The Life and Times of Rick Majerus
Something about the game: Was it the rat-a-tat of a ball dribbled on a wooden floor? The stink of sweat and morning breath mixed with drafty gym air? The thousands of shuffling feet on game night, the voices rising as tip-off nears? Yes, all that. But even more, it was the thought of those young faces looking at him, waiting. It was
There were rules for those sessions, of course. Players on a Majerus team are warned: You must want it as much as he does. Lock your eyes on the man when he speaks; glance away and he'll blow you to bits. If Coach calls your name? Run -- never walk -- and stand in front of him, eyes wide, like a puppy panting for a treat. And for God's sake, don't take anything he says personally. Put a filter on your brain, let the knowledge from one of the great coaching minds of his time drip through and throw away all that profane sediment, all those gibes about your character or family, all the humiliation that comes from seeing your most embarrassing weakness paraded before teammates and then stomped.
Many of Majerus's former players at Utah consider him a rare and good man: center Michael Doleac, whose 10-year NBA career is due almost entirely to Majerus; Andre Miller, the Prop 48 project who graduated on time with a sociology degree and now stars for the Philadelphia 76ers; Keith Van Horn, whom Majerus counseled all night after breaking the news that the player's father had died; forward Hanno Mottola, who says that in his eight years of pro ball he has never worked as hard, played as well or felt the game as deeply as he did under Majerus.
In 15 seasons at Utah, from 1989 to 2004, Majerus won 10 conference titles, coached his teams to two Sweet 16 finishes, one Elite Eight and an NCAA tournament final. His Utes won 30 games twice. Four of his players were named academic All-Americas, and eight went on to play in the NBA. "He's the total package," Miller says, "and I'm grateful for it."
But then, consider this: Of the 80 recruits Majerus signed with the Utes, only 33 survived to play as seniors. Nearly 59% of them transferred or otherwise left early, most unable or unwilling to meet Majerus's exacting standards or endure his mercurial, sometimes crude, even cruel behavior. And some who stayed considered bolting too. By Christmas of his freshman year, 1996, Mottola had scribbled himself this note:
Last October, after the coach started drilling his new team at Saint Louis, Mottola felt pity for the players. "I would love to be there to see those Saint Louis guys," he said from his home in Greece, "who have no clue what's hit them."
If they had spoken to any of his former Utes, Majerus's new players might know that he regularly called his players a vile word for the female sexual organ. That he lambasted stars and backups alike and wasn't averse to poking them in their chests. That he once brought Van Horn to tears after catching him looking at his stats after a loss to archrival Brigham Young. That during the 2001-02 season Majerus reportedly called Lance Allred, a backup center who was 75% deaf, "a disgrace to cripples" who had "weaseled [his] way through life using [his poor] hearing as an excuse."
Allred, who reported those quotes to a Salt Lake City newspaper in 2004, transferred out of Utah in '02 along with four other players. Allred's parents complained, and the matter was investigated by the university's Office of Equal Opportunity, which, according to Utah athletic director Chris Hill, "found no discrimination case" against Majerus, technically clearing but not explicitly exonerating him. When asked about the incident, Majerus says, "I honest to God don't remember. I'm not even going to address it." Allred, now playing in the NBA's development league, declined to talk to SI, but two players from the '01-02 team confirm the account he gave to the Salt Lake City paper. One of them, Chris Burgess, Utah's starting center that season, recalls that when an injury knocked him out of the lineup, Majerus's badgering reduced Allred to tears: "Lance came crying to me, 'Chris, when are you going to be back? Please. I don't want to start tomorrow. I don't want to play anymore. I need you to take the pressure off me.' "
But nothing about Majerus is as simple as it seems. Just ask Burgess, who transferred from Duke to play for Majerus in 1999, whether he made the right move. "Absolutely," he says. "I loved it."
He's not alone. During a game in 1999 Majerus gathered his team around him during a timeout and zeroed in on struggling center Nate Althoff. "You've got none of these," Majerus growled, and then reached over and lightly backhanded Althoff's groin. "You've got no nuts!"
