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
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.
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,
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."
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
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.
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.