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Talk hoops all year long in Luke Winn's blog, a journal of commentary, news and reader-driven discussions about the college game.
5/14/2007 07:57:00 PM

Blog Q&A With ... St. Louis' Rick Majerus

Rick Majerus coached the Utes to the 1998 national title game.
AP
For the first in a series of 2007 offseason college hoops Q&As, I chatted with newly hired St. Louis coach Rick Majerus. The former Marquette, Ball State and Utah coach left his post as an ESPN color analyst to return to the coaching ranks and take over the Billikens, who last reached the NCAA tournament in 2000. Majerus has taken teams to the big dance 11 times, including a trip to the 1998 national title game with Utah, and has a lifetime record of 422-147. When we spoke, he was in Milwaukee -- where his mother, Alyce, lives, and he keeps a home -- for Mother's Day weekend. The following is an edited transcript of the conversation.

Luke Winn: Why, exactly, did you decide to make your comeback in St. Louis? It's quite different from the last place you accepted a job [USC, in 2004].

Rick Majerus: I understood and respected what the school is about. I got a Jesuit education. I went to Marquette High School and Marquette University. I coached at Marquette, and I really had a great fondness for that, and liked Father Biondi [the university president] at St. Louis. He's very much a dynamic guy who was honest with me. He said, "I don't know much about sports. That's not my strength. I just feel we want to try to be as competitive as we can be, within the rules." St. Louis is a place where it's a student-athlete environment, and everyone there understands that. It's the same thing at Marquette.

We also have a nice new arena coming [Chaifetz Arena]. It'll be a $100 million building by the time it's done. We can be St. Louis' team, and we should be a St. Louis' team. And for me, it's close to home, in Milwaukee. I can drive there in six hours, fly there in 55 minutes. My mother is there, and our relationship is very important to me.

I'm spending this weekend, Saturday and Sunday, all day, with her. When I was young I wouldn't have done that. I would have just sat in the office and ground out a couple of 18-hour days. I don't know how much longer my mom will be around, and I realize how important our time is to her. We're not going to be in peril of losing or winning because I came home for Mother's Day.

LW: The contract you signed at St. Louis is for six years. Where do you expect the program to be, realistically, at the end of that stretch?

RM: If I knew, I'd buy more Berkshire Hathaway stock. I don't know where the program will be in six years. No one can know that. No one would have thought Utah could go to the Final Four. No one would have thought that Ball State could go to the Sweet 16. I don't know where it can go. First of all, you've got to try to crawl before you can walk. You're not inheriting Kentucky or UCLA here. I always tell people, 'If you take those jobs, recruiting a player is like recruiting an alcoholic to a New Year's Eve party.' If you take this job, you have to build relationships with kids in St. Louis and their parents, establish a bond of trust and work an area that you don't really know.

I'm making it a priority to recruit this city and the surrounding area, but, while I understand the machinations of the university, but I don't know what it is, yet, that either attracts someone to St. Louis or doesn't.

LW: You were attracted enough, at least, to leave behind a house that you designed in Milwaukee...

RM: I had help and advice with the design -- I would meet with people and tell them what I wanted. I really love it. I've got it exactly the way the want it. The only thing I would have done differently is put a TV in the steam room. I have a steam room, a big steam room with a great shower, and if I did it again, I might put a TV in the steam room. I like sports news, I like news shows, I like movies, and now that I'm coaching again I'll take tapes home with me. I don't know how much you can watch in the steamer, but that's the only regret that I have; I put TVs in all the other rooms.

LW: Movie-wise, you also dabbled in the film business recently ...

RM: I'm credited as a producer on a movie that I'm involved in as an investor. It's called Synapse, and we're trying to get it into some film festivals. It's a science-fiction love story set in the future. It's not going to become a Saving Private Ryan kind of classic. It is what it is: a fun movie some friends of mine have put a lot of work into.

LW: Are you a fan of the sci-fi love genre ... if that is an actual genre?

RM: Oh, no. No. These guys had a vision and I tried to lend some support. I love movies -- when I was at Utah I would go to the Sundance Film Festival, almost when it was a non-entity at the inception -- but believe me, I'm not giving up my day job as a coach or a broadcaster because of this one.

