I don't know if Rick Majerus is the greatest coach in college basketball history. I do know, however, he had the greatest mind. Majerus was basketball. He lived and breathed the sport and it dominated nearly ever facet of his life. If Majerus wasn't coaching, he wasn't living and because of that, more so than any other coach in history, he devoted everything he had to the game.
Rick Majerus never had a wife or children to go home to after a stinging loss or triumphant victory. He was often found, hours after a game had ended, hunkered down in a dark room watching, obsessively, video of the next opponent and the game that had just taken place. He was a perfectionist, maybe to a fault, and he expected his players, the fifteen or so men who really were his family year to year, to be perfect as well. But that was Majerus and it's often what made him great. It's why he won over 500 games and came within five minutes of a national championship.
It's hard to describe the greatness of Majerus because there are so many layers - many of which we never got the chance to see. It is true Majerus often berated his players and drove a few from the game itself. But there was another side to the man who seemed fanatical in his coaching - a personal side that was often hidden from the public persona most Utah fans came to expect ... the hotheaded coach who often found himself in trouble for his coarse language and crude behavior.
There is Majerus the Coach and then there is Majerus the Human Being. The latter is something we're still trying to figure out, and maybe, when it's all said and done, we'll never truly know Majerus the Human Being - but it won't be for a lack of trying. That man, who was humble and crazy about basketball, grew up in a blue collar family in Wisconsin with the dreams of playing the game he loved. Those dreams were dashed quite early when former Marquette great Al McGuire called him the worst player he had ever seen after Majerus tried out for a spot on the roster.
As devastating as I'm sure that was for Majerus to hear, he was undeterred in his consumption of the sport. Instead of playing, Majerus quickly found his way to the bench ... where he would assist his former coach and begin his own legendary career.
The fact Majerus played basketball about as badly as the fans who grew up watching his Runnin' Utes makes his story all the more endearing. Much like his teams at Marquette, Ball State, Utah and then St. Louis, his rise took grit and an unlikely determination. Really, it's those two words, grit and determination, that embody everything we came to expect from Utah under the leadership of Majerus. It's what defined his coaching career and will ultimately highlight his legacy.
But Majerus' greatness stretches beyond the wins. For those who were lucky enough to know the true Majerus, you'll often find stories of a man who would do just about anything for a friend, or a player. He could be gruff, and yes, even abusive at times, but when you got off the court and into the problems of the real world - like when Keith Van Horn lost his father and Majerus broke the news to him and then sat there and consoled him for hours - that inevitably overshadowed basketball, Majerus was the first person in your corner and he would never leave it.
That's just the kind of guy Majerus was.
During Utah's improbable run to the championship game in 1998, after they defeated North Carolina in the Final Four, Tar Heel center Makhtar Ndiaye accused Utah freshman Britton Johnsen of calling him the n-word. So sure Johnsen would never use such racist language, Majerus, during a press conference to confront the accusations, promised to resign if the incident proved true - and he would have. But it didn't come to that. Ndiaye later admitted to making the story up in the heat of an emotional loss.
It wasn't always easy gaining the respect of Rick Majerus, but once you did, once he believed in you, that respect endured. It's why so many players, many of whom were probably pushed to the brink of quitting, still have nothing but praise for him.
As a Utah fan, who grew up at the height of Utah basketball, I always took pride in the way our program was run. In my view, that's Majerus' greatest legacy. The product he put out there didn't always win, but it was filled with admirable men, who invested everything they had into the game they loved ... just like their coach.
The game of basketball is worse off than it was a mere two days ago for Majerus' passing. Utah basketball is worse off for not properly showing respect to the man who built them into a national power. And we fans are worse off knowing we will never witness Majerus' mastery in action again.
My heart is sad for so many reasons - but the worst of which is knowing this game has lost such a towering figure.
Thank you, Rick, for giving me so many unbelievable memories. You will be missed.