Saturday, Dec. 3, 2012 was a somber day for Utes fans. Coach Rick Majerus, who was with the University of Utah's men's basketball team from 1989 to 2004 and brought the team to the NCAA title game in 1998, passed away. About 23 years earlier, he survived a septuple-bypass open-heart surgery. Over the weekend, his heart finally gave out.
This Wednesday, the Utes will have a moment of silence at the Huntsman Center, followed by a video paying tribute to the coach, before the game with Boise State. Plans are being made to formally retire Majerus' white sweater later this season. And to keep his memory alive all season, players will wear a black patch on their uniforms.
"He was a brilliant coach and strategist," says Salt Lake magazine publisher John Shuff. "Basketball was his life." Taking a look back at Majerus' career, here is the interview Shuff had with the coach for our Fall 1991 issue.
Photo by Tom Anastasion
To capture his essence, measure him not by the size of his girth but by the depth of his psyche and the size of his heart.
An Interview with Rick Majerus
By John Shuff
In 1989 Rick Majerus answered two emergency calls. One came in April from University of Utah Athletic Director Chris Hill who sorely needed a basketball coach to resuscitate the school's mediocre basketball program. The other came in December when Majerus experienced shortness of breath and checked into the University of Utah hospital where he successfully underwent septuple bypass surgery. Answering his own 911 emergency call saved the rotund, 300-pound Majerus's life. It also derailed his coaching for the 1989-90 collegiate season.
Returning for the 1990-91 season, the trimmed down (at this writing he weights in at 240 pounds and plans to run in the New York Marathon in 1992) forty-three-year-old Majerus led his Runnin' Utes to a 20-4 season and a WAC championship. This surprising team of no-names with no bona fide stars reached the sweet sixteen in the NCAA playoffs, finally succumbing to the shark bite of the Runnin' Rebels of UNLV. At season's end, the Utes were ranked tenth in the final season's poll by UPI. For his work, Majerus was named College Coach of the Year by UPI, WAC, Basketball Times, and Playboy―a remarkable accomplishment by an incredible man who has mastered the art of energizing young men by conveying the true meaning of teamwork.
Coach Majerus makes his players believe that each can make a contribution, a difference. He knows that each of his players is unique and can bring something to the party. His players believe in him but most of all in themselves. His former boss at Marquette, Al McGuire says, “He's a great communicator. Nobody in coaching cares more about his kids than Rick does.” Although he has a master's degree in counseling, Rick Majerus is legitimately a Ph.D. In team chemistry. Just ask the players he coached at Marquette, BallState, and at Utah. They would run through a wall for their coach, and conversely, he would do the same for them.
Majerus, like other adventure seekers, answered the call to “go west,” leaving Ball State University in tiny Muncie, Indiana, for Salt Lake City. Before that he coached professionally under the Milwaukee Bucks' Don Nelson (now coach at Golden State) and Del Harris, presently the Bucks' head coach.
Majerus began his coaching career as the assistant coach at Marquette under the legendary and temperamental McGuire. Ironically, years earlier as a student walk-on at Marquette, he was cut by McGuire from the team. After McGuire left he worked at Marquette under Hank Raymonds and was then made head coach. It was there, at that small Jesuit school in Milwaukee, that he tasted the fruits associated with winning the NCAA Division I Championship when the Warriors captures this coveted title in 1977.
Majerus was a dutiful student who learned from men who were all fine strategists. Now, he is the consummate teacher. Paying his dues under them has produced a master at inculcating patience in his players. He asks them to think defense, to rehearse, rehearse, and rehearse the motion offense that exploits mis-matches and uses the back door and pick-and-roll to perfection. Majerus is obsessed with team preparation. He demands that the young men who put on the red and white Utah uniform play intelligently and resourcefully. As he quietly says, “Basketball is an affair of both the head and the heart.”
There is a toughness and discipline to Rick Majerus that mirrors that of his dad, a staunch unionist in Milwaukee, and prior to his death the number two man in the UAW (United Auto Workers). Outspokenness, discipline, and willingness to march to a different drum characterized his dad who once dragged his twelve-year-old son to open housing marches through Milwaukee's South Side.
