SALT LAKE CITY — On any number of levels, I was saddened to learn of the death of Rick Majerus.
For one thing, the world needs all the geniuses it can get. For another, a man with a sense of humor is a beautiful thing.
Majerus was both of those, and, I know, a lot else. With his outsized personality and controlling nature, he had a love-hate relationship with many local sports reporters and a lot of people he worked with and for at the University of Utah, where he was employed as the head basketball coach for 15 unforgettable years.
I was lucky to write sports in the early years of that Ute run, and of all the coaches I covered in a quarter-century of sports writing, none mesmerized me more than Rick Majerus.
He was the most brilliant coach I ever saw. His 323-95 record at Utah is the highest winning percentage in 104 years of Ute basketball, but in my memory he never lost a game. He knew basketball like Einstein knew relativity. He could take five guys from the local church league and win in the NCAA, which is more or less what he did those first years at Utah. He was 30-4 his first full season and made it all the way to the Sweet Sixteen with hardly a pro scout interested. (The only time I thought he coached like a mere mortal was in the last eight minutes of the 1998 national championship game against Kentucky, when for some inexplicable reason the genius departed from his usual genius rotation).
He'd come to Utah in 1989 fresh off a failed short-lived marriage, which he didn't talk about much, and a 29-3 season at Ball State that ended in the NCAA round of 32, which got talked about a lot. I got to know him best after he had his septuple (that's seven) bypass heart surgery in December 1989. To that point, he'd coached the Utes a grand total of just six games (they were 4-2 when assistant coach Joe Cravens took over for the rest of the year).
After the heart surgery, his recurrent theme was how much more he appreciated life. We'd both just turned 40, so I suppose I related well to what he was saying and going through. We ended up talking quite a bit and when Majerus talked I was always a good listener. I enjoyed life more after our conversations. He was completely devoid of a filter. He never failed to make me smile. The same uncommon vision that allowed him to pick apart any game plan, and any player, also allowed him to look at life with a savant-like acuity. Invariably, it was punctuated with humor.
I asked him one time over a dinner about that failed marriage. Aw, he said, he couldn't blame her for leaving, he was a lousy husband. "She'd ask me what kind of couch I wanted, or what kind of towels," he said. "And I'd say, 'It doesn't matter; anything you pick out, I'll like.' But women don't like that. They want you to go pick it out with them."
Then he gave me a specific example of husband-failure. One Christmas he tried to get thoughtful and he placed an unopened package of elegant crystal glassware that had been sent to him from one of Ball State's wealthiest donors and biggest basketball boosters.
When his wife opened the package Christmas morning, all was going great until she got to the engraved part on the crystal that read: "Dear Rick, Thanks for all you do for the program."
At Utah, he lived in a hotel suite at the University Park (now Marriott) Hotel, where he was essentially married to basketball. He could even watch film in the bathroom.
"I've never owned golf clubs or a trailer hitch," he used to say.
He did, however, own a fondness for eating.
Majerus: "Some guys smoke. Some guys drink. Some guys chase women. I'm a big barbecue-sauce guy. I'm like that guy on the 'Odd Couple,' and it's not the neat guy. I go into my room and find pieces of pizza under the laundry."
The self-deprecation belied a tremendous awareness and drive. He used to swim an hour a day, and I remember the time he ran the San Antonio Marathon. He finished in just under six hours, a noteworthy accomplishment for someone his size, especially considering it had been just 23 months since his seven bypasses (as he said, "one for each major food group"). But he downplayed the effort and deflected all the credit to one of his players, Mark Rydalch of Kamas, who at the time was taking a leave of absence to serve an LDS mission in San Antonio.
Rydalch's assignment, Majerus explained, was to place dry clothes at various locations along the marathon route. "I sweat a lot," he said. "I told him if he wanted any mercy when he gets back, he better come through. I saw Rydalch at mile 13 and he had a new shirt and my number pinned on. I told him I was happier to see him than he'd have been if he'd seen Joseph Smith."
He had a way with people and a way with words. And so many stories. I remember him telling me about a trip he took to Africa one offseason with his pal Don Nelson to scout teams they would be playing in an international tournament. On a visit to a remote village, a hunting knife caught Majerus's eye. The native who owned it indicated he'd trade it for the University of Utah shirt Majerus was wearing.
"Grossed Nellie out all the way back to town, me with no shirt," said Majerus. "But I really wanted that knife."
That's the Rick Majerus I remember and miss. A fascinating man, an astute observer of life — and the most brilliant basketball coach I ever saw.
Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Monday and Friday. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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