Stressing academics and team play, Rick Majerus made his first appearance as the new University of Utah basketball coach at a Tuesday morning press conference at the Huntsman Center.
The news that Majerus would be the 12th head coach at Utah was no surprise when the ex-Ball State coach was introduced to a gathering of local media and Ute officials and boosters.The official announcement came three weeks and a day after Lynn Archibald was let go after six years at the Ute helm, and a day after Ball State officials announced Majerus was leaving for Utah.
The 41-year-old Majerus had been interviewed in Salt Lake a week ago as one of four candidates for the job and met with Utah Athletic Director Chris Hill again in Seattle over the weekend, where both were attending the Final Four. Majerus came straight to Utah from Seattle Monday evening and never made it back to meet with his players, as was earlier reported.
"This is a big day for me, a big day for Utah basketball and a big day for the university and I've brought a big man here to do the job for us," said Hill in introducing the 280-pound Majerus. "We were looking for a person who could bring a lot of things together, who could take young men and develop them in every way possible on and off the court - and Rick can do that. As a coach we couldn't get any better."
Majerus comes to Utah with very high credentials. He was an assistant under Al McGuire at Marquette and an assistant under Don Nelson with the Milwaukee Bucks. As a head coach, he has a 99-52 record in five years (three at Marquette, two at Ball State) and this year he led Ball State to the best record in Division I basketball (29-3).
Majerus said he believes in the team concept and pointed out that the leading scorer on his team averaged just 13 points a game this year.
"I'm a big believer in team - there's no `I' in team," he said. "At Ball State we put our hands in the huddle and said `team together.' There's no selfishness by anyone."
Majerus appears to be everything the university was looking for in a coach. He has a proven record on the floor and he's known to stress academics with his players.
"I want my kinds to play real hard and be competitive, but first and foremost I want the kids to graduate and understand the value of academics," he said.
And he also has a reputation as a popular coach with his players, the media and the fans because of his outgoing personality and sense of humor. The latter, combined with his 280-pound frame, have led some people to compare him favorably with ex-Jazz Coach Frank Layden and he displayed that in the press conference drawing laughter from the local media and Ute boosters several times.
"I can go through life and make fun of myself," he said. "I can look at myself and laugh at it."
Majerus discussed the style of play his teams employ, saying that defense, rebounding and ballhandling were key factors.
"First and foremost you win games with good defense," he said. "We try to have two main goals. The first goal is to value the ball. We try not to turn the ball over. And the second is you have to defend the paint. We also like to emphasize good shot selection. We'll push the ball up and certainly look to run, but we're not going to be Loyola-Marymount. My heart couldn't stand that."
Majerus is leaving a solid nucleus from his Ball State team that posted school and Mid-American Conference records for victories. Five juniors started nearly the entire season, and the only senior on the team was seldom used. Twelve of the team's 13 players return for next year.
The Ball State players were informed of Majerus' move by Ball State Assistant Dick Hunsaker, the former Weber State assistant, who may be in line for the head job now.
"I don't think there's any bitterness," said junior forward Paris McCurdy told a Fort Wayne reporter. "I think we all realized this could happen after the kind of year we had. If he's happy, then I'm happy for him."
"We wanted him to stay," said Ball State President John E. Worthen, who met with Majerus Sunday. "We made a strong counteroffer, and we are disappointed he is leaving. But we will continue to compete successfully at the national level.
"He made his decision based on what he thought was best for him," Worthen continued. "We always have been interested in seeing our students, faculty, staff and alumni succeed and hope he succeeds as well."
Reaction from one of Utah's top returning players was in the wait-and-see category.
"I don't know a whole lot about him, but I've heard good things," said Tommy Connor, who sat out this past season after starting at point guard the previous year. "It's going to be a little bit different, but I'll try to be positive. I'm glad they've finally named a coach. The biggest problem was waiting and wondering who it was going to be."
Majerus was planning to meet with Utah players Tuesday afternoon and then head on a three-day recruiting trip with Ute assistant Larry Eustachy, presumably to visit junior players such as Shawn Bradley of Emery and Ryan Cuff of Richfield. Majerus also said he won't be around town too much during the coming month since he has take care of some business back in Indiana. He said he won't choose his assistant coaches immediately.
Besides Connor, other top Ute players back for next year include forwards Josh Grant and Keith Chapman, center Walter Watts, and guards Mark Lenoir, Jon Hansen, Bill Perkins and Van Gray. All started at least two games this past season.