Rick Majerus' March

At Utah, Majerus has carefully crafted a lifestyle that eliminates almost all things peripheral to coaching and winning basketball games

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 6 2015 11:18 p.m. MDT

It's March and this is madness. Rick Majerus, the driven coach, is driving south on I-215, making a fast break through the darkness and the traffic, taking turns on two wheels. He is supposed to begin signing his newly released book at the Barnes & Noble in Sandy tonight in, oh, let's see, about 15 minutes ago.
"Maybe no one will be there," he says hopefully. "I've got to get back and watch tapes."
He searches through a pile of papers on the dashboard of his Ford Explorer, occasionally jerking the car back into his own lane while also buttoning the cuffs of his shirt. "I have the address in here somewhere," he says. The Explorer is file cabinet on radials. There are stacks of files on the floor, stacks in the back seat, stacks on the dashboard.
"Is this it?" he says, handing his navigator a sheet of paper.
He wouldn't mind signing books tonight, but what was he thinking when he scheduled it for the first week of the NCAA Tournament? Where else would his Runnin' Utes be headed this time of year, the off-season? March is when Majerus is in his full glory. There are videotapes to watch and players to coach and coaches to call and teams to beat and phone calls to return and interviews to do.
"Look at this," he had said earlier as he headed out the door of his hotel, holding up a stack of papers. "These are the messages I got from two to five. It's crazy."
The book is titled "My Life on a Napkin," which would seem to refer to his twin passions of eating and basketball (he has a habit of diagramming plays in restaurants). This is his second signing of the day. In the morning, he signed at a campus bookstore. "Five hundred people," he says, amazed. "We had to turn them away."
"I did the book for family and friends," he says. "The money goes to breast cancer. My mother had breast cancer."
Pulling off the freeway, Majerus winds his way through more traffic and makes a quick tour of the store's parking lot before settling on a spot. "I was hoping to find a police stall," he says. "I've got a police badge." He pulls out a leather case from somewhere, flipping it open to reveal a shiny silver-colored badge — a gift for the charity work he has done in cooperation with law enforcement.
With some effort, Majerus pulls his massive frame from the car and lumbers across the parking lot, a hulking man in a blue Oxford shirt, jeans, loafers and no socks, with two days of graying stubble. Even if he weren't overweight — 300-plus pounds — he would be a large man. His forearms look like hams. As he nears the store entrance, relief washes over the faces of the employees, who are posted at the entrance, waiting anxiously.
He enters the building and makes his way past a long line of people snaking through the aisles. Some of them have been waiting 90 minutes. Some of them were turned away at this morning's signing. Majerus is a half-hour late. This could be ugly. When the people spot Majerus they . . . clap.
"Sorry, I'm late. I had practice," he explains.
Majerus sits at a table and gets down to business. He signs books, shakes hands and hugs and mugs with well-wishers. He poses for pictures, draping a big arm over their shoulders, and smiles. He signs books until his hand aches and he has worn out four markers. The people bring two, three, even four books at a time, at $23 a pop. A woman gushes, "You sure bring a lot of pleasure to our family, coach." There are grown men bearing basketballs and books. There are little boys and girls with shirts to sign. There are women bringing cookies.
"We're sure glad to have you here," a man tells him. "This is like waiting to meet Santa Clause," says another. A cell phone rings and a woman in line digs in her purse. "I'm next!" she tells the caller, thrilled.
"Sign it 'To Mike,' please," a woman says. "I thought this would be the best 27th anniversary present I could give him."
Some fans tell him what to write; some bring written notes for him to copy in the book. A tall young man asks the coach. "Will you write, 'Sorry I had to cut you?' " Another young man requests, "Put, 'Keep the dolls coming.' " Majerus obliges without a flinch. He writes the request. But he will he pass up this opening? "I don't even want to know what that means," he says finally.
"I had a woman ask me to sign her bra strap this morning," he says. "She said, 'Come over here, where no one can see us.' I said, 'I'd rather someone see us.' "
After getting Majerus' signature, a man starts to walk away and then turns back. "I love you, Coach."
"Oh, well, thanks," Majerus replies, momentarily nonplused. "I gotta find a girl who will tell me that."
The people keep coming. "This is a slice of Americana, isn't it?" the coach says in an aside to an acquaintance.
Majerus looks up. "How many more are there?" he asks a store employee. "I gotta get out of here and look at film or I'm gonna lose."
About 80, she says. "Is there a pizza place nearby?" he asks, handing her a $100 bill. "Buy enough for the employees who had to wait for me. It would be my pleasure."
