You know that you've made an impact as a basketball coach when my wife knows not only who you are, but what you're like and how good you are.
Rick Majerus is one of only two coaches (former DePauw, University of Indianapolis and Indiana State coach Royce Waltman) that my wife, who cares nothing about sports (if there is a smaller measurement than nothing, then use that term), knows about. And even she could tell you that Majerus was great.
The former Marquette, Ball State, Utah, and Saint Louis coach passed away on Saturday in Los Angeles of heart failure. The 64-year-old coach had been hospitalized there for several months.
“I never enjoyed dealing with a coach as much as I enjoyed Rick,” former Ball State sports announcer Morry Mannies said. “That is so tragic and the irony is he had one of the biggest hearts of anybody I ever knew.”
I dated my wife from 1985 through 1989, which coincided with Majerus' magical two-year run with the Cardinal program. I was a college student, who aspired to coach, and my wife and I traipsed across the Midwest with nothing but my dreams, my mom's credit card, and a fascination of what Majerus was doing with these Cardinal teams. I found him enthralling from day one – as did everybody else Majerus encountered.
Mannies, who broadcast Cardinal games for 56 years, conducted his very first pre-game interview with Majerus with the coach sitting nude and in a steam-filled locker room. That was Rick Majerus.
“The amount of water running off of his body was like I had never seen before,” Mannies said. “You never knew what he was going to do or say.”
Majerus spent just two years in Muncie, but as Mannies stated, it seemed like so much longer. After a rebuilding (14-14) season to open his tenure, Majerus led Ball State to a 29-3 record and the second round of the NCAA Tournament. The 1990 Cardinal squad that ultimately reached the Sweet 16 (ironically playing in Salt Lake City in front of their former coach), was constructed almost entirely by Majerus.
“Playing for (Majerus) was very entertaining, but very challenging,” former Ball State forward Greg Miller said.
Miller played for three coaches in four seasons at Ball State (Al Brown and Dick Hunsaker as well), and currently serves as the boy's basketball coach at Yorktown High School outside of Muncie.
“He expected more from the individual than what they thought they could give,” Miller said. “I have very high expectations for our players (at Yorktown) and expect us to play and carry ourselves a certain way. That is probably what I took most from (coach Majerus).”
His tremendous ability to teach the game was rooted in a level of intelligence that few comprehended according to Mannies.
“He had great intellect,” Mannies said. “He was one of the smartest people that I have ever been around. He was a very cerebral coach.”
He later took Utah to the brink of a national championship in 1998, before falling in the title game to Kentucky. That team, which didn't have a high school All-America on it, epitomized what Majerus was capable of according to Michigan State assistant coach Dane Fife.
“His teams were usually the underdogs,” Fife said. “He had the ability to make players better. Coach Majerus took less talented teams and found ways to win.”
Fife competed against Utah twice in his time as a player at Indiana, and then last spring, the Spartans got by Majerus' Billikins 65-61 in the NCAA Tournament, which ultimately proved to be the last game that Majerus ever coached.
“Years from now, I think that Majerus will be mentioned in the same breath as (Bob) Knight, (Tom) Izzo, (Mike) Krzyzewski, (Don) Meyer, all of the great coaches,” Fife said.
Majerus dealt with weight and health-related issues throughout his entire adult life. He had one attempt at marriage, but that didn't last.
“His wife said that she didn't realize that she was marrying a film projector,” Mannies laughed.
Majerus lived in hotels and essentially made basketball and his players the entire focus of his life.
“He really did care deeply about the kids,” Mannies said.
He resigned from Utah to resolve more health issues, but surfaced in 2004 to accept the USC position. But his time in Los Angeles was short-lived. Within a week, Majerus resigned and returned to working as an analyst with ESPN.
He said at the time that he was "in denial where my health actually is … I realized [USC] was not getting the guy they hired. I came to that conclusion myself. I am not fit for this job by my standards."
In 2007, he accepted the position to coach at Saint Louis, and just like his other stops, he was highly successful and colorful.
He guided the Billikins to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 12 seasons last year, and the team was projected to be a power in the Atlantic 10 this season before his resignation in August.
In his 25 years as a head coach, Majerus had a 517-215 record. He reached the NCAA tournament 12 times.
“He had the ability to create great teams,” Fife said. “He'd win at any level. His knowledge, understanding, and commitment to the game ultimately advanced the game of basketball.”