Althoff took no offense -- to that or any other aspect of playing for Majerus. "Best experience of my life," he says. "By far."
Something about the man: Is it the cartoonish profile, all bald head and ballooning contours, like the Michelin Man come to life? The .737 winning percentage, up there with those of Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams? His role as St. Louis's newest sports celebrity? Yes, all that. But even more, it's Majerus's humor that brings out a barful of boosters this October evening. In public and off-the-cuff Majerus is famously funny, a one-man counterweight to the Belichicks and Rileys who make sports seem like the siege of Stalingrad. When the Saint Louis president, Father Lawrence Biondi, introduced the Billikens' new basketball coach last April, he tried to invest the press conference with proper Jesuitical gravity by explaining the Latin origin of Majerus's name ("
Now Majerus sits on a stool and gives the boosters a bit of that. He busts one fan's chops for a question "longer than
But when asked about basketball, he is suddenly transported to a coaching round table in which everyone refers to Don Nelson as Nellie and knows who plays man or zone, and why. He launches into a soliloquy about how Utah Jazz future Hall of Famers John Stockton and Karl Malone "pushed middle," and as the boosters' smiles assume a pasted-on quality, he babbles about "angles" and how his teams "invariably try to force baseline and out" before trailing off with a mystifying "those are big adjustments."
Someone reels him back in with a question about his coaching philosophy. "You always coach based on your personnel," Majerus begins, but he veers off again. "You know, at Utah I had five, six, seven teams [with hardly] a brother on them. It's hard to live without brothers. But if I took a black kid at Utah.... It's very difficult...."
Now he's talking about a trip he took to Africa with Nellie in the early '90s, and he goes off on a tangent about being an assistant coach for Dream Team II in 1994 and how it was criticized for running up scores. "How much has changed since then?" he asks. Silence. Then Majerus describes how he sat in an arena one day in Africa, the one white man in a sea of black faces, and "people were really nice to me," and he must sense he's losing the crowd because he veers back to the one topic that never fails. He tells about boarding a bus in Kenya, "and you jam yourself in like a New York subway and it's all black and I'm, like, the talk of the bus, obviously. So I said to this woman, 'What are they saying?' And she said, 'They're saying there's a big rich American on this bus, and you're so fat that you're taking up a lot of space!' "
Hilarity. Applause. Majerus pauses, then nails the punch line: "I never rode the bus after that."
Something about food: Is it a weakness? A way to ease loneliness? To relieve postgame tension? Yes, all that. But now he's got to control himself. Majerus neared 370 pounds when he left Utah; he looks a bit slimmer these days. "The only bad thing about tonight's meal?" he says as the plates are cleared after a late dinner at his St. Louis hotel. "The time we ate it. I had a pretty good piece of steak, but it was small and I trimmed off whatever fat there was. Had a salad, a little cup of bean soup, didn't touch the bread. Now I'm going to bed."
Without dessert. Majerus's weight has always been the most serious obstacle to his dream of, as he puts it, "dating Cindy Crawford," i.e., coaching at a prestigious program. He missed most of his first season at Utah because of septuple bypass surgery. He coached one game in 2000-01 before taking a leave to undergo knee surgery, have stents installed in two coronary arteries and help his mother recover from cancer. Then, in January '04, two weeks after Allred went public with his allegations, Majerus quit Utah for good because of more suspected heart trouble that ended up being a savage case of diverticulitis. Over the years Majerus has attracted interest from many big-time schools and pro teams, most notably Southern Cal in '04, but nothing came of it. He accepted the USC job only to back out three days later. Again, "no question about it," he says, his health was a big factor in the decision.
But just as there's an element of self-sabotage in every overeater, there's also the suspicion that Majerus could never feel truly at home commanding a team like North Carolina or Notre Dame. At Marquette, Ball State, Utah and now Saint Louis, Majerus has been what he calls "a build" guy, the contractor called in to make a program nationally presentable. He has some rich pals such as Utah billionaire Jon Huntsman, but rubbing elbows in L.A. with botoxed actors and the Zen Master, as he calls Lakers coach Phil Jackson, is hardly his style. "I just wasn't ready," Majerus says.
