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The Life and Times of RICK MAJERUS
January 21, 2008
He's funny, charming and loved by many of his former players, but something about the game he adores brings out the worst in the new Saint Louis coach
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January 21, 2008

The Life And Times Of Rick Majerus

He's funny, charming and loved by many of his former players, but something about the game he adores brings out the worst in the new Saint Louis coach

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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.

"It's hard 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 me."

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 me."

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. "Puzzling."

SOMETHING ABOUT 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 anecdote.

"The first 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?"

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