Utah coach Rick Majerus' introduction to the LDS missionary program came in 1989, shortly after he took the job as Ute coach. A tall but very skinny young man entered his office. As he gazed up at the young man, Majerus said to himself, "Please don't let this be Larry Cain."
He knew Cain was in the program and was returning to play for the Utes after something called a "mission." His worst fears weren't realized as Cain eventually became a starter and productive player for the Utes, one Majerus still speaks fondly of to this day.Since then, Majerus has had more than 20 players, including walk-ons, who have either served missions or left for missions. While it's sometimes been frustrating for him, Majerus has always been supportive of players serving missions during their Ute basketball careers. Five Ute players are currently serving missions.
"We are the cradle of the missionary movement in America," said Majerus. "We are like mission control. If prayer were counted, we'd win every game."
Reminded that BYU had as many as eight players out on missions as recently as last year, Majerus replied, "We're talking about players of great significance" and then pointed out that BYU's top LDS player of a year ago, Mekeli Wesley, didn't go on a mission.
Three key reserves from last year's Ute team -- Britton Johnsen, Trace Caton and Jon Carlisle -- are serving LDS missions right now, in Houston, Mexico and Ecuador, respectively. It's conceivable, make that probable, that two of the three would be starting for this year's Ute squad, which began the season ranked 14th in the nation before sliding to a 7-4 start.
Johnsen, who came on strong in last year's NCAA tourney, would certainly be a starter at one of the wing positions. Caton, who was voted the WAC 6th-man award by the league's media last year, could have started at a wing (moving Hanno Mottola to center) or reprised his role as 6th man. Carlisle would have supplanted current starter Nate Althoff in the center position having played ahead of Nate Althoff most of last season as the backup to Michael Doleac.
For Majerus, missions have become a double-edged sword. For years he has been trying to recruit the top local LDS kids to play at Utah, but once he's gotten them, it's been tough to see them leave on missions.
"It's always affected the program, but I have a little bit of frustration getting caught with all three going at once," he said.
Even though Caton and Carlisle hinted about missions during the season, Majerus wasn't expecting all three to leave, especially Johnsen.
"Now I've learned my lesson," says Majerus. "I try to get them pinned down early. I could never get that out of the guys last year."
For instance, Majerus already knows that freshman Brad Crockett will go on a mission after this season, while Ben Heusser, a Mormon from Idaho, is not planning to go. Two of next year's recruits, East's Lance Allred and Bear River's Chris Huber, have both told Majerus they are planning to go on missions.
Knowing this in advance will help Majerus and his assistants plan better for the future as they juggle 13 scholarships.
Besides the three missionaries who left this summer, the Utes have two other players on missions, Jeff Johnsen, who played in 1996-97, and Mike Puzey of Roy High, who redshirted that same year.
The missionary phenomenon in conjunction with Ute basketball is a recent one. A handful of players back in the days of Jack Gardner went on missions, such as DeLyle Condie ('59) and Lyndon MacKay ('68). No significant players went during the tenures of Bill Foster and Jerry Pimm in the 1970s and early '80s.
Jeff Judkins, a Ute star in the mid-'70s who is LDS, seriously considered going a mission but said the climate was a little different then when not many LDS players were leaving. Even the LDS stars from BYU such as Scott Runia, Jay Cheesman and Danny Ainge didn't go on missions in those days.
During the 1980s, more and more LDS players began to go on missions and by Lynn Archibald's final year at Utah in 1988-89, he had four returned missionaries on his team. Now LDS players leave for missions from programs all over the country from Stanford to Duke to Utah State.
So what changed?
"First of all, (LDS Church presidents) came out and said every young man should go on a mission," said Judkins. "Second, I think coaches understand it a lot better now and have seen a lot of players go on missions and be quite successful."
Majerus had a modest understanding of the missionary program when he first came to Utah, because his assistant at Ball State, Dick Hunsaker, is Mormon.
Mark Rydalch, who was recruited by Archibald, was the first Majerus-coached player to leave on a mission and turned out to be one of Majerus' all-time favorites at the U. But the Ute program went three years before finding another top LDS recruit in Alex Jensen, who went on a mission after his first year and opened the floodgates for several more LDS players to come to Utah.
Majerus said he's very supportive of missions, pointing out that he's gone to all of his players' "going-away parties" and has helped approximately 70 young people financially on missions.
"Coach Majerus has always been really good about it," said Judkins. "He's always been very positive whenever we go into a kid's home to recruit."
There's just one thing that bugs Majerus about players leaving.
"The only mystery to me is why everybody who never went says it's so great," he said. "There's a whole list of guys who've never gone on a mission, like Jeff Judkins, Steve Young, Danny Ainge, Danny Vranes and a lot of baseball players, and they're the ones telling my guys to go on a mission. Britton Johnsen's bishop never went on a mission. It's like me going up to people at a restaurant and saying, 'Be sure to eat fruit, don't use the mayonnaise and stay away from the meat.'
"I'm perplexed and disheartened by all the great advice given by people who've never gone on a mission,' he added. "Other than that, I'm all for it."
Majerus says Britton Johnsen is the only player he ever advised not to go on a mission, although he would have preferred Jensen to stay home or postpone his for a year or two.
"I told Britton it would be injurious to his pro career chances if he went," said Majerus. "He still may have a pro career, but it won't be as long or productive."
Despite his frustrations, Majerus remains supportive of the missionary program and he loves the work ethic and maturity his returned missionary players bring to the Ute program.
"When they go, I shake their hand and say, 'This is the most important thing for you to do now. Go and do your job and don't worry about basketball for two years.' "