Rick Majerus remembered for love of basketball and life

December 2, 2012

Rick Majerus lived to coach. (Tony Dejak / AP)

Rick Majerus was remembered Sunday with admiration for his coaching ability and affection for the relationship he had with his players.

Majerus, 64, died Saturday night of heart failure in a Los Angeles hospital. A driven winner, his health betrayed him over the years, forcing him to take three leaves of absence at Utah and to undergo seven bypass procedures. Still, he won more than 70 percent of his games and took Utah to the 1998 national championship game. He took St. Louis University to the NCAA tournament for the first time in 12 years last spring, but had to take a leave of absence from the school in August as his condition deteriorated. By early fall, it was apparent that he would not return and there was quiet talk that his health was deteriorating rapidly.

He coached for 25 years with other stops at Marquette, his alma mater, and Ball State. Overall, his record was 517-215 (with one losing season) and his final game was a 65-61 loss to Michigan State and Tom Izzo in the second round of the NCAA tournament. After he stepped down at Utah in 2004, he worked for ESPN, then briefly agreed to coach at Southern California. However, he changed his mind after a few days, citing his poor health. Majerus, who never married, took the SLU job in 2007 partly because his mother, who was battling cancer, lived in Milwaukee. 

Majerus struggled throughout his life with his weight, topping 300 pounds and asking more of his heart than it could give. At one point, when he reported that he’d dropped a few pounds, Marquette coach Al McGruire joked about “deck chairs off the Titanic, Bill Dwyre writes.

The remembrances today are filled with affection and respect for his knowledge. Seth Davis, writing at SI.com, has tales of his meetings with Majerus and concludes that “you laughed alot, you ate a lot and you learned alot.” Majerus’s real legacy is the relationships he had with players. He was there for them. It was Majerus who told Keith Van Horn of the death of his father in 1993 and, Bernie Miklasz wrote, sat with him all night, cried with him and pulled him through.

Majerus never had kids of his own, but he raised plenty of them through basketball. On the court, off the court, whatever was necessary. Whether the player needed calm advice, or an old-school cursing out, Majerus was there. He was always there.

That’s why senior St. Louis University power forward Brian Conklin sobbed in the interview room in March, after the Billikens competed like crazy only to get eliminated by Michigan State in the NCAA Tournament.

It was Conklin’s final game for SLU. The finality of the occasion overwhelmed his emotions. Most of all, Conklin knew he’d never have another chance to play for Majerus, to learn from Majerus. The inevitable change that’s inherent in life’s passages would take Conklin away from the coach he loved. And Conklin cried. Majerus was always there for him. What would Conklin do from now on?

“He’s a great coach,” Conklin said that day. “I couldn’t imagine playing for a better coach, a better person. He doesn’t just teach you about ball, he teaches you about life.”

We didn’t know it at the time, but that honorable loss to Michigan State would be the last game for Rick Majerus. His last moment in the big arena that brought out the best of him, his last day of teaching and making a difference. His last day of being there for others.

“You get attached to kids,” Majerus said that day, as he paused to wipe a tear from his eye.

Follow @CindyBoren on Twitter and on Facebook.

After spending most of her career in traditional print sports journalism, Cindy began blogging and tweeting, first as NFL/Redskins editor, and, since August 2010, at The Early Lead. She also is the social media editor for Sports.
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Cindy Boren | December 2, 2012