The Life and Times of Rick Majerus
He's funny, charming and loved by many of his former players, but something about the game he adores brings out the worst in the new Saint Louis coach
Posted: Friday January 18, 2008 9:13AM; Updated: Friday January 18, 2008 12:46PM
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 practice that brought Rick Majerus back. Because there he had the answers. Because there -- in his watchmaker-precise breakdowns of what the fan later mistook for improvisation and flow -- was where he lived. He learned this while bombing around the country the last three years, another ex-coach TV analyst with his face pressed against the glass, around basketball but not truly in it. Practice was pure. Practice wasn't subject to opponents' whims or the pressure of parents frowning from the stands or some producer chiding him for essentially declaring on-air that the mere sight of actress Ashley Judd was better than porn. Practice was his alone.
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: This is beyond what I can handle. For the next three years his stomach lurched each time he saw Majerus step onto the court.
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."