by Tim Cannon, special to Salt City Hoops
The life lessons I remember the most from Coach Majerus were the ones he had the most difficulty following. During my one year as a walk-on in his program (1994-1995), I remember him having us sit in the first row of the Huntsman Center stands after one practice and talking to us about the importance of living a balanced life. That day, he told us not to drink soda (which from that day on I have barely touched), to eat healthy, and to find interests outside of basketball. The summer prior to that season, he had been an assistant coach for Dream Team II at the World Championships, and frequently rendered his opinion on the members of that team. He had a deep admiration for Joe Dumars, and spoke about him as a model for our lives on many occasions. Joe Dumars was a healthy eater, engaged in hobbies off of the basketball court (like tennis). It struck me at the time, that he was probably trying to motivate himself as much as us. After all, he struggled with weight, lived in a hotel, ate out every meal, and was consumed with basketball.
The narrative of his life, as far as public perception goes, seems to go like this: In the 90’s he was a lovable wizard of coaching, who charmed the media, routinely coached untalented players to Sweet 16s and beyond, and had a big heart. A decade later, more attention was given to the cantankerous and sometimes abusive coach who dropped scholarships of low performing players and tormented ones who did not live to their potential (the Lance Allred autobiography). My year with him left me the impression that all of the above were true except one (which I will get to later), but that he was a generous soul that left a positive mark on most people’s lives that crossed paths with his.
He recognized long before I did that I was not a very good player. He called me “Jersey” because I am from New Jersey, and rarely talked to me directly. When he needed me in a drill, he would yell to assistant coach Donny Daniels, “Donny, get me Jersey”…even if I was standing next to him. The handful of times I had private conversations with him away from the practice court, he always showed a keen interest in my well-being and my academic pursuits. He always remembered that I hoped to be a physician some day. I had seen all of his quips and jokes during interviews when I was high school and was surprised by how rarely he joked around the players. If I hadn’t been aware of his media persona, I would never have thought of him as remotely humorous (at least, not purposefully).
He had a great eye for talent (and unfortunately, lack of talent). I remember overhearing him tell assistant coaches how anxious he was for Andre Miller to become eligable, because he felt he was going to be a star. I had played pickup games with Andre throughout the preseason and was unimpressed. I really did not believe he was as good as Terry Preston, the starting point guard at the time. Of course, Andre Miller is now very wealthy and I was very wrong. When Garner Meads was a McDonald’s All-American finishing his senior season, my friend Tyler was sitting next to Rick Majerus on a plane. He told my friend that Garner Meads “is not a special player.” Once again, he proved prophetic.
He may have sold the story to the media, as most coaches do, that his teams were not that talented. I think that this is the biggest misperception of his coaching career. The 1997-1998 Utes were sold to the viewers of the NCAA tournament as a band of overachieving slow players that played basketball the right way. From my point of view, the Utes had a more talented roster than the Kentucky Wildcats (who they lost to in the NCAA finals). Four players on that team played in the NBA (Miller, Michael Doleac, Hanno Mottola, and Britton Johnson). Coach Majerus was an underrated recruiter. He was a great coach, but I certainly felt his coaching style had some flaws. The most serious being his micromanaging of offensive basketball. He would spend hours on seemingly insignificant details about attacking the zone, that would make his guards think so hard that they were rendered incapable of any instinctful basketball play (I watched the 2008 game where his Saint Louis team scored only 20 points). But when he had players that did not get bogged down in his details (like Miller), his teams could produce basketball in a way that was absolutely breathtaking. I will never forget watching them take apart Arizona to go to the final four in 1998. The cuts, the screens, the passing was as aesthetically pleasing as any basketball I have seen since. Of course, he was a great defensive coach as well.
He was a yeller, there was no doubt about it. Sometimes, he would get himself so worked up in practice, that he completely would get carried away in a non-sensical rant. The rants were full of obscenities and often quite funny (not purposefully). I tried to write some of these down but I don’t know where I put them. Keith Van Horn was the most common target that year. For me to assert that I know to what degree these were psychologically damaging, would not be fair, since he never really yelled at me (or any of the other walk-ons). Keith seemed to take it well. There are so many advantages to being a star Division 1 athlete that being berated during basketball practices does not seem to be one of the world’s great injustices.
He was a generous donor to causes such as the Huntsman Cancer Institute (which strikes a cord with me, now that I am an oncologist). He seemed incredibly loyal and generous to the players that stuck it out for four years, and was very invested in their success. He was a basketball genius, and a large figure in the college basketball world. He will be missed.