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COMMENTARY

Majerus Really Living Large

March 22, 1998|BILL DWYRE

The balding fat guy in the white sweater ate the other guy alive Saturday. Matter of fact, as far as the West Regional of the NCAA tournament goes, he ate the whole thing.

And afterward, Utah's Rick Majerus couldn't believe it.

"I was with Al McGuire in 1977 as an assistant when he won it with Marquette," he said, "And I never thought I'd make it back."

Those who know college basketball, who know this huge man with a huge heart, would disagree. In a game of Bob Knight, Mike Krzyzewski and Dean Smith--and yes, Lute Olson--Majerus was a contender. He knew the game and how to teach it as well as anybody in the country. His only failing was that he coached at a place where it was hard to attract the kind of players that get you to a Final Four and bring the corresponding national attention.

So he didn't recruit stars, he made them. Keith Van Horn last season, Andre Miller this one.

In the aftermath of Utah's 76-51 shocker in which Majerus' triangle-and-two defense destroyed Olson's defending national champion Arizona Wildcats, Majerus' success in a regional right here in Southern California carried with it irony as large as the man himself.

Majerus recruited Van Horn, last year's runner-up college player of the year, from Diamond Bar High; UCLA didn't give him a sniff. Majerus recruited Miller, a point guard who made Arizona's All-American pair of Miles Simon and Michael Bibby an afterthought in this game, from Verbum Dei High in Los Angeles; UCLA didn't give him a sniff.

Majerus, who has come to love Utah and everything about it, from its fans to its work ethic, nevertheless would kill for one college coaching job in the country. But when Jim Harrick was sent away by the Bruins, UCLA didn't give Majerus a sniff.

Now, it might be too late. Now, the new genius of the coaching fraternity might be on the receiving end of so many gold rushes, both in Salt Lake City and elsewhere, that life somewhere down the line as a gutty little Bruin becomes less likely. The truth is, money does not drive Majerus. Never did, never will.

His road to the Final Four began in a Lake Michigan port town of Sheboygan, Wis., some 60 miles north of Milwaukee, where he was born 50 years ago. His father was Raymond Majerus, now deceased, who was a high-ranking official in the AFL-CIO, a close associate of Jimmy Hoffa and a possible successor until illness slowed him down.

The Majerus family, union and blue collar, moved to Milwaukee, and Rick, with the build of a fireplug and a four-inch vertical leap, fell in love with the game of basketball. From the start, it was a passion so deep that even the ultimate jilt, from the ultimate hero, did not deter him.

As a walk-on at Marquette, Majerus was taken aside after practice one day by Al McGuire, the coach. Majerus was certain that his hero and mentor was about to tell him he had made the team. Instead, McGuire told him he was among the worst players he had ever seen.

Others would have become biologists, or couch potatoes. Majerus became a playground rat. He took the scrawniest, least-coordinated, pimple-faced teenagers from the streets of Milwaukee and taught them, by the sheer force of his willpower, to become efficient, even good, basketball players.

Many of them ended up at Marquette High, where Majerus landed a job as an assistant, under a fine coach named Paul Noack. With Noack coaching, and Majerus learning, Marquette High became a power in the state of Wisconsin. Among the star players was a kid named McGuire, first name Allie. He was a very good player, all-state, who went on to Marquette University, where somebody soon asked the coach what the kid's prospects were.

"He will start," Al McGuire said, "because he is my son."

And so he did, having a fine career that was, at least in part, a credit to Majerus' grass-roots coaching.

So, before long, McGuire had taken notice and Majerus was an assistant at Marquette University. Soon, McGuire was advising Majerus on the next step in his career. There were many nights, after practice, that found the two at a pizza place on Wisconsin Avenue, Rick shoving the pepperoni down and Al pounding on the table and telling his young protege, in no uncertain terms, that he was gonna end up "too damn fat" for anybody to take him seriously enough to hire him.

For one of the few times, McGuire was wrong. Majerus eventually took over at Marquette, went from there to Ball State, and then, in 1989, Utah came calling.

Majerus wasn't all that interested at first, but he remembered that one of those scrawny kids he had coached on the playgrounds of Milwaukee, and at Marquette High, had gone on to have a great career at Utah, and had been treated beautifully. So he listened, liked what he heard and took the job.

The rest is history, as they say.

But there was a wonderful postscript Saturday, shortly after the game.

Michael Doleac, Utah's 6-foot-11 center, walked toward the press table while the celebration was going on, reached over and hoisted a scrawny Utah broadcaster over the top, then hugged him and squeezed him till you could almost hear Jeff Jonas' bones crunching. Jonas, the Utes' all-time leading assist man, was the main reason Majerus even listened to Utah's offer nine years ago. He was there in the beginning, back on those Milwaukee playgrounds. Now, Doleac, probably without knowing exactly what he was doing, had correctly made him part of the moment.

Out on the court, Utah players were cutting down the net, one strand at a time. Before each got on the ladder, they waited for Majerus to nod an OK.

Even when it was over, Majerus was still coaching.

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