ST. LOUIS St. Louis University basketball coach Rick Majerus was working with junior guard Kevin Lisch in West Pine Gym recently. The balls they were using were new and slick, and one slipped out of Lisch's hand as he went for a layup, bounced off the bottom of the backboard and hit his new coach in the face.
"I was bleeding like of a son of a gun," Majerus said. But the nosebleed didn't stop him.
"He just kept coaching," Lisch said. "In between, he'd wipe the blood off and coach some more. He was bleeding all over the place, on his shirt. Finally, someone made him leave the court to lay down."
"I wasn't going to stop," Majerus said. "They told me I had to stop or go to the hospital. I was aware of it, but I like practice. I needed that time with him."
Majerus' first practice began the first moment NCAA rules allowed for men's basketball teams to practice. He was seldom in St. Louis over the summer as he crisscrossed the nation, recruiting, evaluating, giving clinics he had already committed to before taking the SLU job and squeezing in a little off time. But now the basketball season has begun.
"People say how he enjoys practices more than games," said Alex Jensen, who played under Majerus at Utah and is on his staff here as graduate student manager. "It's genuinely true."
It's the dawn of a new day for the SLU program. After the Billikens went 20-13 last season, the team's first 20-victory season since 1998, SLU President Rev. Lawrence Biondi fired coach Brad Soderberg over the objections of athletics director Cheryl Levick with two years remaining on his contract. With the team moving into its new home, Chaifetz Arena, next season, Biondi wanted to give SLU a boost to ensure filling the new building. Biondi lured the 59-year-old Majerus back to the bench, three years after he left Utah.
Majerus has a profile unlike any coach SLU has had. The Billikens have seldom been a factor come NCAA Tournament time they have made six appearances in school history, the most recent in 2000. Majerus has taken teams to the NCAAs 11 times and never had a losing season. Without even playing a game, his hire brought SLU national attention.
To take the job, Majerus insisted on off-court changes. The basketball program now has a dedicated academic adviser and strength coach, improved video facilities and a bigger staff. His assistant coaches, two of whom are former Division I head coaches, are better paid than their predecessors. Practices in West Pine Gym will be closed to the public and media, and Majerus has been covering the glass walls and doors in the gym with paper to ensure privacy.
Now, the hands-on work begins. SLU's practices will be vastly different from what the players are used to. Based on the individual drills the players have had with Majerus in the weeks preceding full practice, the intensity has been dialed up.
"Every session we've had has been intense," junior guard Tommie Liddell said. "He just knows the game so well. We step on the court and jump right into it."
"It's very demanding, physically as well as mentally," Lisch said. "It's been the hardest I've had."
For Majerus, the court is his classroom. On the day he got hired, he gave his players notebooks. After practices and individual workout sessions, they have written down the things he has taught them "pages and pages of notes," Lisch said telling them how to run inbound plays, how to break a press, offensive and defensive philosophies. The players go over their notes at home, on campus, whenever they can, to be sure they have everything right for the next practice.
On the court, Majerus expects them to do everything his way.
"It's perfection," Jensen said of Majerus' style. "Like coming off a screen. One foot over here is wrong compared to one foot over here. He'll show you why. Sitting down and not (setting a pick) with your arms but hitting with your chest. Little details like that."
Majerus said, "What sense is there in doing it if you don't do it right? I try to stretch them to where they want to grow. And once you know it, I want them to do it at high speed, at tempo. I want them to do it passionately. ... I'm trying to get them to create a culture of wanting to get better every day."
That desire for perfection extends to more than just drills. When running sprints from baseline to baseline, it's not uncommon for players on any team to stop a few feet before the line and reverse direction.
"That won't happen," Jensen said. "He disciplines you, but it's moreso him teaching you to discipline yourself, which you don't realize is happening necessarily. ... Say he's talking to the team on the bench and he calls a guy and tells him, 'Go out there, I want to teach you something.' At Utah, you sprinted out there. Details like that. Effort details. Coach says he doesn't want to coach effort. He wants to coach you, he doesn't want to motivate you."
There is much to do on the court. Transitions are never easy, and Majerus has less than a month to get his team ready for its first game, Nov. 9 against North Carolina A&T. He has studied the tapes of last season and knows them well enough that he has at times stopped workout sessions and referred back to things SLU did wrong in those games.
"I understand all the consequences," Majerus said. "I've done this before, but this time, I have less time. But I'm not as concerned. If someone told me we had to win this year, that for the St. Louis University athletic department everything depended on it, I'd do things dramatically differently. We're setting the tenor and tone for success in the future."