Rick Majerus, Passed Away at 64, Leaves a Remarkable LegacyPosted by Chris Johnson on December 2nd, 2012
Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
The stylistic permissiveness of college basketball is one of its best qualities. Unlike the professional game, talent does not always trump tactical wisdom. Athleticism and depth advantages are often negated by disciplined defense and judicious offense. Contrary to what last year’s Kentucky might lead you to believe, you don’t always need the very best players to win. What you need is simple: a comprehensive knowledge of offensive and defensive principles; a brazen disregard for the formalities of coaching etiquette, and an undying thirst to live, breathe and absorb every last bit of college basketball information into your memory. Just ask Rick Majerus.
When I heard that Majerus, 64, had passed away after a long and well-documented struggle with heart problems – problems that caused him to take a leave absence from St. Louis prior to this season and announce his resignation from the Billiken program weeks after the word – I grieved the loss of not only one of the most entertaining sideline bosses of my sports-watching childhood, but of the greatest technical wizard I have ever seen coach a college basketball game.
It’s not that Majerus won without talent. He had it in droves, particularly at Utah, whom he led to the national championship game in 1998. Majerus oversaw the development of multiple first-round picks (Andre Miller and Keith Van Horn, to name a couple) while with the Utes, and that certainly bolstered his near takedown of Kentucky in the title game. But none of that success would have been possible without Majerus’ heightened basketball IQ. More than perhaps any other coach of his era, Majerus legislated the game on his terms. Players were an extension of his boundless basketball knowledge base. Full court presses, backdoor cuts and high screen and rolls were just half of Majerus’ madness. It was the timing, placement and personnel fit of his game-planning that elevated Majerus over other bright basketball minds. Besides, at his last coaching stop, St. Louis, it wasn’t about NBA talent. Majerus won almost entirely on strategic guile and creativity.
Last year’s NCAA Tournament offered a prime example. Eight-seed Memphis, replete with elite talent and highly touted prospects, drew a first-round match-up with Majerus’ Billikens. If the game were decided by recruiting rankings, the Tigers would have run Saint Louis out of the gym. For Majerus, it was a perfect contest, a prime opportunity to flaunt his doctrinal muscle against a highly-talented yet not-entirely-cohesive Memphis team. For Josh Pastner, who’s having trouble shaking the perception that his coaching merits don’t quite jibe with his recruiting trail prowess, it was a brutal spot. The experienced Majerus took him to school; Memphis’ superior talent didn’t matter in the least.
It’s just one anecdote in Majerus’ illustrious coaching history. His legacy is slightly marred by a well-documented history of player abuse and humiliation. And one has to think that his health problems were at least partly self-inflicted. Either way, he left an undeniably positive imprint on the sport. His presence will be sorely missed – as will his famously straightforward postgame commentary. Over 40 years of sideline experience, Majerus came to be known as much for his coaching ability as his jovial off-court demeanor. Tales of the coach’s near obsessive-compulsive desire to talk hoops and his unique recruiting pitches will live on in college hoops lore. It is a shame his career and life came to such an abrupt conclusion. I can only imagine Majerus yearned to finish his incredible legacy on his own terms – i.e., on the basketball court.
The health problems that forced his retirement stayed with Majerus throughout much of his coaching career. For a time, it seemed as if Majerus’ sheer will to coach could overcome the ailments that plagued him for so many years. Once Majerus leaked word he wouldn’t return to the Billikens, that he would step away from his craft, profession and undying love, the notion that Majerus would make another comeback – just as he did at USC only five days after accepting the job – seemed highly improbable. If Majerus couldn’t coach basketball and couldn’t return to the studio to project his passion on another platform, I struggle to consider how Majerus would have marched on after being removed from his life’s fundamental purpose.
After amassing more than 500 wins, developing hundreds of young players and influencing countless others, Majerus’ grip on the game – and as we learned tonight, his life – finally slipped away. We grieve the loss of one of the game’s greatest coaching personalities, its sharpest in-game strategists and most importantly, one of its most fascinating human beings. RIP.