Finally, after two hours, Majerus reaches the end of the line. "They're just so passionate about it," he says later, walking through the parking lot. He is about to climb into his car when a man pulls up in a sedan and asks him to sign his book.
"It's amazing what it means to people," says Majerus after the man has left. He starts the car and pulls onto the road, jerking a thumb toward the back seat. "I got two blankets back there a woman made for me. She said it took her a year to make them. And somebody gave me that fruit basket on the seat. A lady made cookies for me and the staff. Three hundred of them. She wrapped each one individually and tied a ribbon around them. They had frosting and those little sprinkles."
Majerus marvels at this. He is literally a big man about town, and all because he can coach a basketball team better than any man alive. It's already been 10 years since he arrived in Utah with the subtlety of a freight train. He was loud, opinionated, outrageously profane and outspoken. His outbursts and confrontations in practice have become legendary. So has his success. He has built the nation's eighth winningest team in the '90s.
But he never meant to stay this long. "I was always on my way to California, and I got stopped here," he says, as he streaks along I-215 again.
Despite the annual courting of other schools, he shows no sign of leaving. He says he is 95 percent committed to staying at Utah. And, why wouldn't he? He has fixed the place up just the way he likes it, and he has a storehouse of recruits. Britton Johnsen — the next Keith Van Horn — will return from an LDS church mission in a little over a year for his sophomore season. A prep guard from Minnesota is on the way who, in Majerus' words, "isn't just good, he's special." Majerus has built a following and a national reputation as a coach and funny man.
He has created a lifestyle that eliminates almost everything peripheral to coaching basketball. He is single. He lives in a hotel and eats at restaurants so he never has to clean up after himself or cook. Everyone associated with him bends to his schedule and needs.
"I've got great friends," he says, realizing his good fortune. "I've got an internist and a cardiologist who will meet me at 8 a.m. I called Jon (industrialist and Ute booster Jon Huntsman) and said, 'The team needs the plane — we were caught without reservations. Who . . . the hell thought we were going to New Orleans?' He said fine."
Everything is taken care of for Majerus, so he can focus on coaching and winning. Nobody does it better, but then nobody devotes so much of himself to it either, to the exclusion of everything else. This season might have been his best coaching job. He graduated two starters from last year's Final Four team and their replacements went on missions. "I was just trying to survive this season," he says. Instead, the Utes are 27-4. After a 5-4 start, they have won 22 straight games and are ranked sixth in the final regular-season national polls — with one senior.
And here he is again — in the NCAA tournament — where he has gone deeper and deeper for four straight years, from the second round, to the Sweet 16, to the Elite Eight to the Final Two.
This should be the pinnacle of a coaches career, but if Majerus had his way he'd be back in the gym. "I like practice," he says. "I live for practice. If you ask me what I enjoy most, it's practice. And I like preparation."
Majerus is a master of preparation. He watches videotape until 3 a.m. His room is equipped with three TVs and three VCRs, sometimes all operating at once. He keeps meticulous notes. He keeps his staff up all night sometimes poring over details, filling up four greaseboards and a blackboard with scouting information. He calls coaching pals around the country for advice on strategy and scouting tips.
He likes to spend an hour each day just thinking about his team — new plays, what each player needs to do to improve, planning practice. He tells recruits that if he isn't the most organized, enthusiastic, energetic coach in practice they've ever had, he'll quit. He coaches them on every nuance of the game. He might fly into a rage if, say, a player sets a screen with his left foot three inches too far to the right.
"I overkill preparation," he says. "I overkill everything."
Majerus' single-mindedness has come at a price. It cost him a marriage at the very least. He knows his faults, his obsessiveness. The other day he was disturbed to hear Alex Jensen, a star player and personal favorite, tell a reporter that there was nothing in life that he is passionate about except basketball. "I'm going to talk to him about that," says Majerus. "I don't want Al to be like me, where it's tunnel vision. You know, I don't remember anything other than basketball. I asked my doctor, Is it Alzheimer's? He said, 'No, it's just not important to you.' It's not good to be this way. This driven."
Majerus, his face lit by the glow of the speedometer, is worried about being late. His girlfriend was expecting his arrival a while ago. "It's a hard life to understand," he says. "She won't understand why I'm late. She doesn't know what I've been through tonight. Just like Mom doesn't in the off-season."
The subject of his first marriage is raised. "She was a good woman. But she said she didn't marry a coaching staff or a team. A lot of women would go for that, but I gravitate to the ones who don't."
After a moment of silence, he continues. "My only regret in life is that I didn't have children I would have kidnapped 10 of those kids back there (at the book signing). Four years ago I looked into adopting a child. I really related to him. But the judge asked me, 'Who will take care of him when you're on road trips?' I said, 'He can travel with me.' But the judge said he's got to go to school. He needs a mom and a dad. I tried to follow him into a foster home, but eventually we lost track of each other."
