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Livin' Large, if All Too Briefly, With Majerus

COMMENTARY

December 24, 2004|Bill Dwyre | Times Staff Writer

Like a train at a commuter station, he came and went quickly. Had we gotten to know him, had Los Angeles been exposed, for any decent period of time, to this giant man with similar-sized heart and emotional problems, it might have been big-time love.

But the man with the Santa Claus shape undelivered his Christmas present before we had time to unwrap it. And so, now it is, mostly, Rick Majerus, we hardly knew ye.

Unfortunately, I knew him and still do, better than most. I say unfortunately because, in my business, friends do not easily write about friends because that writing lacks credibility. Sometimes, though, a choice needs to be made between refraining for personal reasons and weighing in to foster deeper reader understanding. I will tiptoe down the latter path gingerly.

Majerus is an overweight basketball coach with a reputation for being jolly good at winning games and influencing people, especially media and alums.

All that was evident when he took the job as USC's basketball coach at a lively, laugh-a-minute news conference Dec. 15.

He is also too sensitive, too introspective, too tough and too emotional, a combination that can add up to a personal mess. He is a perfectionist who knows so much basketball and teaches it so well that he went where few others could -- to the NCAA Final Four in 1998 with a team from the University of Utah. There are programs built to get to the Final Four, in places attractive enough to bring the talent needed. Utah and Salt Lake City are neither.

He is also a personal contradiction. He lives in hotels, dotes on a handful of friends, drives many players from his team with a Marine discipline and work ethic that some think approaches meanness, and flies all night to get to funerals of players' loved ones, where he kneels and sobs genuine tears.

All that was evident Monday when, five days after taking the USC job, he resigned in a somber, emotional and troubling news conference.

The media did the best they could to follow this bouncing ball.

At the hiring announcement, all the one-liners were jotted down and all the self-effacing humor was duly noted and widely embraced. Then, for the most part, they did their best to temper their normal cynicism when he stepped down. He said he was healthy but not fit, that he was too fat and he knew it, that he was fine to do most jobs, but not fine to be the basketball coach of a prominent Division I program that required, by his standards, a physical pace he could not run. The media, conditioned to press gatherings that are exercises in spin and manipulation, saw none of that this time. Instead, they saw a man who was an emotional mess and the school athletic administrators who had just hired him more concerned about his well-being than the egg on their face.

And so, Majerus got a pass. Honesty and genuine emotion had won out, a real lesson for the spinners and liars of the sports world, a huge majority these days.

In many ways, the departure news conference was like nothing ever seen before. The late Red Smith, Pulitzer prize-winning sports columnist for the New York Times, once said, "Writing is easy. All you have to do is sit down at the typewriter and open a vein." On Monday, in a big room at Heritage Hall, Majerus opened a vein.

He didn't just say he couldn't do all the things needed to succeed at USC, he described the kinds of things needed. He talked about having four tape machines in his hotel room in Salt Lake City, one of them in the bathroom. He talked about a young assistant named Scott Garson, now video coordinator at UCLA, whose job description at Utah had included walking alongside a pool in the wee hours of the morning while Majerus swam his laps, writing on a clipboard Majerus' utterances in the brief moments he surfaced.

"If I swam underwater for two laps, he'd wait until I came up," Majerus said, "and then I'd tell him to get the film clip of how we doubled the block against Arizona State."

Daryl Gross, USC's senior associate athletic director who had been the point man in Majerus' hiring, described how, minutes after his hiring news conference, Majerus was making and receiving calls and talking about recruits and worrying about getting a malaria shot because Dallas Maverick Coach Don Nelson had called with the name of a prospect in Africa and Majerus knew he'd have to get on a plane quickly to see the kid.

"I told him to relax, to slow down, enjoy it a little," Gross said, "but I looked at him and he was sweating."

Slowing down and relaxing are not things Majerus does well. As he says, "I've never owned golf clubs or a trailer hitch."

So he came and went, and, in the fast lane that is the Los Angeles sports scene, is probably forgotten by now, which is both understandable and sad.

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