Majerus is no fashion plate, owning just one suit, a few ties, and a host of far-out sweaters. Hes lifestyle is simple. He's single and pretty much of a loner who lives in a room at the University Park Hotel. Hes staple prior to surgery was pizza, which made his physicians crazy. His fascination with death dates back to the death of his goddaughter who was killed by lightening. A voracious reader, he has devoured everything on the subject by noted psychiatrist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross. Rick Majerus is a true eccentric with his eclectic approach to life.
In the winning tradition of Utah's 1944 NCAA championship team led by Arnie Ferrin and the likes of players like Bill (The Hill) McGill, Tom Chambers, Mike Newlin, and Danny Vranes, this fireplug of a man has molded a family in a land where family is paramount and has produced a basketball team that has slam-dunked the Western Athletic Conference.
When Rick Majerus was announced as the head coach at the U, I told a Park City friend, Rob Morris, that the basketball program at the university would reach new heights. His dad, if he were here today, would be delighted with what this street kid from Milwaukee has done with his life. More importantly, he would be proud of the example and standards Rick has set for those that have been exposed to him. I'm confident that Ray Majerus knows all about his son's success. That's a pleasant thought.
MAJERUS ON UTAH
Salt Lake City magazine: Why did you come to the U of U?
Rick Majerus: That's a good question. My mom said it was a mid-life crisis. If I hadn't come I'd be dead. I met Kent Jones here, head of our booster club, a good friend, and a heart surgeon, who insisted I have open heart surgery. If I had remained at Ball State I would have waited till after the season and that would have proved fatal because I was in bad shape. Maybe there is divine providence. I'm an agnostic at best, but this decision saved my life. I always liked the beauty of Utah and wanted to see the West. I felt it'd be a positive experience. I liked the AD (Athletic director), Chris Hill, and I loved the president, Chase Peterson. There is also a wonderful faculty at the university.
Had you been recruited by any other schools?
Yes. The year I cam to Utah we had that big year at Ball State. We were 29 and 3 and ranked in the top ten in the country. I had a lot of choices. The Utah offer was actually the least lucrative of all the offers.
I got a lot of offers after this last season, too. I talked to Del Harris, because I was awfully confused. Some of the money made my head spin. He said, “I could see if you were after money or if you're telling me your goal was to have a home on both coasts and want to wear Armani suits, then you should consider them. But you don't give a damn about money, so what's the difference. You don't need money. You don't have a wife and kids. I've never seen anybody live on less.” So I scrapped these offers and decided that Salt lake City and the U were for me.
Is Utah your last stop?
I don't know. I've always had a winning program and a good system. I averaged 19 wins a year at Marquette and 22 wins a year at Ball State. I told Chase Peterson that I'd like to stay here for seven or eight season till I was fifty. After that, I'd like to coach a small college in the Midwest.
Was the Utah basketball program in bad shape when you came?
I knew the job would be difficult, but I quickly realized how hard it was. The program was weak relative to academics, community support, community relations, and the Jazz. The second factor was that I didn't realize how difficult it is to get an LDS player. It's damn near impossible to get them away from BYU. It's also very difficult to draw players from the West.
What is your priority now at the U?
The education of my players. That supersedes all else. I'm most proud of what I've done with my players relative to their academic endeavors and personal growth. I'm very hard on players. I'm very demanding. I'm emotional. I want them to do as well as they possibly can.
MAJERUS ON COACHING
Why did you leave the head coaching position at Marquette?
I was frustrated with recruiting, and Don Nelson, head coach of the Milwaukee Bucks offered me a job as assistant coach. I wasn't happy at Marquette because we didn't allocate money for tutorial programs or academic advisors. We didn't have a wight room. My assistants didn't have cars. Frankly, you can't run an effective program without these things.
What do you emphasize in practice?
Fundamentals, teamwork, and tenacity. It takes teamwork, skill development, and commitment to win. Then if you don't win, you don't win.
Do you emulate anyone's coaching style?
Yes. Don Nelson, Del Harris, Bobby Knight (head coach, Indiana University), and Don Donoher (former head coach, University of Dayton). All are disciplinarians, have superb work ethics, are great teachers, and care about their players. By the way, I never worry about fussing with a player in front of a crowd. I just don't believe in it.
What has been your greatest success?
In basketball I would say that my most successful season as a coach was the one at Ball State when we were 15 and 14. In Indiana they still talk about it because this team was picked at best to win four games with a team composed mainly of student body walk-ons. What I'm proud of now is that I've been gone from Ball State two years, and in those seasons they have won 25 games and 21 games respectively. When I leave Utah I want to leave a great program for the next coach.
