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Fascinating, crude and compassionate; Majerus was an incredibly complex man

Fascinating, crude and compassionate; Majerus was an incredibly complex man



Estimated read time: 5-6 minutes

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SALT LAKE CITY — The tributes came pouring in, as they typically do in these situations, multiplied by the hundreds through readily available access to social media.

“Truly a special man & character,” one prominent college basketball writer tweeted.

“Good coach, great guy,” wrote a longtime sports broadcaster.

“He was a very grounded guy, with priorities in place,” read a tweet by an NBA writer.

Many people were friends with Rick Majerus, the legendary former University of Utah basketball coach who died last Saturday at the age of 64.

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From their perspective, they knew him. And many paid heartfelt tribute based on their relationships with him.

Majerus was a complicated man, depending on the moment and the motivation. For some, he was a man of distinction, a deeply caring individual who doubled as a brilliant basketball coach. To others, he was deplorable and crude, prone to mistreat any who blocked his path.

This is a sensitive subject. It's seemingly impossible to attempt to accurately portray in this space the life of a recently deceased, so rightly beloved by legions of fans. Knowing full well that derogatory comments will come the moment this is published, I nevertheless attempt to write on the life of such an interesting man.

Having covered him as a coach for 10 years, including during the Utes' glorious run in the 1990s, I saw good and bad. Many in the national media, who lit up Twitter and Internet sites the day Majerus died, got one side.

I got another.

First off, Majerus possessed an exceptional mind, easily the brightest coach I've seen during my 25 years in the business. Whatever the official definition is, he was borderline genius.

In this March 30, 1998, file photo, Utah coach Rick Majerus watches the action in the second half of the NCAA men's Final Four championship NCAA college basketball game at the Alamodome in San Antonio. Majerus died Saturday, Dec. 1, 2012. He was 64. (AP Photo/Eric Draper, File)
In this March 30, 1998, file photo, Utah coach Rick Majerus watches the action in the second half of the NCAA men's Final Four championship NCAA college basketball game at the Alamodome in San Antonio. Majerus died Saturday, Dec. 1, 2012. He was 64. (AP Photo/Eric Draper, File)

In many ways, he had an intellect that far superseded the simple game of basketball. Maybe he should have followed through with his original inclination to be a lawyer. A liberal at heart, Majerus would have been an incredible defense attorney.

But thankfully for the likes of Keith Van Horn and dozens of others, he specifically chose college basketball. Aside from the entertainment value, he wasn’t about the professional game.

Van Horn was the classic Majerus player, the great one who most often bore the coach’s wrath. Four years after arriving from Southern California as a 190-pound beanpole, Van Horn left college as a great player and man, molded by the hands of his coach.

Having covered every game during Van Horn’s four years, I knew him well as a player. We often had a routine after games, with me relaying the critique Majerus had said about his play. Van Horn may have bristled at the time, but he accepted the criticism that would improve him as a player.

Ultimately, Van Horn formed a close relationship with his coach, who became the godfather to his daughter. Other players have followed suit with similar affections.

There’s no point debating Majerus’ coaching ability. He almost always maximized the talent he had available to him.

He also had the ability to discover the hidden gem and polish it. Mike Doleac is a classic example, going from a seldom-used high school junior to longtime NBA center.

For a Van Horn and Doleac, however, there was a Marc Jackson and Lance Allred, players who couldn’t deal with verbal abuse. Roughly three players a year transferred during the Majerus era at Utah. For some, as in the case of Jordie McTavish, their self-esteem was left behind when they walked out of the Huntsman Center.

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While Majerus was known to help many friends however he could, some of his assistant coaches were left wanting the same. It’s unusual that such a successful coach at Utah never developed a coaching tree.

A former athletic director at BYU waited for a recommendation from the Utah coach when his school had a coaching opening. The endorsement never came, however, maybe playing a factor in BYU choosing an unheralded junior college coach over a qualified Utah assistant.

Majerus also wasn’t a favorite of some coaches on the university athletic staff. After several difficult interactions, one such coach said: “If he just had basic human decency ...”

At the same time, countless others swear by Majerus. They have good reason, knowing there never was a more loyal friend.

Only the fool would argue that Majerus didn’t do much good in his life. He was an integral part of many great causes, often going to extreme lengths to literally spread his wealth.

Fans pause during a moment of silence for Saint Louis University basketball coach Rick Majerus before the start of an NFL football game between the St. Louis Rams and the San Francisco 49ers. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
Fans pause during a moment of silence for Saint Louis University basketball coach Rick Majerus before the start of an NFL football game between the St. Louis Rams and the San Francisco 49ers. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

On a personal note, covering Majerus for a decade was a wild ride, unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. It was a trip covering an always accessible coach who returned every phone call.

In the overwhelming majority of cases, Majerus recruited players with great character who represented Utah incredibly well. The number of Utah players who’ve gone on to become great citizens is a credit to the coach’s legacy.

As crude as Majerus could be, I’ve also witnessed the grumpy man’s soft side.

One spring afternoon, unbeknownst to me, Majerus had called my house when I was at the Salt Lake Tribune office. After talking to my wife, who told Majerus that she had been bothered by several crank calls that day, he reached me at work and demanded I go home immediately to check on my wife.

When I started to balk at dealing with her issue, he challenged my integrity as a husband. The longtime bachelor was right.

That’s the way he was, gruff and compassionate all rolled into one complex man. We’ll never see another like him.

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Patrick Kinahan

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