Beneath the clown’s mask that Rick Majerus wore so willingly beat the damaged heart of a man who made others laugh often but rarely found real happiness himself.
Majerus died on Saturday at the age of 64, 23 years after undergoing septuple-bypass open-heart surgery. After coming face-to-face with death at the age of 41, Majerus famously said this: “They did seven bypasses on me — one for each of the major food groups.”
Everyone laughed at the line. Majerus repeated it often, always smiling, always getting a big laugh. And then he went off to a hotel room somewhere to brood about basketball and wonder if he would die young.
“I’ve already beaten the odds by still being here,” he said a couple of years ago when he was coaching at Saint Louis, the final stop on his coaching odyssey. “I promised my mother I wouldn’t die before she did. Getting this team to play better is my number two goal. Keeping my promise to my mom is my number one goal.”
He did both. His mom died in August 2011 at the age of 84. The following winter, her son won 26 games at Saint Louis and took the Billikens to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2000. But his health never stopped being an issue. Majerus swam almost every day. When he was on the road, he would find a pool and get in for an hour. When his team played in Hawaii, he walked into the Pacific Ocean and swam for an hour.
As much as he loved food, he tried to watch his diet but readily admitted it was a constant battle.
To the public, Majerus came across as the classic funny fat guy. He had a one-liner for almost any situation. But there was nothing funny about him when it came to basketball. He was obsessed with the game and with figuring out ways to win.
He was as politically aware as anyone in sports. As a teenager he accompanied his father to the civil rights marches in Selma, Ala., and never forgot the experience. He could talk about serious issues as easily and eloquently as he could toss out one-liners, but most people chose to focus on the funny side because it was easier that way.
He started his head coaching career at Marquette, his alma mater, where his record was a respectable 56-35 but not up to the standards set by the legendary Al McGuire. After that, he had wildly successful stints at Ball State, Utah and Saint Louis. There was a trip to the national title game at Utah in 1998, a game that produced a loss to Kentucky and nightmares that Majerus said never stopped haunting him.
He left Utah for health reasons, worked for ESPN, took the job at USC for five days and left for health reasons, went back to ESPN and then spent the last six seasons at Saint Louis.
“This job is perfect for me,” he said shortly after arriving. “I’m at a place that I think has great potential and I can get in the car whenever I want to and be in my mom’s driveway [in Milwaukee] in under five hours.”
Majerus was always funny, in victory or defeat. When then-Kentucky coach Rick Pitino suggested before his team met Utah in the 1996 Sweet 16 that the Utes should be favored, Majerus shook his head. “If you put the two of us in a sumo ring I’d crush him,” he said. “On the basketball court, I think we’re in trouble.”
He was right. A year later, Utah lost to Kentucky and Pitino for a second straight season, this time in the Elite Eight. The following season, even with Pitino gone and Tubby Smith coaching, Utah again lost to Kentucky, this time in the championship game.
“When I die,” Majerus said after that game, “they might as well bury me at the finish line at Churchill Downs so they can run over me again.”
His players rarely saw that side of Majerus. They saw a coach who was a perfectionist, who was constantly tinkering and supremely demanding. One former Utah player accused him of verbal and emotional abuse, and there was never any doubting the fact that Majerus could — and would — jump on his players for mistakes as quickly and as harshly as anyone this side of Bob Knight.
He traveled constantly during the offseason, going to watch other coaches run practices, attending clinics, sitting around late at night with other coaches discussing game-strategy and how to get players to perform better.
“The thing about Rick was he never wanted to sleep,” said Bill Foster, Majerus’s close friend who also lost to Kentucky in the national title game (1978 at Duke). “He wanted to sit in a restaurant, order more food and talk basketball. He was never happier than when he was doing that.”
Some coaches bridled at Majerus’s popularity with reporters and wondered why the focus was always on his humor and not on his temper. The answer was simple: Majerus was funny and accessible and he won a lot of games — 521, to be exact. It was hard to argue with his results or his charm.
And yet there was always a sense that it was never easy for Majerus. He was married once and dated the same woman for the last 25 years of his life. He lived in a hotel room for a long time while coaching at Utah because it was easier and he didn’t have a family. And there was always the recurring issue with his heart.
It began to fail for the final time this past summer, and Saint Louis announced he was taking a leave of absence. In November, the school announced he wouldn’t return at all. By then he was in Los Angeles on a transplant list and had been in and out of an induced coma, which is why his death wasn’t a shock — except that it was a shock. Majerus always seemed like the sort of guy who would beat death and find a way to coach again.
On Saturday night, at the Children’s Charities Foundation banquet that preceded the BB&T Classic, George Washington Coach Mike Lonergan received a text midway through the evening. He looked at it and then, without a word, passed his phone to Maryland Coach Mark Turgeon, who looked at it and dropped his head before passing it back. The reaction of George Mason Coach Paul Hewitt and Manhattan Coach Steve Masiello was the same. All four men sat silently, clearly stunned by the four words in the text: “Rick Majerus has died.”
College basketball will be a much quieter place without Majerus. It will be a good deal less funny. And a lot less fun.
For more by John Feinstein, go to www.washingtonpost.com/feinstein.