When I wrote the column about Saint Louis' basketball team and RIck Majerus, their head coach who died in December, I had to leave out several stories about Majerus, some of them personal ones. They included: I remember the first time I heard Majerus' name. I was working at the Los Angeles Times in 1977 when Al McGuire, who had just resigned as Marquette's head coach after winning the national championship, called me up. We had gotten to know each other a little bit when I was working at the Cincinnati Enquirer and covering college basketball. Every sportswriter was pretty much McGuire's friend, so when he heard I had moved to Los Angeles and was covering UCLA hoops, he phoned and said: "Let's go out to lunch and you can write something about me. I just took a job with NBC as a commentator and one of my first games is a UCLA game."
We met at a Mexican restaurant in Westwood. McGuire was a fabulous interview, as usual. Toward the end, I lamented that unique-personality coaches were becoming more and more rare in college basketball and asked him who would pick up his torch in that department. He didn't hesitate, saying: "You should check out this guy Rick Mar-jer-ush. (That's how McGuire pronounced it). He was one of my youngest assistants at Marquette. He's going to be good." I remembered the name. And McGuire was obviously correct. Majerus (or Marjerush) first made his reputation as Marquette's coach for three largely uneventful seasons, then worked briefly as a Milwaukee Bucks assistant in the NBA (for Don Nelson) until going to Ball State and rolled out a 27-3 record (plus a rare NCAA appearance) before moving on to Utah. Even then, he was battling his weight problem. When he left Muncie, the Indiana town where Ball State was located, a ribs restaurant that he frequented went out of business six months later. Popular opinion was that Majerus' departure had wiped out half its profits -- either from his own business or that of people who knew he ate there and wanted to meet him. Utah and its Salt Lake City campus seemed a strange destination for a Wisconsin native who didn't have much of a Western background in high school recruiting or otherwise. But Majerus made it work.
During the brief time that Utah and San Jose State were in the Western Athletic Conference together, Majerus' trips to San Jose were legendary. He would order multiple pizzas for himself at a restaurant near the campus. Stan Morrison, then the Spartans' head coach, once told me of Majerus: "He's totally consumed by the game. He lives in a hotel and says he likes it because he gets fresh towels every morning and a chocolate mint on his pillow every night. He says he tried married life for a month. It didn't work." In the longer version of my column, I mention how Majerus and Utah came to the 1997 NCAA West Regional in San Jose and coached the first NCAA tournament game played at HP Pavilion (then called San Jose Arena). I also mention how he conducted a memorable practice session with the Utes in the parking lot of the Red Lion Inn (now the DoubleTree). I did not mention how he and his team ran rampant through various South Bay restaurants that weekend because, as Majerus said, he was determined to spend every dollar of the NCAA' alloted per diem meal money.
"There's no team in this tournament that eats better than us," Majerus told me. "We've beaten them all every year."
One time that week, Majerus sent his team to Original Joe's restaurant downtown but drove himself to Evvia, a Mediterranean establishment in downtown Palo Alto, and ate there with friends. "An unbelievable meal," Majerus reported. "There's nothing like that in Salt Lake."
As one of his players, Ben Caton, said: "Coach knows all the great places. He gives directions according to food places." After that 1997 tournament run, in which Utah lost to Kentucky in the regional finals, the Golden State Warriors seriously courted him to take their head coaching job. The team's owner, Chris Cohan, spent hours trying to convince Majerus to take the gig. And he seriously considered it before realizing that he was probably more of a college-type coach. It turned out to be a wise choice for Majerus, because he took Utah to the Final Four the following year. Meanwhile, the Warriors hired P.J. Carlesimo. Many times, I've wondered what would have happened if Latrell Sprewell, who infamously tried to choke Carlesimo in a player-coach dispute, had tried to do the same thing with Majerus. These stories, of course, all take on a sadder sheen when you realize that Majerus basically died of obesity, which led to unconquerable heart problems. Every writer I know who took the funny-roly-poly guy angle to any story about him has had to pause and recalibrate our attitude about it. Majerus was also not so jolly to many of his players, some of whom could not take the abuse he frequently dished out in practice when he demanded perfection -- or at least the pursuit of perfection. And after he resigned at Utah -- followed eventually by a bizarre week when he accepted the head coaching job at USC before changing his mind five days after his introductory press conference, saying he couldn't take the job for health reasons -- there were supposedly years when Majerus fell into deep depression because no one else would give him a job. Saint Louis University pulled him out of the funk with its job offer, which led to the Billikens' best seasons in a decade. But there were still many low moments.
When it comes to highlighting Majerus' attributes, however, I choose to believe my colleague and friend, Bernie Miklasz, the venerable St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist who developed a close friendship with Majerus during his years in that city. Miklasz, who admits to fighting his own weight issues, wrote a touching column after Majerus' death, citing the heart-to-heart discussions they'd had over the issue. Miklasz has lost 100 pounds, he said, because of those talks.
"Without Rick Majerus, I don't know if I'd still be here," Miklasz wrote.