Utah will host streaking Boise State - their first game since Majerus' death.
I often feel odd suggesting a team can honor someone's legacy solely through victory. It puts an enormous amount of pressure on them and you're basically saying - if you don't win, you're now actively hurting that person's legacy. I don't believe that. If Utah loses tonight against the Boise St. Broncos, I don't think it's going to be a disservice to Rick Majerus. But it's not hard to get behind the idea of a team winning one for the ... Fat Man. It's a feel good story - especially when it comes to Majerus.
You see, even today, even nearly nine years since he up and resigned as Utah's basketball coach, even now in death, his legacy has overshadowed this program. In a great deal of memorial articles out there, most from friends in the mainstream media, you'll see hints of the Utes' irrelevance since his career here ended.
Sure, there was the Sweet Sixteen run in 2005, done with Majerus recruits, and a later tournament appearance in 2009, which resulted in a first-round upset exit, but beyond that, the Utes have produced the worst stretch of basketball in program history. The man who replaced him, Ray Giacoletti, only made it three seasons before getting the ax, and his successor, Jim Boylen, couldn't muster a fifth - he was gone after back-to-back losing seasons as well. Since Majerus' abrupt resignation in early 2004, which I'm sure came as a shock to everyone, Utah has had four coaches - Kerry Rupp, an interim that season, the aforementioned Giacoletti and Boylen, and the Utes' current head coach, Larry Krystkowiak. Like the three before him, the men who could never live up to the grandioseness of Majerus, Krystkowiak is still finding it difficult becoming his own man.
The fact is, since 2004, Utah fans have expected Majerus clones - guys who win and win a lot. When that didn't happen, the seats quickly warmed and the fans turned on whomever was coaching the team. I'm not saying it wasn't warranted, because you can certainly make the case for the firings that have taken place (and I have on this blog - both times), but it's not hard to see that the Runnin' Utes still have not been able to shake Majerus' shadow.
They haven't because no coach was able to step in and win ... at least consistently enough to make us accept what they were doing. Majerus was just that good.
Is Krystkowiak finally that guy?
That's the new question and while I am becoming increasingly optimistic about the direction of the basketball program, the jury remains out because we've not seen what this program's ceiling is under his leadership. With Giac and Boylen, you got the sense neither could sustain winning and because of that, we would collapse into a cycle where the program, like so many other struggling programs, would only win every four or so years before starting the cycle over again. Obviously, Chris Hill wanted a different approach and believes, like most of us, Utah basketball is good enough to at least remain relevant most years. I mean, even before Big Rick took the campus by storm in 1989, the Runnin' Utes were still a pretty solid basketball program.
Today? We're mostly history and that's never a good position to be in because history doesn't mean much to current recruits. Those players who are freshman at Utah this year, guys like Jordan Loveridge, were just in diapers, or barely out of 'em, when the Runnin' Utes were at the pinnacle of their success. Utah playing in the 1998 Final Four doesn't mean much to them when they were barely in kindergarten during it.
So, while Majerus' shadow continues to be big from the fans' perspective, in terms of players, the lifeblood of a basketball program, it means little. It might be a cool story for them to hear that Andre Miller once played in the Huntsman Center and led the Utes to within five minutes of a national championship - but it's becoming increasingly irrelevant ... just like our program. Sooner or later, for the survival of it, we're going to have to start creating new highlights and memories or we run the risk of becoming those certain fans who almost always live in the past ... where all the good moments happened.
Tonight, Utah has a chance to beat a pretty decent Boise State team and continue to lay the foundation for a new renaissance. They're currently 5-2 on the season, their best start in four years, and can really go along way toward proving this year's competitiveness with a victory. After all, this is the same Broncos team that nearly upended Michigan State in East Landing and crushed #11 ranked Creighton on the road. They're a good team and a true test.
With a victory, the Runnin' Utes can do two things - they can honor the greatness of Majerus ... but also, and more importantly, start creating a winning attitude again in Salt Lake City. We've had glimpses of it, namely in '05 and '09, but not consistently. It's always been fleeting. Majerus' legacy was not just 1998 - it was everything else ... the amazing home record, the tournament wins, the undefeated conference season and big-time victories over our rivals - New Mexico in Albuquerque, Wyoming in Laramie, Nevada Las Vegas in Vegas and BYU down in Provo - that's his legacy at Utah. It was his ability to keep things going for so long ... fifteen years, in fact, that made him great. For Krystkowiak to be successful, I'm not expecting a Final Four or even an Elite Eight (though, those would be nice). I'm expecting everything else Majerus did - everything I just outlined above. Solid home victories, competitiveness all around and fundamentally sound basketball.
That's what I want to see tonight. I want to honor Majerus' legacy by playing like the Utah of old and then use this night as a springboard toward future success so that, in a year or two or three - or ten, Krystkowiak is still here and not among those who've failed at Utah.