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Friday, December 7, 2012

Rick Majerus: Racing the Sunset

Rick Majerus rode into town five years ago as the new Head Men’s Basketball Coach of St. Louis University. The fifty nine year old hall of fame caliber coach arrived equipped with a game plan hell bent on staring dead in the eye the most ominous opponent found on anyone’s schedule: time. Majerus was here to race the sunset; a test we all must someday confront - and fail. He joined the ranks of the vanquished of this unwinnable race this past Saturday; dead of heart failure, but not before giving the inevitable one hell of a battle.

In 2007, after a five year self-imposed retirement, Majerus jumped back in the coaching hot seat. He arrived in St. Louis as a walking advertisement for a coronary. The obese coach had seven heart by-pass procedures – one for each of the major food groups, the self-deprecating Majerus liked to joke – before the age of fifty. He talked openly that the rebuilding of the once proud Billiken program would be the final stop on his coaching journey. He was given a five year contract.

I met Majerus in the fall of 1989, shortly before he took a year-long leave of absence from coaching for his first round of battling heart problems. We had breakfast at a McDonald’s in El Dorado, KS. He was in town to court two marquee talents, who due to academic deficiencies, had landed on the roster of the local team at Butler County Community College. As what I took as somewhat of an afterthought, the newly appointed head coach of the University of Utah Runnin’ Utes asked to visit with me about a 6’10 player I coached at the local high school. Majerus never made an offer to my kid. He needed immediate help, with the JUCO ranks the most expedient route, even if most of the star quality players found in the dusty small town outposts of JUCO ball often came with academic, social and sometimes even legal baggage. Once Majerus established himself at Utah, he swore off the Junior College quick fix. He never signed a JUCO player at SLU. Still, for a high school coach like me, it was a fun breakfast with a glib and colorful mentor. It was a momentary chance encounter I am sure he held no recollection of, but for me with a career spent coaching in small backwater towns, it was a highlight and sparked in me a personal interest to follow Majerus’ career.

In 1999, Majerus published an autobiography titled “My Life on a Napkin.” It is a quirky tale, much like the coach himself. In one chapter he talks about being a confirmed life-long bachelor, married only to basketball (ball as Majerus always called the sport); in the next chapter he mentions an “ex-wife.” It is classic Majerus, open the door slightly for a peek inside, but never allow for complete immersion. The truth, as he himself states in his book, is that Majerus knew many people, but had few close friends. For reasons he never explains, the enigmatic coach was very guarded of his private life away from the hardwood. It is how he died, shrouded in an almost Howard Hughes type cloak of secrecy and rumor. He last spoke with his players the previous March, in the locker room after a NCAA tournament third round loss to Michigan State. In September of this year it was announced that Majerus would be out for the year on sick leave. Two weeks before his passing, another statement came from the school’s athletic department informing that the coach was not coming back to lead the Billikens, ever. No one in the SLU administration had direct contact with him during his hospital stay. His inter-circle drew in the ranks tight and hunkered down with the coach in a undisclosed California hospital. No one in St. Louis appears to have been privy to what turned out to be Majerus’ death watch.

In 2007, in the days leading up to his surprising hire by SLU, the Jesuit school’s President, Father Larry Biondi, unexpectedly fired the schools’ at the time head coach, Brad Soderberg. The timing was off the wall, almost two months after the team had completed the year and well into the recruiting season. In fact, Soderberg and all of his assistants were out on the recruiting road when the word came down from the President’ Office that heads had rolled. The response within the city’s sports circles was one of shock. Soderberg was widely respected and most thought he had built a solid base for future success. At the time, I was coaching at another Catholic University in St. Louis and had a good network inside the SLU athletic department. The Athletic Director was left completely out of the loop on this monumentus decision involving the school’s flag ship program and shortly after, she left. So did a number of coaches in other sports within the department. But Biondi quickly regained the upper hand, dissipating the controversy, by hitting a two out ninth inning walk off home run with the hiring of Majerus.

