In so many ways, Rick Majerus’ story seems like a classic case of a life unfinished.
Yet there’s some truth in the scriptural theme of Saturday’s funeral Mass on the campus of Marquette University, where Majerus began his basketball coaching career and now, as cited in 2 Timothy, has “finished the race.”
As so often in his coaching life, it is up to others to complete Majerus’ work in the sport he loved so much.
There’s symbolism in how he needed three assistant coaches — Joe Cravens, Dick Hunsaker and Kerry Rupp — to finish seasons for him at various times in his 15-year Utah tenure. It also is telling that to keep living beyond age 64, whether he coached again or not, Majerus would have required someone else’s heart, transplanted into his body.
And now another interim coach is filling in for him, as Jim Crews leads Saint Louis University’s team in Majerus’ permanent absence.
There’s some emptiness at SLU, where Majerus coached for five seasons and intended to keep working, until his health forced him to step away in August. Seeing those 15 players walk alongside Majerus’ casket Saturday drove home how much he will be missed — to a much more emotional degree than when he left Utah in 2004.
I only can imagine how the Billikens are feeling. As poignant and entertaining as philanthropist Jon M. Huntsman Sr. and former Ute player Al Jensen were in their remarks Saturday, I missed hearing the words directly from the man himself, one of the great storytellers of our time.
Here in his hometown, I would have loved to hear his tales about shooting hoops on the Franklin Square playground, working at the Pabst Brewery during his college summers, coaching at every level from eighth grade to the NBA and, of course, about food — like the pizza at Palermo’s and the bratwurst with the old County Stadium’s secret mustard, for starters.
Majerus is one of those people who will be noticeable in his absence, just like when the Utes played in Milwaukee in 2004.
After the service Saturday, I walked around the Bradley Center, where Utah’s final season of the Majerus era ended without him. Majerus had walked away from his job in late January. Rupp took the Utes to the NCAA Tournament, but they struggled offensively in a loss to Boston College. You just knew Majerus would have figured out something to solve BC’s defense, but he was gone.
Nearly nine years later, the blessing of Majerus’ passing is that he won’t be forgotten at his former schools. For various reasons, his death was required to make him revered again at Utah.
The Utes and Marquette’s players are wearing “RM” patches on their jerseys. Marquette’s tribute began with Saturday’s meeting with Wisconsin, shortly before the Utah-BYU game in Provo.
Majerus thrived in those rivalry games, but he gave every opponent his full effort. He loved coaching basketball — at any level. That’s his legacy.
In a response to the coach’s online obituary, Mark Mageras, a Utahn whose name sounds just like “Majerus,” told of working in the Utes’ summer camps for 13 years. “I was a nobody in the basketball world,” Mageras wrote, “and he treated me like a somebody.”
Majerus coached the St. Sebastian eighth-graders in Milwaukee on his way up in the profession; Mageras coached at higher levels before taking over a girls team in Layton.
“Ninety percent of what I teach my players,” Mageras wrote, “I learned from Rick.”
Similarly, former Ute All-America forward Keith Van Horn recently said Majerus would be “shocked” to discover how much he emphasizes fundamentals to the girls he coaches in suburban Denver. So it is that Majerus’ work will live on — with Van Horn’s youngest daughter, the girls at Legacy Junior High and beyond.