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.