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Rick Majerus 1948--2012

The saddest happy coach

Amid all the games and late-night dinners, Rick Majerus's life came down to a struggle between transience and permanence. Of course transience won, as it always does, when the Saint Louis coach died last Saturday of heart failure at age 64. But Majerus left a more lasting mark on the game than might be expected from a man who wallowed in the trappings of the temporary, making his home in hotels and entitling his autobiography My Life on a Napkin. Majerus considered his very employment to be the most insecure feature of his existence. Spend time in his company, and he'd expound broadly on politics, movies, books and human nature, and then, in a little-boy voice, confide his biggest fear, notwithstanding what would be a 517--216 record over 25 seasons: that he was only one loss from being fired.

Before taking over at Saint Louis five years ago, Majerus coached at Marquette, Ball State and Utah, guiding the Utes to the 1998 NCAA title game, which they lost to Kentucky. Where did this almost irrational and easily disproven belief in his unworthiness come from? Perhaps from following in outsized footsteps. Rick had accompanied his father, Ray, a United Auto Workers leader, on civil rights marches, and on Election Night in 1976, Ray fielded a thank-you call at home from Jimmy Carter. After a season on the Marquette freshman team, Rick was cut by future Hall of Fame coach Al McGuire, who turned him into a $5,000-a-year assistant; while Majerus shared McGuire's glibness and feel for the game, he couldn't hope to match the insouciance or flair. Majerus even spent the 1986--87 season in the NBA, assisting Bucks coach Don Nelson, the rare man in whose shadow a 6-foot, 300-plus-pound man could hide. But that sense of living on borrowed time may also have come from his fraught relationship with food. Majerus ate too much, and too often the wrong thing. Ray had also died of a bad heart, one year younger than his son would.

Rick was large and sociable, and he loved company when he ate, but he was not, as last week's AP obituary put it, "jovial." Indeed, paradox sat at his core in much the same way the food that so comforted him also cut his life short. He ran off so many players that during 15 seasons at Utah alone, barely four of every 10 freshmen survived to play as seniors—yet one who stuck it out, a forward from China named Ma Jian, would hear Majerus deliver a tribute to the crowd before his final home game, in Mandarin. He delighted in the company of the Mormons and the Jesuits among whom he worked, even as he championed causes like abortion rights, of which many of them disapproved. Although a brief marriage didn't take, he so doted on his chronically ill mother, Alyce, until her death last year at age 84, that in 2004 he backed out of the USC job and vowed never to take a position more than a five-hour drive from her Milwaukee condo.

And he never did get fired. On Nov. 16, scarcely two weeks before his death, Majerus formally resigned from Saint Louis. (He had been on medical leave since August.) In one sense his work was done, for last spring he had brought the Billikens back to the NCAA tournament after an absence of a dozen years. A 65--61 second-round loss to Michigan State served as a reminder that if you had a single shot to beat a team with more talent, you wanted Majerus on your sideline. (In 31 NCAA games his teams lost only twice to a lower seed—and in all but three of those appearances it took a No. 1 seed to send them home.) His remarks in the press conference following that Michigan State defeat had a wistful and valedictory feel, particularly after senior forward Brian Conklin delivered a blubbering tribute to his coach. When the moderator said, "Last question for Coach Majerus," no one could have known that this really would be the Last Question for Coach Majerus.

It came from Derrick Neuner, a student reporter from Saint Louis, and Majerus picked up immediately on the symbolism. He told Neuner how he wished that he too were young again and just getting started. "Gotta take some solace that you're asking the last question," he said, recognizing in the moment that place where transience and permanence meet. "The circle of life."

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The coach left a more lasting mark on the game than might be expected from a man who wallowed in the trappings of the temporary and called his autobiography My Life on a Napkin.