Rick Majerus grew up in Milwaukee WI, the son of a labor union organizer. In his book, he details how at the age of seven years he would walk the picket line with his dad yelling “scab” to any strike breaker who crossed the line. Majerus never trusted authority and wore his defiance as a badge of honor. His support always lied with the populist. His new boss, Father Biondi, had for two decades run the mid-town SLU campus like his own personal fiefdom. Any subordinate bold enough to state that the Emperor wore no clothes, would not last long on the West Pine campus. Dissent was not tolerated in Biondi Land. It was just a matter of time before the two huge personalities would collide. With a five year multi-million dollar a year contract in hand, as Biondi would soon learn, Majerus held all the trump cards, and the coach knew it. In his years at SLU, Majerus was not shy about publically criticizing and ridiculing his boss and the administrative decrees he disagreed with. At times, he seemed to go out of his way to rile Biondi. The local media, who had reported for years, with little university reaction, on Biondi’s heavy handed rule, was delighted to give the coach a stump to speak from. My sources said relations were strained almost from the day the famous coach hit town, with Biondi wanting Majerus out as early as the second year. Considering the controversy of his hiring, and the huge guaranteed salary Majerus had demanded, all Biondi could do was seethe and wait. In an era where big name coaches are routinely given yearly roll over five to ten year contract extensions- to show potential recruits that the coach who they sign to play for has job security- there was never any serious negotiation to extend Majerus contract past the initial five years.

As the only hired hand to ever publically brace Biondi and live to tell about it, Rick Majerus is held today to an exalted status by many of the rank and file on the SLU campus. In simple terms, the sharped tongue, sarcastic and insolent Coach told the autocratic power wielding Priest what he had been telling his superiors for his entire career: “kiss my ass.” Majerus had five years to get the job done.

A native of Milwaukee, WI and a graduate of Marquette Prep School and Marquette University, Majerus never failed to praise the Jesuit education he received, often commenting on how his sense of social justice was forged by the liberal social policies of the Jesuits priests during the socially chaotic 1960s. Even though he was a self-confessed basketball junkie/gym rat, Majerus was never good enough to make his high school team. He satisfied his basketball addiction by competing in local CYC leagues and summer playground pickup games. As a college freshman, he beat the odds as a walk-on to become what he called the 15th man on a 15 man freshman team. The next fall, Marquette Coach Al McGuire told Majerus he was the worst player he had ever seen and cut him. But McGuire threw a lifeline- a bone to a starving dog –telling Majerus he should consider coaching and if would stay on as a “gofer”for the program, and if he graduated, McGuire would have a staff position for him. Three years later, McGuire kept his word.

Majerus cut his coaching teeth as the junior member of one of the games’ most colorful and successful coaching staffs. By the 1970s, McGuire had made Marquette a consistent winner. Using his hometown street connections in New York City to recruit some of the city’s more storied playground legends; McGuire put the Milwaukee school on the short list of top college programs. First Dean “the Dream” Meminger and then Butch Lee -hard nosed, take no prisoners point guards - extensions on the floor of the city toughness McGuire brought to the program, found their way from NYC to Milwaukee, leading the team’s charge to national recognition.

In the middle of the 1977 season, McGuire announced that at the end of the year he was stepping down from the head coaching position. His team caught fire in March, and despite a lowly resume that contained seven losses that almost keep the Warriors from even making what was then a 48 team bracket; McGuire and his gang of misfits set sail on a magical three week run the climaxed with the winning of the national championship. It was  one of the first years that, for TV exposure, the Final Four had gone to a Saturday/Monday format. McGuire was suddenly the darling of the sporting world, his scrappy underdogs having captured the imagination of a nation just beginning its love affair with March Madness. The timing for the switch to a prime time slot for the finals made the ratings soar and McGuire swaggered off into retirement as a coaching legend.

McGuire’s right hand man and longtime assistant was Hank Raymonds, a native of St. Louis and a former Billiken player. Raymonds had played on SLU’s 1948 NIT national championship team, the greatest season in school history. Most, including McGuire, gave Raymonds much of the credit for the success of Marquette under McGuire. When the flighty McGuire caught spring fever on a warm February afternoon he saw better suited for a ride on his motorcycle than a Warrior practice; Raymonds and Majerus conducted practice. Raymonds was a master of the X’s and O’s of the sport. Majerius’ coaching style was heavily influenced by both mentors. He took the flashy moxie and street smarts of the Machiavellian pragmatic McGuire, tempering the cockiness and self-assuredness with the task oriented work ethic of the steady Raymonds. It made for the perfect training ground for a young coach and Majerus’ pedigree over the years showed the influence of both McGuire and Raymonds.

