Calling Rick Majerus larger than life would be no less apt a description of the former University of Utah basketball coach if he had weighed 125 pounds and craved celery and seaweed instead of pizza and pasta.
Sure, Majerus' epic battles with his waistline, together with his lightning wit and mercurial temperament, were all part of what made him one of the most colorful characters in all of sport. Who but the self-effacing Majerus would have said that nobody thought he would be a great coach because he was "the kind of guy you'd expect to be driving an 18-wheeler through town."
But it was his consuming passion for the game of basketball, his genius as a tactician and his ability to teach and inspire his players, on and off the court, that truly set Majerus apart. There are plenty of offbeat characters who coach college basketball for a living, but only a handful could match Majerus for the sheer brilliance he brought to the game, or the compassion he felt for the underdog. As his longtime friend Jon M. Huntsman Sr. put it, "His heart was bigger than he was."
That heart gave out on Saturday in Los Angeles while he was awaiting a heart transplant. He was 64. He had had heart surgery in 1990, early into his second season at Utah, and he left midway through the 2003-2004 season for health reasons. The following season he lasted five days at USC before abruptly resigning, again for poor health. After a stint as an ESPN analyst and born raconteur he coached three seasons at St. Louis University before his deteriorating heart condition forced him to step down last summer.
We in Utah came to know Majerus well over the course of his 14 seasons at the University of Utah in which he compiled a 323-95 record, won 10 conference championships and took the Utes to the NCAA championship game in 1998, losing to Kentucky.
Sporting his trademark white sweater, Majerus would prowl the sideline like a great polar bear, his temper sometimes erupting in startling, profane fury. He was occasionally accused of berating his players off the court. But far more often he earned praise for his emphasis on academic achievement and life after basketball.
We will remember Majerus as a passionate man of extraordinary complexity and appetite, for food, certainly, but most of all for the game he lived and breathed. Utah fans lucky enough to have witnessed the fruits of his labors will never forget him, or the joy he brought them as beneficiaries of his greatness.
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