His retreat from the Trojans was no doubt also due to the declining health of his 81-year-old mom, Alyce. Rick's father, Ray, who was a power in the Milwaukee labor movement -- Jimmy Carter called the house the night he won the presidency in 1976 -- has been dead for two decades, and Alyce has slept with his sweater every night since. Two summers ago Rick and his two sisters put her in a home, but in six weeks Alyce sank so precipitously that they took her out again. "I'll see her through to the end," he says. "I told her, 'Mom, as long as I'm alive, you're not going to have to worry. You're not going in that home unless you want to.' "
Now Alyce lives in a Milwaukee condo, MedicAlert at the ready, and Majerus makes a point of spending his parents' anniversary, his dad's birthday and Christmas with her. They watch war movies. Alyce tells how Ray lost 50 pounds fighting on Okinawa in World War II, licking water off leaves and sucking leather shoelaces to stay alive. Home from the war, Ray ate and ate and became the big man Rick worships still. After deciding last spring to get back into coaching, Rick drew a mental radius -- five-hour car ride, max -- around Milwaukee. Saint Louis wasn't Cindy Crawford, Lord knows; witness the 9-7 Billikens' record-low 20-point output in a loss at George Washington last Thursday. But a new on-campus arena is coming, and he's near enough to get home fast.
"It's hard getting old in America," Majerus says. "Tonight I wanted to call my mom but didn't have time. Tomorrow morning I'll call her, and it'll be a call about nothing -- like
Network TV and out-of-town scribes love Majerus. For them he'll open up practice and meetings. He calls his greatest career moment the day Andre Miller graduated; he's been known to give players a game off to prepare for exams; he can list the reasons why Mark Twain's
Not that Majerus goes out of his way to polish his image. Sometime before he left Utah, a Salt Lake City waitress left him a baby with a note. Majerus, married once, childless and 20 years divorced, famously lived in a Marriott hotel near campus; everyone knew where to find him. The woman figured Majerus could find the baby a good home, and word around ESPN is that he nursed the infant with a bottle while watching film. That couldn't be a more humanizing tableau, but when the subject is raised, he tries to slough it off.
No, he says finally, the bottle-and-film part isn't true. "I brought somebody in, a gal to help me," he says. "Momentarily I thought about keeping [the child], but I couldn't. Then I called one person who might want to take this baby in, but the paperwork and the legal aspects were overwhelming. My attorney was worried about liability issues. I made another call, found a place. I named the baby after my mom and a friend: Boom, it's gone." He doesn't know to whom. He doesn't know where. He sent along $5,000, seed money for college. "It had to be gut-wrenching for the mom," he says. "It was a tough deal for me."
His players got glimpses of that Majerus when he'd bring in a deaf team to teach the value of communication, or go out of his way to help the players' families. When then freshman forward Britton Johnsen was falsely accused by a North Carolina player of using a racial slur during the 1998 NCAA semifinals, Majerus publicly declared himself so sure of Johnsen's innocence that he promised to quit if the allegation proved true. "I was terrified," Johnsen says, "and that just relieved me of everything. It was unbelievable that he did that for me."
So, no, it's never shocking to hear people use the word
Something about the body: Is it a weapon? A shield? Or is it just that Majerus, unlike so many in our fit-versus-fat culture, simply doesn't care about the impact of his physique? He may be the least self-conscious man alive. How else to explain his propensity to get naked -- in practice, watching film, at meetings, during interviews? Nearly every former player of Majerus's has a can-you-believe-it anecdote.
"The first time, [Utah was] recruiting me, and after the game I went down to the [Utes'] locker room," says Jeff Johnsen, who signed with Utah in 1996. "His hair's everywhere and his sweater's off and he's just drenched, and he's eating a whole pizza in front of me and he's like, 'You want any?' I grab a piece, and then he starts undressing and gets in the shower and is still talking to me. It was funny. It was weird. How many grown, fat, naked men do you see when you're a high school kid?"