After 12 years as an assistant to first McGuire and then Raymonds, at age 34, Majerus was promoted to the Warriors head coach position. Perhaps, with a less confrontational personality, he could have spent his entire career at Marquette; literally- in terms of his basketball life - from cradle to grave. But his “dream” job lasted only three years. By the late 1980s, the pipe line from the New York City playground to Milwaukee, WI had dried up. The explosion of cable TV in the earlier 1980s made the created for TV Big East Conference the power in college basketball. Georgetown, St. Johns, Seton Hall, Syracuse and Providence became the nation’s elite programs. There was no longer a reason for the east coast kids to leave home. The Warriors had fallen from the top echelon of college basketball; their coaching job no longer considered a top destination on the coaching ladder. Out of frustration, Majerus resigned.

In a path that would lead him to a year as an assistant in the NBA with the Milwaukee Bucks, two years at Ball State and a very successful decade long run with the Utah Utes, by the time he accepted the SLU job at age 59, Majerus knew the Gateway City would be the trail’s head at the end of his coaching sojourn. Time was now of the essence and Majerus hit the ground running.

Majerus’ tenure at SLU mirrored his coaching career, and in many ways, his life; tantalizingly successful but excruciatingly just short of expectations. He had SLU on the cusp of national top 20 status when health issues in the summer of 2012 drove Majerus into a California hospital. Majerus feel just short of the finish line of his vision for the restoration of the Billikens. It is poetic justice that his last team embodied all the Majerus held to heart on how the game of “ball” should be played. In 2012, undersized, under-talented and unheralded, the Bills battled to the school’s first NCAA tournament berth since 1998. It was a team that was forged to success on the first premise in the Majerus coaching creed; work always trumps talent. For their second round tournament game SLU drew the tremendously talented but under disciplined Memphis Tigers, the ideal foil and a perfect setup for a Majerus ambush. For two glorious hours on the national stage of the Big Dance, Majerus’ team played a near flawless game, totally dominating a befuddled opponent. It was a Rick Majerus coaching clinic. Two days later, SLU slugged it out with a Michigan State team many projected to have the talent to win the national title. It was a battered and bloodied Spartan team that took all of the 40 minutes allotted to them to finally swat aside the pesky Billikens. The national media sang in unison of the coaching genius of Rick Majerus.

Majerus was one of the worst losers I have ever seen. It ate at him to the core. But after the Michigan State loss he was serene. The national praise for the fundamental superiority of his team was heaped from all directions and he was clearly pleased. Majerus had once again cemented his place amongst the coaching elites. He appeared at the post-game press conference, for one of the few times in his life, to be content. His pride was evident and deep felt as he spoke not of himself, but of his players.

One local scribe wrote the next day, “Big Rick is back.” A team returning almost its entire roster for the 2013 season seemed ready for a run to the Final Four, an unthinkable dream when Majerus arrived five years prior. But I didn’t buy it. I could tell by his words at the press conference that Majerus was done and he knew it. The 2012 NCAA Tournament was the last lesson to be taught by the master teacher of the game of “ball” and class was now dismissed. The message I took from Majerus post game talk: “that is all I have to give. If you don’t get it now, you never will.” I told my son, “Majerus is done. I bet he is dead by this time next year.”

Rick Majerus was a complex man. Many in the media couldn’t stand him. He could be condescending at times, totally aloof at others. Majerus knew more about basketball than the combined knowledge of the entire St. Louis University community; and he didn’t hesitate to remind commoners of his superior comprehension of the intricacies of the game. During his five years in St. Louis he did nothing, and I mean nothing, to network or build rapport with area high school coaches. His final two St. Louis rosters contained not one local player, not even a walk-on. He showed little interest in civic development, made few public speeches and seldom lent his name for the good of local causes. He was here to coach basketball; period. In many ways, he stiffed the entire city.

Over the years Majerus went through many assistants and had a large number of players transfers. He was not an easy man to work for or to work with. Majerus could laugh at himself. He told some of the best “fat” jokes around, albeit many of them off color and not suitable for family settings. But deep down, he was an unfulfilled man. In a 2008 Sports Illustrated profile of Majerus, S.L. Price succinctly tagged best the charming, but boorish; the generous but mean-spirited; always enigmatic coach: "There goes the happy coach, back in his element. There goes the saddest man you ever saw."

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