Complicated and simple? Tough Majerus basketball lifer to the end

by | College Basketball Insider
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Rick Majerus touched the lives of many kids, 'myself included,' Doc Rivers says. (Getty Images)  
Rick Majerus touched the lives of many kids, 'myself included,' Doc Rivers says. (Getty Images)  

Rick Majerus had made the walk 516 times prior, following a victory, whether it was as the head coach at Ball State, Marquette, Utah or Saint Louis. The final time, though, came last March and he politely asked me to stop and sit down in a small room in the bowels of the Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio after a win over Memphis in the NCAA tournament.

Majerus' health wasn't right, but then again, it was always a concern. There were countless heart bypasses, his weight causing issues, his leg still bothering him from the accident a year or so prior, when he almost had to have it amputated. As he walked slowly down the hallway, his breathing became labored as he struggled to walk.

But Majerus had always found a way to overcome those health issues, until Saturday night when my phone started buzzing in the middle of a movie.

Majerus' heart had finally given out at the age of 64. Word began to circulate this past summer that he wasn't doing well, that he had spent much of the warm weather months at a hospital in California as his heart condition worsened. The chatter was that he needed a heart transplant, but that it was unlikely he'd ever receive one because, well, he was way down the list due to his age and current condition. Saint Louis University announced his health issues would force him to step away from the sidelines, and then recently put out another statement that he wouldn't be returning to coach the Billikens at any point.

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It's a shame, because as Majerus told me within the 20-minute conversation following his win over Memphis in the NCAA tournament, he desperately yearned to return to the Final Four. This season was his best chance, maybe since he made the trip with Utah back in 1997-98, when the Utes wound up losing to Kentucky in the national championship game. He returned almost everyone from last year's club and, with the current landscape of parity at an all-time high this season, Majerus had a legitimate chance.

This was a different Majerus than I'd heard all about over the years, though. He became emotional, reflective when discussing his first NCAA tournament victory in nearly a decade. He was disappointed that his mother, who had recently passed away, wasn't alive to see him get back to the Big Dance. He clearly understood that time was running short on his career, that his health issues were ultimately going to abruptly end an illustrious coaching career. He somehow managed to smile through the pain that was shooting through his body.

"I think we've really got a chance," he told me before his team lost to Michigan State two days later. "I'm not sure how much of one."

Majerus spoke at length of how gratifying it was to finally get another NCAA tournament victory. He couldn't stop gushing about his players at Saint Louis, how much he was going to miss senior Brian Conklin -- and about the potential of an incoming freshman guard out of Chicago. His last -- and only Final Four appearance -- one had come all the way back in 2003 with Utah.

Majerus was complicated, yet simple.

He was despised by some; beloved by others.

"He wasn't easy to work for," former assistant Jeff Judkins told CBSSports.com on Saturday night. "I won't lie to you."

But Judkins spoke glowingly just hours after learning Majerus had passed away, of his love for politics, reading, music, history and theater. How Majerus gave him his start in coaching and how Majerus preached fundamentals and practiced preparation.

"Nobody was better," Judkins said.

In 25 seasons as a head coach, he was a remarkable 517-216, won more than 70 percent of his games and made a dozen NCAA tournament appearances despite never holding one of those elite-caliber jobs. There was a stretch when it appeared as though Majerus' coaching career was over, after he accepted and then reneged on the USC gig back in 2004. However, Majerus got one final chance with Saint Louis and wound up taking the Billikens to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2000. Majerus always lived in a hotel room because he was a night owl and it was just easier for him. Upon his arrival at hotels on road trips, he'd immediately send a manager down to the workout room to hold the treadmill, no matter how long it took him to get down there. He knew addresses of all the top restaurants in just about every city -- and there were legendary meals, endless ones, from just about everyone who knew him. There were late-night candy bars, delivered by managers in the wee hours.

Majerus didn't even have an office at Saint Louis, just a board room with a table in the middle and about $15,000 worth of dry erase boards encompassing the entire room. He'd go out to dinner, whether it be Steak 'N Shake or one of the finest spots in the city, and almost always wind up utilizing the napkins to illustrate X's and O's.

"I can't put a price on what I learned from him," former assistant Porter Moser, now the head coach at Loyola (Ill.), told me on Saturday night. "He just saw the game at a different speed than just about everyone else."

That Majerus was there for everyone to see, but what was more difficult to get a grasp on was the complicated Majerus. He was demanding -- of his players, assistant coaches, administrators, even secretaries. Majerus had a knack for making bad players decent, and good ones great. Many couldn't handle his often-abrasive approach, but if you put in the work, there was mutual respect. His favorite player, according to just about everyone who knew him well, was Alex Jensen, who never averaged more than 13 points per game in his four-year Utah career, but was a huge piece on the 1998 team that advanced to the national title.

"He was the toughest you-know-what he's ever coached," former Majerus player/assistant Chris Jones said. "Alex could guard every position, dove for every loose ball, took charges, went after every rebound and made every tough play. That's why Rick loved him so much."

The last time Moser saw Majerus was back in New Orleans at the Final Four. Moser and his wife had what turned out to be a three-plus hour breakfast -- and he never felt as though that would be the last time he'd see the coaching legend. But then word started to circulate that this time was different, that Majerus was likely spending his final days at a hospital in California -- however many days it was going to be. "The whole time I felt like he was going to beat it," Moser said. "He was a fighter," added Conklin, the star of last year's Saint Louis team. "He's always had health problems, but he was always able to bounce back."

There were few visitors allowed to see Majerus as his condition deteriorated. Jensen made the trip, but few others were given clearance. Majerus had a tight circle, even tighter towards the end of his life.

Majerus touched plenty over the years -- and he did it without a filter. "He had principles and whether you liked him or not, he stuck to those principles," Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers, who had known him since he was a sixth-grader, told me on Saturday night. "He spoke his mind and was a phenomenal coach. You had to know Rick to understand him."

Rivers first met him when he was a sixth-grader at the Marquette basketball camp. He arrived wearing a Dr. J jersey and from that moment on, Majerus gave him the nickname "Doc," which stuck for the rest of his life.

"He was a basketball lifer," Rivers said. "People talk about basketball lifers, but Rick Majerus was a basketball lifer. There are so many kids that were touched by him for the rest of their lives, myself included."

Rivers went over and spoke to Majerus' team for an hour a few years back when Saint Louis played at Boston College. Former Utah stars Keith Van Horn, Michael Doleac and Jensen all came by and did the same, Doleac even driving 15 hours out of his way once to come through to see his old coach.

Rick Majerus was 64 when he died on Saturday. He never had any children, but he sure did leave plenty of his kids behind.

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