Majerus broke coaching mold

Updated: January 29, 2004, 10:57 AM ET
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

Rick Majerus' tenure at Utah started with him sitting out the 1989-90 season following major heart bypass surgery. He'll end his career this spring still battling the same heart problems that have plagued him over 15 years coaching the Utes.

In between, Majerus provided Utah and college basketball plenty of one-liners, and offered up some of the more cerebral discussions on the game he just calls "ball."

FILLING RICK'S SEAT

Kerry Rupp will get a chance to earn the full-time job at the University of Utah, but athletic director Chris Hill will likely look for a proven head coach. He probably will start with Utah State head coach Stew Morrill, whose Aggies are off to the best start in school history at 15-1 and 7-0 in the Big West. He is a natural for the job.

Morrill turned the Aggies into a consistent NCAA Tournament team, taking them to the Dance in three of the past four seasons. Morrill, whose only loss this season was to Utah, is 4-2 against the Utes since he arrived at Utah State. He was 5-9 against the Utes when he was coaching Colorado State. Morrill has recruited in-state very well, handled Mormon Church missionaries and the strain that puts on recruiting classes. He also recruited junior college athletes well, too.

If Morrill leaves, USU assistant Randy Rahe has been promised the head coaching gig, according to sources. Creighton's Dana Altman could also be on the short list. Hill has a few months to find a head coach. But he shouldn't have to go past Logan.

His appetite for food was as large as his love of the game, and late-night meals at one of his favorite post-Big Monday spots -- Dee's Restaurant in Salt Lake City -- was as big as his hunger for teaching basketball.

A constant battle with his weight -- which had recently pushed to a dangerous 370 pounds and demanded various trips to a weight-loss clinic in California -- was an albatross throughout his coaching career.

But his size was never weighed on his love of the game.

Rick the Pick -- his nickname at Marquette after he was cut as a walk-on -- remains one of the brightest students of the game. He cried when he was cut by the legendary Al McGuire. But he ditched law school for basketball and eventually his late great mentor McGuire took him onto the Marquette staff. His teachings of OH-Fense, as he says with his Sheboygan, Wis., accent, could come on a restaurant napkin as easily as during his daily clinics in practice.

Whether he ever coaches another Utah game or not, he'll still talk about "the bigs and the littles," the "pick and the pop," and will remain known for putting together scouting packages on each player before a game so detailed that the poster-sized breakdowns of players would line the walls of a hotel banquet room. And if they call, he'll certainly conduct another of the countless sessions with NBA friends Don Nelson, Del Harris and George Karl.

Majerus

Majerus just loves basketball. He loved playing the game. As recently as 1997, he would be sure to find Kevin Costner for their annual games of two-on-two at the Final Four. That was the year before Majerus led the Utes to the national title game against Kentucky, the crowning achievement in Majerus' career.

"He has had a fantastic, unbelievable run at the University of Utah, a wonderful run," Utah athletic director Chris Hill said. "The glory times of Ute basketball were during his regime."

Those who played for Majerus had to be cerebral as well as talented. Understanding his verbiage came easy, however, to four academic All-Americans in the past six seasons -- the most in Division I. He found a hidden gem in Keith Van Horn and was patient with Andre Miller, developing both players into first-round NBA draft picks. His biggest project, however, might have been turning a shy center named Michael Doleac into another first-round pick.

Majerus wasn't without faults. His weight issues aside, he was one of the most demanding coaches to play or work for at Utah. As a result, turnover became commonplace in recent years. Since 1998, 14 Utes transferred, and there was a coaching change on the staff nearly every year.

But Majerus always coached, and will continue to live life, on his terms. His home since arriving at Utah was been the University Park Marriott. And he's not one to remain in one place very long when the season ends, jetting overseas in the offseason, body surfing in Maui, and rarely staying in Salt Lake City until another season arrives in October.

Majerus also never lost sight of his roots. He has proven he'll drop anything for those close to him; to visit a friend's daughter who is ill or missing all but one game of the 2000-01 season to tend to his mother's battle with cancer. Also, Majerus is proud to be the son of a union worker. And this guy is not just a basketball coach, but also an avid reader, whose hotel room is filled with books ranging from history to fiction, including short stories by Mark Twain.

Whatever the future brings, Majerus will enjoy people and love talking to anyone about anything. Majerus is a unique coach, a rare breed in this sport. He breathes basketball, but he's not just a basketball coach.

But he will go down as one of the greatest coaches in Utah, and in college basketball history, as much for his wins and offensive genius as his bubbling and charming personality.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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