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Laughter Belies a Serious Quest

Bill Plaschke

December 16, 2004|Bill Plaschke

We don't know about his heart, we're not sure about his head, and we'll never know about his stomach.

But there's nothing wrong with his funny bone.

"I'd like to congratulate the football team," Rick Majerus said in his opening remarks as USC's basketball coach Wednesday. "If they ever need me, I could suit up and be a suburban white Gilbert Brown."

The Heritage Hall room filled with laughter, and when is the last time anything about USC basketball included laughter?

"I've had seven bypasses," Majerus said, "one for each major food group. And two for the barbecue division."

Another roar and you realized it was starting from the back, with regular folks who dropped in to watch, fans at a Trojan basketball news conference suddenly louder than at past Trojan basketball games.

"I need to eat where Jennifer Aniston eats," he said, and now college basketball's fourth-winningest coach was rolling, self-deprecating humor mixed with real emotion and you thought, so this is how he coaxed Andre Miller from South Central Avenue to Salt Lake City.

Rick Majerus was so bubbly in his first day in his "dream job," he did everything except agree to moonlight as the Trojan mascot.

But he thought about it.

"If they want me to go on the horse and throw the spear, I'll do it," Majerus said, pausing. "Although the horse might not like it."

There are other tricks that interest USC more, namely, the 56-year-old Majerus' staying healthy and interested for the duration of his five-year deal.

He said he could pull it off, noting that he has lost five inches off his waistline and plans to make this the last job of his career.

"I think my health is good, or I wouldn't do this," he said.

Yet he arrived in the sunny Southland swathed not in his trademark sweater, but a visible layer of doubt.

"Great hire," a campus security guard said Wednesday, suddenly and unsolicited. "But would you tell him to take care of himself?"

When folks weren't laughing, they were murmuring over comments they pray he doesn't mean.

"I hope I die here," he said, quickly clarifying, "I hope I coach here the rest of my life."

Later, he mentioned the word again.

"If I die on the court ... where else would I want to die?" Majerus said.

Thus is the paradox of a man who, before he left Utah, ranked fifth among active coaches with a .742 career winning percentage.

Majerus is funny, but scary.

Majerus is traditional, but eccentric.

Majerus treats his players like family, but, over the years, several have voluntarily disowned him because of his toughness.

"I want to be the kind of professor or coach who stretches you to your limitations," he said.

Majerus believes his teams must have immovable fundamental foundations yet, until now, he's always lived in a hotel.

"I'm not going to live in a hotel here ... unless Julia Roberts moves into a hotel and tells me I can live with her," he said.

Majerus is one of basketball's most controlling head coaches, taking personal responsibility for programs that have produced seven Academic All-Americans, three Rhodes scholar finalists and a handful of pretty good NBA players.

Yet, in a strange arrangement, he will only officially be a Trojan assistant coach until April, because he doesn't want to control somebody else's parts.

"I will lose games early to teach it the right way," he said. "So it's not fair to these seniors ... to lose games because I want to build a program."

Majerus has already watched 20 hours of Trojan game film, but he apparently will not attend any practices or games.

"This is a tough situation, but it's a great challenge for me," said Jim Saia, the interim coach.

But odd is in, as Majerus has consistently won more games with less talent than anyone in the country.

He wins close games. He wins big games. He plays difficult winter schedules to set up his team for energizing spring victories.

In a dozen NCAA tournaments at Ball State and Utah, he won 11 first-round games.

He came within five game-clock minutes of winning the 1998 national championship against Kentucky, and the pain on his face says he will never get that close and miss again.

"I can recap the last six minutes of that game second by second by second," he said. "It haunts me every night."

For one of the first times all afternoon, nobody was laughing.

If you didn't take USC basketball seriously before, you should now.

Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.

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