Another player remembers Majerus calling him up to his hotel room on various occasions, and "he'd answer the door in his towel and I'd come in and the towel would fall off and it was like nothing had happened. He'd just be standing there buck naked. One year he had this lower-back injury, and he would have the trainer massage it with ultrasound. But instead of just lowering his pants a little bit, Majerus would pull his pants down to his ankles and sit in a chair and coach us. Sometimes he'd be like, 'Guys, bring it in, take a knee.' We'd come in, and we're just like, No way this is happening."
None of these players believes that his habit of dropping trou was sexual. In a sense, the players look upon it as their coach's greatest sight gag, made even loonier by his deadpan expression. "He's oblivious," Burgess says. "He just doesn't care."
Indeed, Majerus doesn't see why anyone would look at his casual nudity as odd. "I mean, we all have foibles," he says. "Talk to my two secretaries [at Utah]; I'm very close to them. [One time] I had to get a colonoscopy. Kelly [Miller] took me down for it and then took me back to the hotel, because you can't drive [after the procedure], and she undressed me and got me on the bed. I didn't ask her to; she took care of me. My last secretary, Whitney [Lindgren]? People used to walk in my room or the coaches' room, and Whitney would be walking on my back. She was about 100 pounds, and I told her, 'Here's the vertebrae and here's what we're trying to align.' Or she'd sit on my back with her butt facing my feet, because it flattened out whatever those things are. I used to look at film while she'd do it."
Yet there have been instances, with even his favorite players, in which Majerus's behavior was decidedly odd. Doleac spent his first three years at Utah shell-shocked by Majerus's tirades, his knack for calling his players "c----." It didn't help that once during the 1995-96 season Majerus got so desperate -- to make a point, to lighten the mood -- that he flashed his team. It was during a morning shootaround. Majerus kept telling Doleac that he needed to keep six inches between himself and his opponent in the post. When Doleac was caught shortly after leaning on his man, the coach erupted. " 'Jesus f------ Christ, Doleac! When a guy catches the ball in the post, you gap him six inches!' " Doleac recalls Majerus yelling. "Then he turns to the guys sitting on the baseline and says, 'Six f------ inches,' and he says, 'the size of the average white d---!' and pulls it out. That story spread like wildfire, but at the time it's not funny. At the time you're terrified."
Yet in retrospect Doleac considers that stunt harmless. What galls him is that Majerus's four-hour practices drained all fun out of the game, that Majerus abruptly decided that backup Jordie McTavish couldn't play and ran him out of the program. "I love Majerus to death; he's a friend to this day," Doleac says. "That doesn't mean I think he's done everything right."
Doleac describes the huddle during a Sweet 16 struggle with Stanford in the 1997 NCAA tournament in which Majerus grabbed Mottola's testicles and said, "Have some f------ balls, Hanno!" That, Doleac says, "did cross the line." Majerus, he adds, "hit me in the chest once.
McTavish, who played at Utah for two years before transferring to Idaho State in '98, says, "He punched me a lot. Other coaches would get in big trouble for doing that. The fact that he could grab a young man's balls in a timeout or punch you in the chest numerous times... that's just unbelievable."
Majerus says that all players, particularly disgruntled ones like McTavish, embellish their war stories. And it's true that semantics come into play; when pressed, the former players describe Majerus's "punch" as a short jab. "I don't think I ever hit a kid," Majerus says. "I've pointed at a guy's chest, yeah. But all of a sudden I'm hitting guys? That's not me."
And it's significant that in 15 years no Utah player complained to Majerus's superiors about physical force. "I've never heard that," says Hill, the AD who hired Majerus in 1989. "I've heard stories that seemed crazy, and I would follow up on them. There's times you need to discipline your coach, but you do it in private rather than in public."
Regardless, it's clear that something about the game triggers something in the man. He's earthy, irreverent, insightful and blunt. Basketball amplifies those qualities -- sometimes to extremes -- and many who know Majerus have been left wondering, What happened to the funny guy, the one who wells up at the mention of his dad? "It would be a lifetime job trying to figure him out," says one of the coach's longtime associates. "I can't explain him. I can't reconcile the two people you see."
