel Coliseum. Majerus, a larger-than-life presence in every figurative and literal term, was already relieving himself in the men's room after calling the game for ESPN when my friend entered. Majerus looked at him and immediately blurted, "My fly is stuck, I'm not trying to flash you." After assuring Majerus that he hadn't assumed he was, my friend mentioned that he was there covering the visiting Princeton Tigers. Majerus instantly give an unsolicited projection of Princeton's multi-year program rebuild, then blurted "Gotta go!" and rushed out, leaving my friend in mid-response (and mid-relief).
That story, to me, sums up Rick Majerus. Odd, unique, unmistakable, irreverent ... and always thinking about basketball. For this season, at least, the college game has lost a tremendous character, but it also will be missing one of its best coaching minds. You don't win more than 70 percent of your games over more than two decades by accident, especially when you've never been at a glamour program.
Majerus' sudden departure now hangs a large question mark on what was expected to be a landmark season for the Billikens. With virtually everyone back from last season's 26-8 team that lost a tough Round-of-32 game to Michigan State, they likely were going to be tabbed as the preseason A-10 favorite and were a legitimate threat to pop up (at least) on the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. After five seasons at the school, Majerus had cobbled together a roster well-suited to stifle opponents with his trademark defensive principles and with enough firepower to challenge anyone in the nation.
Now the Billikens will be in the hands of interim coach Jim Crews, who has 24 years of head coaching experience and had some very good years at Evansville in the 1980s and '90s. He also, though, was fired after seven seasons at Army in Sept. 2009 under questionable circumstances; reports alleged verbal and physical abuse of a player. Crews was out of college coaching until he joined Majerus' staff right before the 2011-12 season after former Utah player Alex Jensen unexpectedly left for a job with the Cleveland Cavaliers' D-League franchise. How the team will respond to this late change, how much tweaking (if any) Crews will do to Majerus' systems, and how Crews will handle coaching a team with significant expectations are now all very legitimate questions to ponder.
Majerus' hiatus is also the latest chapter in a news-heavy summer for a transitioning Atlantic 10, a solid basketball league which continues to try to find its place in a football-fueled landscape. Temple guard Khalif Wyatt was caught in a prostitution sting in Atlantic City, N.J. Fellow annual league heavyweight Xavier saw Mark Lyons move to Arizona for his final year of eligibility and then dismissed Dez Wells from the school this week for what were termed serious violations of the school's code of conduct. Add in Butler and VCU as new members of the league and the Hurley brothers landing on the sideline at Rhode Island, and it's hard to project a lot of what will happen this season, on or off the court.
One thing that seemed pretty certain until this afternoon was that Saint Louis was going to be very good. Now, we don't even know that. Nor do we know if we'll ever see Majerus on a sideline again. That would be a shame. He was flawed, but at his best, he was great. Kind of like the game he's left once again, at least for now.