At age 51, Majerus seems to have accepted his fate as a bachelor, in part because, when he's not too preoccupied with coaching, he's too busy enjoying the Ultimate Guy's Life. You know the life you dreamed about as a college kid? Majerus is living it. "There are just so many opportunities," he says, staring at the road. "I'm like a kid in a candy store."
He coaches at Michael Jordan's Fantasy Camp. He spends a week each year with his buddies playing cards and golf at a lakeside cabin in Wisconsin. He goes on safari in Africa. He snorkels and body surfs in Hawaii. He plans to see the All-Blacks ruby team play in New Zealand. He will throw out the first ball at a Cubs game this spring and sing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" as soon as he can find an open date. He plans to attend the Kentucky Derby, charity golf events on both coasts and a Jim Fassel roast in New York. He will go to California and run on the beach and get in shape again. He will coach a college all-star team.
"There are so many things I want to do," he says. "I flew 121,000 miles last year. Letterman wants me. I canceled. I don't have time. All I have to do is pick a date."
He turns off the freeway and onto city streets. "Are you hungry?" Majerus asks his passenger. "I didn't eat all day. I'm starved." He pulls into the Hires drive-in in downtown Salt Lake City and rolls down the window as the waitress approaches. "Give me a bowl of chili, and I'm going to order some other stuff, but bring me the chili right away while I'm waiting for these other things," he says. After looking over the menu, he says, "Bring me a root beer and the Big H with onions. And put ketchup on it. Give me two of those. He turns to his passenger, "You sure you don't want something?"
Majerus spoons the chili into his mouth. "Wait till tomorrow," he says. "It's really going to get crazy."
There are media requests to fulfill as the NCAA tournament nears. He could spend every day doing nothing but interviews. And there are always people wanting him for speaking engagements. "It's been this way for a long time," he says. "I charge so much so they won't ask. I just can't do them all. I do as many as I can."
Majerus, brilliant and intense, can speak on any subject. Earlier in the evening, as he showed his guest around his cluttered two-room hotel suite, he conversed about the books while thumbing through them on his shelves. A single question on his pre-game show can elicit a wandering 15-minute discourse on everything from academics, his family, sunsets, politics, childhood, labor unions, or racism, and he never takes a breath.
"Can I get another bowl of chili?" he asks the waitress. "I didn't know they were so small." He turns to his guest, "I love root beer. Sure you don't want one?"
In answer to the obvious question: "My health is good," he reports. "My weight is up, but I exercise every day. I get checked twice a year."
Just don't ask him to look at himself. Huntsman commissioned a painting of last year's Final Four team, which will eventually hang in the Huntsman Center. "He showed it to me the other day and apologized, because I didn't look too good in it," says Majerus. "I said, 'Jon, I didn't come in here thinking I'd look like Robert Redford. I'm fat and bald.' I don't like seeing myself in pictures or on TV. I'm always thinking, Is that me out there. Do I look that bad?"
He guzzles the last of the root beer, starts the car and steers back toward campus. He has another long night ahead of him. He will take food to his girlfriend's, relax, then retire to his hotel to analyze video tape.
To know Majerus's hotel room is to know Majerus. They are actually two adjoining rooms, littered with files crammed with basketball minutiae. They completely cover the coffee table and the dining table and the bed, and there are more on the floor. "The ones on the bed are a priority," he says. Everywhere you look, there are videotapes, newspapers and Reebok gear — piles of it, sweatshirts, T-shirts and shoes. Bunches of freshly laundered shirts hanging from chairs and doorways. There's a Stairstepper and an $11,000 treadmill next to a window that commands a panoramic view of the valley.
This is Majerus' laboratory, the place were basketball's mad scientist creates his brilliant game plans. One day he hopes it will bring him the national championship that barely eluded him last March. That loss to Kentucky continues to haunt him, of course. He came within five minutes of winning it all. He had it in his hands, until Utes' lack of depth caught up with them and the their legs went wobbly.
"I've relived it night after night," says Majerus. "I can tell you everything that went wrong. We were so close. If we were to win the championship this year, I'd still remember the Kentucky game until I draw my last breath.
"But I never thought we'd get to the Final Four last year. I thought we had our best chance when Van Horn was a senior two years ago. Al (Jensen) was on a mission. I was going to go to London and try to bring him back. I told my friends this. They said, 'You don't understand. You can't do that.' Al had been out about 14 months. That could've been the special team."
But one suspects that deep down, the hunt for the special team is what really drives Majerus — going back to the gym, back to the practices he loves and creating another one.

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