Every day has a winner and loser. That's sports. That's another thing Majerus missed. The losers today, during his fifth official practice as Billikens coach? Everyone, really: There's a constant shuttle of miscreants off the court, banished there to run sprints for the minutest of errors. "We're live!" Majerus keeps shouting, and the players move -- hoping that, just once, they might actually get a shot off -- but after two steps the coach yells, "Stop!" like a kid playing freeze-tag. This is less athletics than choreography. A guard was five inches off his spot. Or a forward ran a semicircle instead of a straight line.
"Majerus is by far the best coach I've ever played for," says Doleac, a Minnesota Timberwolves center who has played for NBA legends Chuck Daly and Pat Riley. "He's got an unbelievable ability to see the game; he can watch a play and know what all 10 guys are doing and what each did wrong. You wouldn't believe it, but then you'd watch the film and he was right every time. He has this presence, and he backs it up because his energy is the same every day. If you coach kids for a week, after a while you get tired of correcting them. But he
Today it's easy to identify his prime target. "He's been hell for me," says Billikens junior guard Tommie Liddell III. "But I look at it as a positive thing." Sleepy-eyed and talented, with a meddlesome father and tardiness issues to boot, Liddell is almost custom-made to drive Majerus mad. Three times the coach lights into Liddell for middling effort. When Majerus sees who's just blown past his prodigy to score an easy layup, it's too perfect. Today's winner? Mike the Walk-On. Majerus says these words once, twice, and suddenly he's addicted to them; Mike the Walk-On becomes an honorific, like Peter the Great, for sophomore guard Mike Jones.
Majerus got cut from his high school team in Milwaukee. "He was always the fat kid who would've given anything to be on a team and never was," says a longtime associate of the coach's. "He was somewhat the laughingstock." All effort and elbows, he somehow walked on to Marquette's freshman team, but a year later the school's hallowed varsity coach, Al McGuire, labeled him one of "the crappiest players I've ever had" and cut him. In Majerus's autobiography,
But Majerus found a Milwaukee junior high to coach, then was hired by his old high school, and a year after graduating from Marquette, in 1970, he became McGuire's third assistant, with a $5,000 salary. He spent the next six years under McGuire, and though he couldn't look more opposite to the lean, voluble New Yorker, it's striking how closely he followed McGuire's lead. The coach taught Majerus that being a glib, larger-than-life bon vivant could play in the media, and that brutal honesty worked best behind the scenes. While other recruiters wooed and cooed, Majerus told Mr. McDonald's All-American that he was too skinny and informed a hotshot guard that his defense made Majerus want to puke. "At first, it pissed me off," says Trent Whiting, who lasted one semester with the Utes, in 1999. "It wasn't like the other colleges, [which] were feeding your head about how great you were and how bad they wanted you."
"With Majerus you know exactly what you are getting," Mottola says. "He can be in your face for 3 1/2 hours during practice, and when we are walking toward the locker room, he wants to be your best friend. And he is. He's not fake. He's the most honest coach I've encountered."
In a sense, it's that quality that got Majerus into his no-win battle with Allred, the player who's 75% deaf. Two teammates from Allred's time say he frequently engaged in unaided dialogue off the court. "Lance could hear you, could have a full-on conversation with you, so who's to say what he could and couldn't hear?" says former forward Jeff Johnsen. "Rick thought he purposely was not listening to him, using the excuse, 'Oh, I couldn't hear you because I'm deaf.' But Lance is a different guy; nobody really understood him, I'll be honest."
Majerus admits he can go too far. He regretted making Van Horn cry, so he took him out for bagels the day after and explained, "You're living my dream. I'm hard on you because you're special, because I never was any good myself." Van Horn later made Majerus his daughter's godfather.
The six-inch display? Majerus says he's not the same coach he was a decade ago. "I'm probably a little embarrassed about some things I've said or done in practice," he says. But he's not going to apologize for calling things as he sees them. "You know what my doctor told me?" he says. "'You'll lose weight when you get tired of seeing your fat ass in the mirror.' I don't think he's being mean. He's telling it like it is.
