Big man. Big void he’s leaving in college basketball.
Rick Majerus’ death the other day from heart failure underscores an endearing quality of college basketball — the characters that have populated the game.
We’re now one short of where we were.
There have been any number of fitting tributes to Majerus since his death at 64. Gene Wojciechowski, who penned Majerus’ biography (“My Life on a Napkin”) did a fine one on ESPN.com, as did Bernie Miklasz in the St. Louis Post Dispatch, and Gordon Monson in the Salt Lake Tribune.
With Majerus, there was plenty to go around.
He was truly an original, a single guy who lived in a hotel, and ate and breathed basketball. (And ate plenty, obviously. It was hilarious to hear Washington coach Lorenzo Romar, on his coaches’ radio show, describe some dinners with Majerus.)
To watch his best teams play was to attend a clinic. He won 517 times and lost 216. I was going to try to make a case for him as a potential candidate for the Naismith Hall of Fame, but that’s a steep hill to climb. There are coaches like Mike Montgomery, Bob Huggins and Bo Ryan with in excess of 100 more victories, and they’re still waiting on an organization that’s become too NBA-leaning.
A case for the Hall is helped, too, by an NCAA championship, and Majerus’ 1998 Utah team came oh, so close. I always thought it an injustice that the Utes didn’t pull it off. They were the far better story than Kentucky, a bunch of largely under-recruited kids going against history’s most decorated program, and leading down to the final TV timeout before succumbing.
It was at that Final Four that Majerus displayed a routine side of himself. Final Four media access is very structured, with maybe 15 or 30 minutes allowed in a locker room the day before the semifinals, and perhaps 15 minutes with the coach on the podium.
Except Majerus was too big to be confined to 15 minutes. He held court for 15-20 of us out on the floor for maybe 45-50 minutes.
Three days later, his Utah team came to a familiar demise against Kentucky. It was the fourth time in a six-tournament span that the Wildcats eliminated the Utes.
Majerus was a storyteller of the first order. When Marquette, his old school, got to the 2003 with Dwayne Wade at guard, I got hold of him to talk about his old mentor, Al McGuire, who cast such a large shadow at Marquette. He told one story about how the Warriors — their name then — played at Notre Dame one night, and 10 miles out of South Bend on the bus trip back to Milwaukee, McGuire waved over the bus driver so he could stop and buy pizza and two cases of beer for his players.
Another time, Majerus said he was dining with McGuire, and McGuire, after ordering lobster, noticed that his had a claw missing.
“Sometimes when they’re in the tank, they fight,” the waiter explained, “and they knock the other claw off.”
“Take this one back,” Majerus said McGuire responded, “and bring me a winner.”
I’m told Majerus could be brutally hard on his players, something documented in a Sports Illustrated story a few years back. This much was true: He knew what he wanted, and he knew how he could get it.
There’s never been a basketball coach whose name was mentioned for more job openings. Maybe he wanted it that way. But he was always going to be a guy working a bit off the beaten track, and in so doing, a one-time walk-on guard at Marquette illuminated one of the best aspects of the game:
The best work isn’t happening only at Duke and North Carolina and Indiana. All over, removed from the glare of ESPN cameras, there’s good stuff being done — from outpost gyms in the Midwest to little Catholic schools in the inner cities of the East. Majerus shared some of that poetry with us.