What's your weakness as a coach?
I guess the biggest weakness I have is that I'm a basketball junkie. I'm always looking at different aspects of the game and as a result I try to do too many things, be too innovative. Sometimes this confuses my coaches and players.
What about your loss to UNLV in the NCAA regionals. Did you miscalculate anything?
I thought (Jerry) Tarkanian (head coach, UNLV) would never go to that zone for as long as he did. I felt that when he went to it we'd be able to defeat the zone by shooting over it. In retrospect, I should have prepared more for that zone. That's strictly my mistake and I take the blame. That's my big weakness as a coach. I go nuts thinking about these tactical errors. Not so much second guessing but just reflecting on how I can do things better the next time. As President Kennedy said, “Victory has a thousand fathers and defeat is an orphan.”
Do you believe in tenure for coaches?
Coaching is W's and L's in the sports page. It's not about imparting values to young men. All of Rick Majerus's charitable efforts and academic achievements are out the window if I lose. That's the way it is. So consequently what we do as coaches is continually listen to all callers. We're out to get as much money as we can. I would like tenure and if I got it I would never worry about how much money I made. I didn't get one extra dollar for going to the NCAA, and I received no bonus. I believe I'm entitled to the same amount of money whether we win four games or thirty games because I'm not going to give any less effort. (Editor's note: Currently Chris Hill and Coach Majerus are working out a new long-term contract.)
Would you ever consider coaching pro basketball?
I'd consider it, but I'd say it's highly unlikely. I don't enjoy the pro game. The quality of life is better in college, and I enjoy working with college players.
What would you like to do besides coaching?
I have wanderlust. There's a part of me that would like to live in different parts of the country. Sometimes I think of going into politics where I believe I can make a difference and affect people's lives. I sometimes think about quitting and going into film school at USC. I really love kids and enjoy interacting with them, especially at my basketball camp. I enjoy speaking to them and imparting values.
MAJERUS ON HIS PLAYERS
Are you tough on your players?
Yeah. They would say that. I'm demanding, but I'm fair and consistent. I want them to be punctual and courteous. Take our trip to Europe this summer. I told the players we are going there to have a nice time. We are going to experience Europe and its culture. We are going to practice hard and play hard during the tournament. I encouraged them to read Mark Twain's Innocents Abroad.
How do you monitor your players' academic progress?
Education is ultimately knowing who you are. That's a truly educated person. I'm still finding out about myself at age forty-three, especially learning how to take good care of myself. To that end I'm committed to get my players through school. Many require a fifth year because of the rigorous schedule they have academically and athletically. The WAC is a screwy conference. For example, when we take that trip to Hawaii, we're gone a week. Take this year's NCDAA tournament. First we had this inane conference tournament. We miss a week of school for that. Then we go to the NCAA and miss two straight weeks. That's three weeks, and it's very difficult for the kids to keep up. We rarely ever have a full complement of players at practice. Some are in tutorial sessions; some in reading labs. We implemented a reading program with our players. Every freshman must go four days, five days, a week, for a year to meet with an instructor who helps with comprehension, retention, and rapidity. It's a remedial program that they receive no credit for.
Were you a good student?
I wasn't motivated. Nothing interested me except when I got a teacher that really piqued my interest. I loved literature and I loved to read. I hated math.
Should freshmen be eligible to play intercollegiate sports?
I believe the NCAA shouldn't allow freshman to be eligible for intercollegiate sports. Freshman go through three big changes in their first year of college. First they experience a social change. Then they have to adjust from a play like Gary, Indiana, to Salt Lake. And finally they are faced with a demanding academic environment. Permitting them to play ball just compounds these problems. They aren't prepared for the pressure, like making a big free throw.
A kid has to live his own age. That's something I learned from Coach McGuire. The hell with this growing up too fast. I heard a saying from one of my players that speaks to this. “Be what you is, because if you be what you ain't, then you ain't what you is.” There's a lot to that statement.
How do you get your players to believe in themselves?
I want my players to have the capacity to laugh at themselves. I want them to have compassion for the human condition and be involved in their community. I make them read the book The Road Less Traveled, by M. Scott Peck, M.D. The first line goes, “Life is difficult.” That sums it up. They must come to understand themselves, the other guy, and the impact they can make in this life.