"I got on Bryce [Husak] really hard the other day: 'If you're just another big guy who doesn't want to play, but you feel obligated because of your size and because we gave you the scholarship? Let me give you a hug, you got the scholarship; let's part ways. Because why should Luke Meyer and Kevin Lisch and Liddell have this passion and we're a team and you don't have it?' There's a lot of guys I'd want to go camping with; there's not a lot of guys I want to win with. Is that fair? Yeah.
It's a sunny Thursday, around noon. Majerus is sitting at a table outside his hotel, ordering lunch. He's just come from a swim; he's wearing a baggy pair of shorts and a black Saint Louis T-shirt with a hole in the left armpit. So? He's got no wife to answer to, no children to pick up at school; he never wears a tie. There are those who say that Majerus changed with his success at Utah, shedding friends he'd made at the beginning, yet if you look at his life, change is the last thing Majerus seems to want. If he has a complaint, it's that the world is less fun than when he was 12 and he and his pals would shoot baskets all day. It's no exaggeration to say that his days unwind like a 12-year-old's fantasy of adult life: living in hotels, hanging out with the guys, the whole world a locker room where you can b.s. about the latest movie and nobody blinks if you strip to take a shower. Work 18-hour days, then take off for three months in Hawaii? Sure. Majerus's two-room suite is a mess, but he knows where everything is: the paper with all his phone numbers, the boxes of cold medicine, his
Majerus's food comes. When he finishes lunch, he will go upstairs, sling a bag over his shoulder, thank the housekeeper for her hard work and race off to meet with his coaches. But for now? The waitress has fixed his bowl of soup just right.
"You want some?" he says between spoonfuls. "She did a great job getting vegetables into this. These are fresh-cut carrots and the celery's fresh-cut. I love that. You should get a bowl."
Something about pain: Rick Majerus prizes his. Because pain teaches you. Because pain is the price of chasing one's passion, and if you don't do that, you're not alive. Because, ideally, losses like tonight's 22-point thrashing at Boston College show how limited your immediate future is, and that kind of clarity can only help. Majerus inherited this Saint Louis team. Few doubt he can put the program in the national picture, but he figures on a three-year struggle, and who knows how long his body will hold up? He's got a team, but for now it feels nothing like Utah.
"I realize the position I'm in here now: These guys didn't pick me; I didn't pick them," Majerus says after the Dec. 4 game. "We're in each other's worlds, and we're looking at each other, like...." He shrugs. "It is what it is. I like these kids, they're really nice kids. I would like any one of them as a son."
That sparked a tangent about parents today, and how they "want to take all the pain, all the heartache and all the sadness out of their kids' lives. All the things that make you a better person, a better coach, a better teacher -- all the things that are so much the fabric of life. I'm so much better for every loss I've had. I can...."
Majerus paused, and everyone in the place leaned forward in his seat. It was pin-drop quiet. When he spoke again his eyes had filled with tears, and the words came out slowly; suddenly it was 1998, March 30, and Doleac and Miller and Alex Jensen were beating Kentucky in the NCAA final, up by 12 early in the second half. No one had expected them to even get there. No one had expected Utah to beat Arkansas, Arizona and North Carolina -- all those traditional powers -- and now Majerus saw Kentucky, too, in his grasp. Then came Utah's collapse, his overmatched players finally run down and beaten 78-69, the whole awful film of it unspooling again in his head.
"I don't know how to tell you this," Majerus rasped. "I don't think I can get you guys there; I probably can't, because it's so tough to get to the Final Four. But, you know, I was just a
And at that moment it became clear: the task Majerus set for himself long ago. It's not just the searing losses that will teach his players. It's him too: dealing out the hard knocks and heartbreak that he felt once. If parents won't do it? Majerus will be the pain their kids fight through every day. Some may understand. He's almost past caring. Majerus will walk that long tunnel to the locker room alone, head down, two people indeed. There goes the happy coach, back in his element. There goes the saddest man you ever saw.