If the accolades from Rick Majerus' past and present are even half true, the mystery isn't why the Utah Utes have won 20 games, but rather why they have lost one.
The picture painted in Salt Lake City and Muncie, Ind., of this rotund, personable coach leads you to believe there is a big red S painted on his chest and a halo floating above his balding head.The composite description is intimidating, inviting, impossible. No wonder Majerus, 42, is so large. He has to be to house all these character traits.
Friends paint him as a 270-pound combination of Bobby Knight, Dean Smith, Vince Lombardi and Andrew Dice Clay. He is a humanitarian, a disciplinarian, a coaching genius and one of the worst drivers ever to operate an automobile. Majerus is hard and barks tough. He is sensitive and talks soft.
Mostly, he wins basketball games.
"In Muncie, he was king," said Morry Mannies, play-by-play announcer for Ball State University where Majerus coached before jumping to Utah.
"They still love him here."
Basketball coaches often are kings, but often only for a day. Majerus has a streak going, but he certainly isn't comfortable. He knows basketball is a game of shifts and he is convinced the Utes, 9-0 in the Western Athletic Conference, are not that talented.
If Majerus is as good as people say, the WAC might have more to worry about than just these Utes. What happens if Majerus gets some talent? What happens when Majerus has more time to weave his magic?
"From a coaching perspective, he's a genius," said Joe Hernandez, Ball State sports information director. "His approach to a game is phenomenal."
Dick Hunsacker, a former Majerus assistant who replaced him at Ball State, agrees.
"If Rick were to be in one of the so-called major conferences in America, he would be one of the five coaching powers in the game. He has Lombardi traits. He would be recognized along with Bobby Knight or Dean Smith. He's that good.
"If you were going to start off a program in Tucumcari, New Mexico and had to chose between Lute Olsen, the knight in shining armor, or Rick Majerus, the guy with a work pail, you might want to go with Rick."
Majerus says such compliments are suspect.
"Sure, they love me in Muncie. But what do they know? In Muncie, they probably don't even know a war has broken out."
Majerus also took issue with his reputation as a motorist.
"I'm not such a terrible driver."
Yes he is, says Ron Lemasters, sports editor of The Muncie Star.
"He's one of the worst drivers I've ever seen. He goes 80, 85 mph. Drives with one hand. Tailgates. He never looks at the road. Always talking. His traffic tickets are legendary in Muncie. But I never rode with him. I made sure I never rode with him."
Before Ball State, Majerus coached three years (56-35) at Marquette and a year as an assistant with the Milwaukee Bucks. His best Ball State team went 29-3 in 1988-89. The previous season, 14-14, Majerus' first at Ball State, may have been a greater accomplishment.
"Those were great guys, but a lousy team," recalls Majerus. "The high school coaches around there would come in and say they could beat us. They probably could."
Said Hernandez: "We shouldn't have won four games that year. We were bad."
Adds Mannies: "I thought he might winfive. He wins 14 and becomes King."
"I was king of the late-night pizzas," says Majerus.
There is a dash of court jester in the coach - a quick wit, a quicker tongue. They get Majerus into occasional hot water. At Utah, he had to apologize for a remark questioning the sexual preferences of women athletes. At Ball State, the college paper blasted him for racial remarks.
"He said something about him having a player who couldn't outjump any white players, let alone any black players," said Lemasters. "He gets into trouble like that, but there is nothing racist about Rick. He's just down-to-earth honest."
Adds Mannies: "One time he said something about a player having white-man's disease. I would tell him he can't say things like that on the radio. He would say, 'Heck, that's the way I talk.'
"You never know what he will say because he says what he thinks. Most people don't do that."
Majerus' thunder is legendary on the practice court.
"He absolutely reams these guys," said Dick Rosetta, Salt Lake Tribune sports editor. "He gets right in their face and reduces them to nothing . . . but these guys know he is doing it to make them better. They love him."
Maybe they love him because Majerus is an equal-opportunity blaster. All game is fair game. In fact, Majerus' No. 1 target is Majerus. When he lost 50 pounds, he said it was akin to somebody tossing a deck chair off the Queen Mary. He says when people approach him for an autograph it's because they mistake him for Curly Joe of Three Stooges fame or Uncle Fester on the Addams Family. He says he doesn't sun bathe at the ocean because people try to push him back into the water.
Majerus looks bad in a bathing suit, but on the basketball court, Utah fans think he looks great.
(Richard Stevens is a sportswriter for The Albuquerque Tribune.)