Basketball is just that, basketball. It isn't the only thing in their lives. I take them to see plays like Children of a Lesser God and Driving Miss Daisy. Theses are about the human experience, about relationships, about helping one another.
Do you check out recruits' character and their grades prior to offering them a scholarship?
Yes. I recruited a young man from the College of Eastern Utah (Antoine Davison) who was in prison. If religion has any influence on a guy, it must be based on the concept of forgiveness. I'm not big into religion, but for me, the foundation is forgiveness. My dad said, “If you can't forgive, that defeats the whole purpose and meaning of life.”
Do you tell players to look out for on another?
Absolutely. They've got to do that. They have to be excited for one another's success, and they must share in one another's disappointments. For example, when Josh Grant's sister-in-law passed away, the whole team shared in that. The whole team shared in Walter Watt's great success as a senior this year. I think I was most irate last season after the Weber State game. We won, and Barry Howard played for the first time. He's the tenth man on our team. He played very well, and there were about four or five guys in the locker room pouting about their own performance. I was mad because they weren't happy for Barry, and they weren't happy we won. All they cared about was themselves. We addressed it that night and got the pus out of the wound. After that game we really started to understand what a team's all about. We say, “team together,” after every huddle. Every time we break we say, “team together.” I believe that during your life you're a part of a team. Teamwork is the essence of our relationships.
How do you handle nonconformists?
I can handle eccentrics. I'm one myself. I don't permit earrings. I tell my players, “If you're going to be on Arsenio Hall, you can have an earring. If you go into pro ball and want to do that, that's fine. But in this society you want to be marketable. The men at IBM, Geneva Steel, and US West don't wear earrings.”
What's their reaction to that?
They understand because I do a good job of explaining it rather than being a dictator.
What do you tell a potential recruit and his family when you visit them?
I tell them that their education is paramount in the eyes of the university and the coaching staff. When I recruit them, I tell them that nothing, absolutely nothing, is as important or will take precedence over that academic experience. I emphasize that we're going to stand behind them and that we will commit to tutorial help for them with their studies. By the way, we take two or three professors or tutors with us on every road trip. I promise them a fifth year to complete their education.
I promise that I'll attend their graduation and that I'll work them as hard as I can to make them a player. I look them right in the eye and tell them that I'll try to make them the best players they can be.
How do you communicate with your players?
First of all I try to set a good example and be a fair disciplinarian. I tell them how fortunate they are. I ask them to view the world through someone else's glasses so they can develop a balanced perspective. I talk to them about how to tip, using proper etiquette, and developing a sense of self, about being on time, about values. I watch them on a trip, their manners, etc., though I don't insist that they wear ties and coats. I take them on speaking engagements to business groups. I want them to look presentable and act appropriately. One of these days they are going to have to find a job. I want them to develop the poise necessary to cope in a world outside of basketball.
MAJERUS ON MAJERUS
How would you describe your lifestyle?
I live very modestly. I don't spend any money. That's it.
Do you have family here?
No. I was married for three years. My wife was a sweetheart. She just couldn't handle the team and the games.
Will you remarry?
I don't know. I told Jeff Judkins (assistant coach, University of Utah). 'I would trade my head coaching job right now for your son Jordan.' I'd like to find a nice woman. I've always dated really nice women, but I've always broken those relationships off, except for the one I married. The best friend I've ever had is a woman here in Salt Lake. She's the best person I've ever spoken to in my life. We're such good friends that I'll probably never end up marrying her. She genuinely cares about me and I about her. We have a relationship, but, I mean, it's almost like she's on of the guys.
What do you do in your spare time?
I do a little bit of everything. Play tennis, play basketball. If you ask me what I love the best, it would be to go to the beach for the weekend and read, swim, job, bike, and body surf.
I love to read things like Jack London's Call of the Wild. I hope every kid in Utah is able to read this book. I think everyone interested in the subject of death should read The Mysterious Stranger by Mark Twain. It was the last work he ever wrote, and it wasn't published until after his death. Twain is my favorite author.
Have you ever failed?
Oh yes. I've failed in marriage. I failed as a player. I also failed some courses in school.
Have you done all you wanted to do?
Oh no. I don't think anyone has. There are more rivers I'd like to raft, more lakes I'd like to swim, more parties I'd like to go to, more games I'd like to participate in. I don't know. I just take life day to day.
MAJERUS ON DEATH
Do you believe in God?
