The Life and Times of Rick Majerus (cont.)
Posted: Friday January 18, 2008 9:13AM; Updated: Friday January 18, 2008 12:46PM
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 on Jan. 10. 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 Seinfeld -- but that's good. It's her half hour. She'll wonder about my health, how's the team look, but she won't know what the team is. We went to the Final Four, and she said, 'What division?' I said, 'Uh, Mom ... it's going to be a big crowd.' "
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 The Mysterious Stranger is a great story. He speaks movingly of participating in civil rights marches with his father, and even those who don't like him will tell you about the countless times he's helped cancer patients, the solicitous letters he's sent in times of grief. This Majerus, of course, dovetails with his joke-cracking persona; it follows that someone who pokes fun at himself might have a healthy perspective on life. Even the NCAA violations that helped put Utah on three years' probation in 2003 came off as endearing; Majerus paid for a few players' meals, provided milk and cookies at film sessions. Who do you figure won that p.r. battle, the NCAA or the guy sharing his Oreos?