LW: Are you making a cameo in the movie, at least?

RM: No. The girl in it is a stone-cold knockout, though. I forget her name, but she's way out of my league.

LW: Back in the '90s, you'd often use old movie-industry crushes, like Cindy Crawford or Cameron Diaz, in your basketball analogies. Have you moved on to any new women?

RM: No, I'm sticking with my old flames. Crawford, Diaz, I like those two.

LW: What about picking up new theories on coaching? When you were at ESPN, you were always heavy on the Xs-and-Os analysis -- above and beyond any of the other color guys. Were there things that you observed from current coaches, while doings games for TV, that you might integrate into your own philosophy now that you're back on the sidelines?

RM: Absolutely. You do that as well as a coach, borrowing information. But I really feel that I was fortunate [at ESPN]. I got to sit down and watch film with Coach K and his team and see how he utilized it. I got to watch a Tom Izzo practice. I watched Skip Prosser, at Wake Forest, prepare a game plan. I had some access to things that other people wouldn't have had, and I would pick up something everywhere I went. I'd see something that would be a little bit different [from how I had coached it] -- either the terminology, or a drill, or something philosophical.

LW: But the old Utah teams will be the main template?

RM: Throughout my career, at Utah, Marquette and Ball State, I've had teams that have been good defensively and solid in terms of offense and transition. You've got to guard the ball, you've got to get good shots for your best players, and have a good blend of post action with perimeter shooting. If you do that, victory favors you. And that's been the case for me. I'm a defense-first guy, but I don't think you can win it on that alone.

LW: You're inheriting an extremely small roster at St. Louis [the main pieces are 6-foot-4 Tommie Liddell and 6-2 Kevin Lisch, and of the five returnees who played major minutes, none is taller that 6-5]. Will that force you to adjust until you get the right personnel?

RM: We just signed a 6-foot-5, 250-pound kid [Barry Eberhardt of Coffeyville Community College], who hopefully can be a wide-body inside. But we're going to have to play some small-ball, probably. We're still out there looking for another big player if we can find one [there are still two open scholarships], but we don't want to rush into a decision.

I've had to develop guys because the jobs I've had aren't the kind where you're selecting players. You do that at UCLA, Indiana, Kentucky. Here you have to take what you can get, play to your strengths and negate your weaknesses. I don't have the exact profile yet of who I want. I know what I'd like to recruit. But it's kind of like knowing what you'd like to drive; you want a Ferrari, but in reality you're looking at a Camaro.

LW: You did develop a series of versatile forwards with the Utes ...

RM: I'd prefer to have big men who are able to go inside and shoot the three. I've always played three shooters, and if you look back at my old teams, I've always had good fours. Josh Grant was my first NBA four at Utah, he was drafted by Golden State [second round in 1993]; then I had Keith Van Horn, who was drafted by New Jersey [No. 2 overall in '97]; then Hanno Mottola by Atlanta [second round in 2000] and Britton Johnsen with Orlando [signed as a free agent in '03].

LW: Realistically, how quickly can St. Louis get back to the NCAA tournament?

RM: I had one day with the guys in the gym -- for two hours. I've watched one film of them. I'm not going to give you the Polyanna, and say we'll be there this year or be damned. I'm only 14 days into the job, and [because of the late hire], we're really behind in recruiting, scheduling. We're just trying to scramble.

I still haven't hit that critical stage when you don't know what you don't know. Initially when you take over, there's a ton of stuff you know don't know. When you get your hands wrapped around that, then comes the onslaught. I walked into the AD's
office, one week ago from tomorrow, and he said we still have to schedule 7-9 games. So now we're trying to put together a schedule. We're trying to do the best we can.

LW: Have you gone back to the famed hotel lifestyle again?

RM: I'm going to live in a hotel probably through this season. Only because I don't know where I want to live yet. I don't have the luxury or the time to worry about that right now.

LW: What did you bring with you down there, while you're getting things off the ground?

RM: A couple of changes of clothes, some sneakers. I don't wear socks. I won't wear socks from now until Labor Day. I recently got some sandals. I don't need much. I'm the kind of guy who used to show up at a softball tournament, where they'd give you a ball cap and a T-shirt, and I used to think that was a wardrobe. I haven't changed much.

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