I don't know if I do or don't. I go to church and I just hope. I want to believe that my little godchild, who was killed by lightening, went somewhere. The same for my dad. I hope that when it's over I'll go somewhere, but I don't know.
Do you read a lot on the subject of death?
Oh yeah. I read about everything, but I read a lot about death because I wonder were my dad went. I wonder where my friends went. I went to hear Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, a noted psychiatrist, when she was here. I've read everything she has written on the subject. I recommend a fascinating book. It's called The Divine Milieu, by Pierre Teilhard De Chardin. The book that turned our Ball State season around was A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking. He's a brilliant physicist who has beed badly disabled by ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease). I read excerpts of the book to the team.
MAJERUS ON HIS PARENTS
Tell me about your dad. You were obviously close to him.
My dad used to say, “Forgive everybody everything, every night.” That was his secret to attaining happiness. I believe that. He also said, “It is better to have a weak friend than a strong enemy.” He realized that's how you build coalitions. There are many times that I look at things through my dad's eyes. I asked myself prior to the open heart surgery, “How would my dad handle this?” He often said, “The most important thing in life is the will to live, the will to want to live.” I've never forgotten that.
Tell us more.
Nothing was more important to my dad than his family. He was a giant. He was the number two guy in the UAW (United Auto Workers). One year I went to the American Motors Negotiations with him. He had to contend with irrational members who always wanted to strike. He'd sit them down and tell them about the changing labor scene and emphasize that adversarial relationships aren't productive. He saw the impact the Japanese were going to have on the U.S. Automotive industry. He was a visionary in that regard. He lost a chance to become the number one guy in the UAW because he had a black guy as his running mate. That was what did him in. He lost by one vote.
In the early sixties he marched in Selma with Martin Luther King. My dad thought you were a person of quality when you treated the janitor the same way you treated the school president. He lived his life according to that.
Was he your role model?
Sure. I looked up to him. All my friends like him. He helped some of my buddies get into West Point. The night Jimmy Carter go elected, he called the house to thank my dad for helping him carry Wisconsin and Minnesota.
What about your mother?
I love my mom (Alice) dearly. She was the prototype mother. She loved her kids, carted us around, and sacrificed everything so we could be happy and healthy. We didn't have a lot of money but I remember once I had a dentist appointment scheduled during a little league baseball game and they charged $25 if you cancelled, which was a lot of money back then. My mom knew how important the game was to me and I remember her saying “Don't worry about it. I'll pay the money, you go to your baseball game.” My mother's philosophy was always to do what makes you happy. As I see my friends' children grow I appreciate her more everyday.
Who are your role models today?
Mother Teresa, Jimmy Carter, and Ralph Nader. They have all helped humanity a great deal. I respect them and think they are heroes in their own right.
MAJERUS ON LIFE
What is our philosophy toward life, toward basketball? Is it one and the same?
I never see any dark clouds out there. I always see that day as partly sunny, never partly cloudy. I'm a big believe In being positive. I know it's a wonderful life. I always knew that. I knew that before my heart surgery. My surgery just reinforced that.
What are you most proud of?
I've coached five and recruited five academic All Americans. I've coached two Rhodes scholar candidates, and the captain of my last Ball State team, Rick Hall, won the Walter F. Byers award, the most prestigious academic award that the NCAA has to offer. That was my proudest moment as a coach.
However, I want my legacy in Utah to be a reading program similar to the one I implemented in Indiana. We're going to start with the district schools, then the valley, and then statewide. It's a program where kids can earn tickets to games, shoes, and camp scholarships based on their reading progress. I'm going to ask The Salt Lake Tribune to allocate a page every week for kids to write book reviews. I'm going to write some and have my players to the same. I'm going to go into the schools and involve myself with the kids. The people in Indiana know me best for the reading program I started, not for being the basketball coach at Ball State.
(Editor's note: at the time of this printing, Majerus has worked out a program with sponsors Coca Cola and The Salt Lake Tribune to implement the reading program this year in the junior high schools of Salt Lake and Granite districts. Although Majerus hopes that the scope of the program will be wide reaching, he feels that if the quality of just one child's life is enhanced by the program, it will have been worth the effort.)
In two hundred years, if a time capsule were opened, how would you want to be remembered?
I always have trouble with these things. I want to be thought of as one who has been up-front with everybody. I'm a man who cares about people. Most importantly, I'm straight-forward and honest.