Rick Majerus was described once as … an interesting bunch of guys.
It was my description and I stand by it because that’s exactly what he was. In the middle of his time running Utah basketball, I joked with him that he was a man of many chins and many faces, and he guffawed about that. It was one of the few times we shared a laugh together. Often, we were at one another’s throat over one thing or another.
But, good lord, the man could coach. And he will be remembered for that.
He didn’t always use attractive language or imagery on the court with his players, and sometimes he was downright crude and verbally abusive, but his basketball methodology was a thing of beauty. If you needed a coach to get you a win, or get you 25 wins, his name would be near the top of anybody’s list.
His basketball brain was encyclopedic and when a certain strategy was necessary, he’d climb the ladder in his mind and pull out whatever reference book was called for, and simply apply it to the situation. That happened a lot — in regular-season games and in the NCAA Tournament. His record in that regard speaks clearly.
But the man himself was complicated. I called Majerus once to get a comment from him about his recruiting of Richie Parker, a touted New York City prep player who had been convicted of sexually assault, forcing a 15-year-old girl to perform a sex act on him, under a stairway at school.
That call begat four other phone calls between us that day during which he explained his justifications for recruiting the kid. Majerus defended Parker, inviting me to travel with him back to New York to talk with Parker’s family, his minister, his coach, and investigate for myself the good reasons for having him a part of Utah’s basketball program.
Majerus listened when I tried to explain why female Ute fans, and males, too, might have a problem with being put in a position where they were supposed to cheer and root for someone who had done what Parker did. And he came back with a thousand rationalizations.
One thing about Majerus, when he grabbed a hold of any discussion topic he deemed worthy, you had best get comfortable. I talked with him for seven hours, all on the phone, that day and night, the last call coming from him at midnight and ending at 2 in the morning. We never came to any agreement, and I wrote my column expressing my point of view.
He phoned me the day the column ran to thank me for my fair treatment of him in our disagreement. It’s something he never did again.
We had our battles. But Majerus always returned phone calls. If you asked him the simplest of questions, he fired off on a circuitous verbal journey that had about 20 pit stops for subject changes along the way. Our discussions and disagreements were almost always fascinating. I asked him about zone defense and we ended up talking about labor unions. I asked him about transition defense and he waxed on about constitutional law.
He dug out of me once that a family member of mine was having back pain and he rambled off a list of doctors that he would personally call to arrange appointments and treatments. Next thing, he’d be swearing at me for something I’d said or written.
“Rick is tough to read because he’s a lot of different things,” Chris Hill once said. “He’s a guy who is absorbed mentally in a lot of interests, but who gets totally engulfed in coaching basketball. His practices are the most organized in the world, but his office is a mess. The way he prepares a team is very organized, but you look at his car, and he can’t even find his keys. He loves to win, but he takes pleasure from his players succeeding academically.”
A subject we frequently disagreed on was his rough treatment of certain players, and I believe revelations about that rough treatment are what ultimately drove him out of Utah. But, like Hill said, he felt strongly about academics and emphasizing that his players graduate. He taught a lot of players a lot about basketball. And his teams consistently performed as well as any teams ever at Utah.
The man was a tyrant and a bully, a genius and a virtuoso.
I never interviewed or covered anybody else like him, like all the guys that were him.
Rest in peace, Rick Majerus. Rest in peace.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 1280 AM/97.5 FM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.