With his Cinderella team a game away from a shot at the national championship, Loyola Chicago basketball coach Porter Moser has been thinking about his old boss lately, the dude in the sweater.
“I wish coach Majerus was around,” Moser, an assistant coach under the legendary Rick Majerus at Saint Louis, told reporters at the site of the Final Four. “Obviously I was so close to him and, ironically, it was 20 years ago almost to the date that he was in San Antonio with his Utah team. I wish I could tap into that.”
With an underdog team in the Alamo City on the 20th anniversary of their own magical run, the members of the 1997-98 Runnin’ Utes find themselves tapping into those memories more often. And some five years after Majerus’ death, the coach’s fingerprints can still be found on college basketball’s past and its present.
“Nobody thought we could do that,” said BYU women’s basketball coach Jeff Judkins, an assistant coach for the Utes in ’98. “Now I see Loyola of Chicago and say that was us 20 years ago. Nobody thought we’d be there. It’s crazy. It reminds me so much of our team.”
The Utes weren’t quite the underdogs the 11th-seeded Loyola Ramblers are now. After winning the WAC title, Utah entered the tournament as a No. 3 seed. But after beating San Francisco and Arkansas in the first two rounds then grinding out a victory over West Virginia, the Utes needed upset victories over top-seeded Arizona and North Carolina to get to the title game.
“It’s three weeks of my life that gets talked about every week of my life,” said Britton Johnsen, a freshman forward on the team.
Members of that Utah team point to the size of their team, anchored by center Michael Doleac, and the play of point guard Andre Miller, who earned All-Tournament honors.
“Majerus was an incredible coach and everybody knows that,” Johnsen said. “But we made that run because Andre played a bit out of the system. Fast, quick decisions. Shoot early in the clock. That was not Majerus basketball, but Majerus let Andre play.”
Twenty years later, though, Majerus’ cantankerous, and sometimes controversial, nature has helped forge a bond among his former players.
“The great thing about that and the great thing about Majerus is there’s a bond and you pick it up right away,” said Utah Jazz assistant coach Alex Jensen, who played for Majerus at Utah and later coached with him and Moser at St. Louis. “It only takes a couple minutes for the conversation to go back to Majerus because of how dominant he was. You share the same stories, the same jokes, and you laugh just as hard. When we get together, that’s what 90 percent of the conversation will be.”
Members of the 1998 Utah team reunited last month at the Huntsman Center. For Nate Althoff, a freshman on that team, the reunion was surreal.
“It honestly felt like practice ended last week and we just came back for the banquet,” he said.
The morning after the reunion, Judkins met with some of his former players for breakfast, where conversation turned to the specifics of the ’98 title game and Utah’s 78-69 defeat to Kentucky.
“We made a couple of mistakes right at the end of the game. We still remember it,” Judkins said. “Hanno Möttölä remembers missing a wide open shot at the foul line. Drew [Hansen] remembers getting caught on a screen right at the end of the shot clock. Doleac remembers he missed an easy layup. It’s funny how well you can remember that stuff. You can remember all the little things you could have done over.”
Part of the reason why those memories are so vivid is because of the way Majerus drilled his players on detail. Moser coached with him at St. Louis for four years. Now, inside Loyola’s locker room, hang posters with diagrams of plays all over the wall.
“I took that from Coach,” Moser told reporters this week. “We travel with it. We have a war room. We put everything up. The guys embrace it if they’re sitting — I don’t know if its’ through osmosis or anything. It’s if you can pick up a competitive advantage on stopping a play here or there. …
“That’s something these guys embrace, and in terms of how that locker room looks, what you’re referring to, it had Rick Majerus all over it.”
Jensen has stayed in touch with Moser during his team’s tournament run, calling to give him some advice and talk about Majerus.
“I told him don’t change anything about your routine,” Jensen said. “There’s going to be enough surrounding you. Don’t treat it differently than any other game you have all year.”
He didn’t have to say aloud a key piece of advice: Win it all.
Twenty years later, Jensen calls the 1998 tournament and Utah’s loss in the title game “the peak of my playing career and the lowest of lows.”
“There’s nothing like it. It’s a whirlwind. And it’s a curse, because then you’re always chasing it,” Jensen said. “… Coaching with Majerus afterward, he always knew. I think it always bothered him. He knew that was his chance.”
UTES’ MARCH TO THE 1998 FINAL FOUR
March 12 • 85–68 win vs. (No. 14) San Francisco at Boise.
March 14 • 75–69 win vs. (6) Arkansas at Boise.
March 19 • 65-62 win vs. (10) West Virginia at Anaheim, Calif.
March 21 • 76-51 win vs. (1) Arizona at Anaheim, Calif.
March 28 • 65-59 win vs. (1) North Carolina at San Antonio.
March 30 • 78-69 loss vs. (2) Kentucky at San Antonio.