His retreat from
the Trojans was no doubt also due to the declining health of his 81-year-old
mom, Alyce. Rick's father, Ray, who was a power in the Milwaukee labor
movement—Jimmy Carter called the house the night he won the presidency in
1976—has been dead for two decades, and Alyce has slept with his sweater every
night since. Two summers ago Rick and his two sisters put her in a home, but in
six weeks Alyce sank so precipitously that they took her out again. "I'll
see her through to the end," he says. "I told her, 'Mom, as long as I'm
alive, you're not going to have to worry. You're not going in that home unless
you want to.'"
Now Alyce lives
in a Milwaukee condo, MedicAlert at the ready, and Majerus makes a point of
spending his parents' anniversary, his dad's birthday and Christmas with her.
They watch war movies. Alyce tells how Ray lost 50 pounds fighting on Okinawa
in World War II, licking water off leaves and sucking leather shoelaces to stay
alive. Home from the war, Ray ate and ate and became the big man Rick worships
still. After deciding last spring to get back into coaching, Rick drew a mental
radius—five-hour car ride, max—around Milwaukee. Saint Louis wasn't Cindy
Crawford, Lord knows; witness the 9--7 Billikens' record-low 20-point output in
a loss at George Washington last Thursday. But a new on-campus arena is coming,
and he's near enough to get home fast.
getting old in America," Majerus says. "Tonight I wanted to call my mom
but didn't have time. Tomorrow morning I'll call her, and it'll be a call about
nothing—like Seinfeld—but that's good. It's her half hour. She'll wonder about
my health, how's the team look, but she won't know what the team is. We went to
the Final Four, and she said, 'What division?' I said, 'Uh, Mom ... it's going
to be a big crowd.'"
Network TV and
out-of-town scribes love Majerus. For them he'll open up practice and meetings.
He calls his greatest career moment the day Andre Miller graduated; he's been
known to give players a game off to prepare for exams; he can list the reasons
why Mark Twain's The Mysterious Stranger is a great story. He speaks movingly
of participating in civil rights marches with his father, and even those who
don't like him will tell you about the countless times he's helped cancer
patients, the solicitous letters he's sent in times of grief. This Majerus, of
course, dovetails with his joke-cracking persona; it follows that someone who
pokes fun at himself might have a healthy perspective on life. Even the NCAA
violations that helped put Utah on three years' probation in 2003 came off as
endearing; Majerus paid for a few players' meals, provided milk and cookies at
film sessions. Who do you figure won that p.r. battle, the NCAA or the guy
sharing his Oreos?
Not that Majerus
goes out of his way to polish his image. Sometime before he left Utah, a Salt
Lake City waitress left him a baby with a note. Majerus, married once,
childless and 20 years divorced, famously lived in a Marriott hotel near
campus; everyone knew where to find him. The woman figured Majerus could find
the baby a good home, and word around ESPN is that he nursed the infant with a
bottle while watching film. That couldn't be a more humanizing tableau, but
when the subject is raised, he tries to slough it off.
No, he says
finally, the bottle-and-film part isn't true. "I brought somebody in, a gal
to help me," he says. "Momentarily I thought about keeping [the child],
but I couldn't. Then I called one person who might want to take this baby in,
but the paperwork and the legal aspects were overwhelming. My attorney was
worried about liability issues. I made another call, found a place. I named the
baby after my mom and a friend: Boom, it's gone." He doesn't know to whom.
He doesn't know where. He sent along $5,000, seed money for college. "It
had to be gut-wrenching for the mom," he says. "It was a tough deal for
His players got
glimpses of that Majerus when he'd bring in a deaf team to teach the value of
communication, or go out of his way to help the players' families. When then
freshman forward Britton Johnsen was falsely accused by a North Carolina player
of using a racial slur during the 1998 NCAA semifinals, Majerus publicly
declared himself so sure of Johnsen's innocence that he promised to quit if the
allegation proved true. "I was terrified," Johnsen says, "and that
just relieved me of everything. It was unbelievable that he did that for
So, no, it's
never shocking to hear people use the word compassionate or great to describe
Majerus. "And they're absolutely right," Burgess says. "There's
just other parts about him that are...." He stops to find the right word.
the body: Is it a weapon? A shield? Or is it just that Majerus, unlike so many
in our fit-versus-fat culture, simply doesn't care about the impact of his
physique? He may be the least self-conscious man alive. How else to explain his
propensity to get naked—in practice, watching film, at meetings, during
interviews? Nearly every former player of Majerus's has a can-you-believe-it
time, [ Utah was] recruiting me, and after the game I went down to the [ Utes']
locker room," says Jeff Johnsen, who signed with Utah in 1996. "His
hair's everywhere and his sweater's off and he's just drenched, and he's eating
a whole pizza in front of me and he's like, 'You want any?' I grab a piece, and
then he starts undressing and gets in the shower and is still talking to me. It
was funny. It was weird. How many grown, fat, naked men do you see when you're
a high school kid?"