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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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EVERY DAY has a winner and loser. That's sports. That's another thing Majerus missed. The losers today, during his fifth official practice as Billikens coach? Everyone, really: There's a constant shuttle of miscreants off the court, banished there to run sprints for the minutest of errors. "We're live!" Majerus keeps shouting, and the players move—hoping that, just once, they might actually get a shot off—but after two steps the coach yells, "Stop!" like a kid playing freeze-tag. This is less athletics than choreography. A guard was five inches off his spot. Or a forward ran a semicircle instead of a straight line.

"Majerus is by far the best coach I've ever played for," says Doleac, a Minnesota Timberwolves center who has played for NBA legends Chuck Daly and Pat Riley. "He's got an unbelievable ability to see the game; he can watch a play and know what all 10 guys are doing and what each did wrong. You wouldn't believe it, but then you'd watch the film and he was right every time. He has this presence, and he backs it up because his energy is the same every day. If you coach kids for a week, after a while you get tired of correcting them. But he never lets it go. That's why people hate him: Because every time you mess up, he blows you up."

Today it's easy to identify his prime target. "He's been hell for me," says Billikens junior guard Tommie Liddell III. "But I look at it as a positive thing." Sleepy-eyed and talented, with a meddlesome father and tardiness issues to boot, Liddell is almost custom-made to drive Majerus mad. Three times the coach lights into Liddell for middling effort. When Majerus sees who's just blown past his prodigy to score an easy layup, it's too perfect. Today's winner? Mike the Walk-On. Majerus says these words once, twice, and suddenly he's addicted to them; Mike the Walk-On becomes an honorific, like Peter the Great, for sophomore guard Mike Jones.

Dribble, shuffle—stop! "Mike the Walk-On would give his right nut to have your ability," Majerus tells Liddell. Dribble, shuffle—stop! "How does a 5'9" walk-on knock you out of the play?" Later Majerus admits that he loves Mike the Walk-On, but it's nothing personal. He loves the whole breed, the practice players who work out the scholarship boys because they live the game and this is as close as they'll ever get. "Because they try hard and they're no good," Majerus says. "Because I'm a walk-on."

Majerus got cut from his high school team in Milwaukee. "He was always the fat kid who would've given anything to be on a team and never was," says a longtime associate of the coach's. "He was somewhat the laughingstock." All effort and elbows, he somehow walked on to Marquette's freshman team, but a year later the school's hallowed varsity coach, Al McGuire, labeled him one of "the crappiest players I've ever had" and cut him. In Majerus's autobiography, My Life on a Napkin, McGuire recalls bringing "Rick the Pick" to tears after he begged to play in a glorified scrimmage. "I'd put Willie Wampum in," said McGuire, referring to the school mascot, "before you."

But Majerus found a Milwaukee junior high to coach, then was hired by his old high school, and a year after graduating from Marquette, in 1970, he became McGuire's third assistant, with a $5,000 salary. He spent the next six years under McGuire, and though he couldn't look more opposite to the lean, voluble New Yorker, it's striking how closely he followed McGuire's lead. The coach taught Majerus that being a glib, larger-than-life bon vivant could play in the media, and that brutal honesty worked best behind the scenes. While other recruiters wooed and cooed, Majerus told Mr. McDonald's All-American that he was too skinny and informed a hotshot guard that his defense made Majerus want to puke. "At first, it pissed me off," says Trent Whiting, who lasted one semester with the Utes, in 1999. "It wasn't like the other colleges, [which] were feeding your head about how great you were and how bad they wanted you."

"With Majerus you know exactly what you are getting," Mottola says. "He can be in your face for 3 1/2 hours during practice, and when we are walking toward the locker room, he wants to be your best friend. And he is. He's not fake. He's the most honest coach I've encountered."

In a sense, it's that quality that got Majerus into his no-win battle with Allred, the player who's 75% deaf. Two teammates from Allred's time say he frequently engaged in unaided dialogue off the court. "Lance could hear you, could have a full-on conversation with you, so who's to say what he could and couldn't hear?" says former forward Jeff Johnsen. "Rick thought he purposely was not listening to him, using the excuse, 'Oh, I couldn't hear you because I'm deaf.' But Lance is a different guy; nobody really understood him, I'll be honest."

Majerus admits he can go too far. He regretted making Van Horn cry, so he took him out for bagels the day after and explained, "You're living my dream. I'm hard on you because you're special, because I never was any good myself." Van Horn later made Majerus his daughter's godfather.

The six-inch display? Majerus says he's not the same coach he was a decade ago. "I'm probably a little embarrassed about some things I've said or done in practice," he says. But he's not going to apologize for calling things as he sees them. "You know what my doctor told me?" he says. "'You'll lose weight when you get tired of seeing your fat ass in the mirror.' I don't think he's being mean. He's telling it like it is.

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