To Majerus, the game is the only thing

March 28, 1998|By John Eisenberg

SAN ANTONIO -- Rick Majerus wants it the most.

All the players and coaches at the Final Four want to win two games and become a national champion, but Majerus, the coach of Utah's Utes, wants it more than the rest.

More than Kentucky coach Tubby Smith, who could use a national title to step out from Rick Pitino's shadow.

More than North Carolina coach Bill Guthridge, who could use a title to step out from Dean Smith's shadow.

Yes, even more than the players, who have dreamed of this opportunity from the time they learned to dribble.

They all want to win, but Majerus, 50, wants it more.

This is his whole life. Basketball. Coaching. Striving for a shot at a national title.

His other dreams? There aren't many, other than maybe a perfect plate of pasta. He isn't married. He has no children. He lives alone in a hotel suite in Salt Lake City with two bedrooms, three bathrooms and four televisions.

Taking a team to the Final Four is what he has lived for since he became a coach nearly 30 years ago.

Don't cast him as a one-dimensional character without other interests. He has a wicked sense of humor, a master's degree in counseling and an obsession with his players' academic careers. (Majerus on hotel living: "No matter what happens during the day, everything is OK if the mints are on my pillow and the sheets are turned down.")

He says he loves theater, movies, books and travel. It's obvious he loves eating -- he weighs close to 300 pounds.

But what he really loves is basketball, period.

He oversees every detail of his program, which has become one of the nation's best. He studies game films well into the night, organizes detailed game plans, takes reporters' phone calls at midnight and spends many days on the road recruiting. His summers are spent coaching international teams such as USA Basketball's 22-and-under team.

And what is he doing when he isn't coaching? Playing, of course. A self-proclaimed "gym rat," he plays pickup games every chance he gets. He will join a group of friends, celebrities and other coaches in an annual Final Four pickup game this morning, even though his Utes play North Carolina tonight.

"I love playing," Majerus said. "I'd quit coaching tomorrow if I could play again and be the 12th man on the Utah Jazz. All I do is set picks, block out and pass. Everyone wants me on their team. I'm a No. 1 draft pick."

Actually, his playing career didn't last beyond high school in Milwaukee. When he tried out at Marquette University, his idol, then-Marquette coach Al McGuire, cut him and told him to go do something else.

Majerus turned to coaching and landed a job at his old high school, which led to a job as McGuire's assistant. When Marquette went to the Final Four in 1977 and won a national title, Majerus was on the bench.

"I never thought I'd make it back," Majerus said last week.

He became the head coach at Marquette in 1983 and took three teams to the NIT, then spent one year as an NBA assistant and two years as head coach at Ball State before moving to Utah in 1989.

He was hardly a perfect fit as a Catholic and a bachelor in a family-oriented, Mormon-dominated community, but winning breaks down those barriers in a hurry. And winning is what Majerus has done, taking six teams to the NCAA tournament, four to the Sweet 16, two to the Elite Eight and now one to the Final Four.

That record has pushed Majerus to the top of the coaching profession; every year he weighs offers from other colleges and even NBA teams such as the Golden State Warriors. So far, he has turned them all down. One of these days, he will leave.

"I'd love to finish out at St. Mary's [a small school in the San Francisco Bay area]," he said at the West Regional last weekend. "I love small Catholic schools."

His humor has made him popular among his peers and reporters -- he loves to go on radio talk shows -- but playing for him isn't one laugh after another. He travels separately from his players so they don't get too close to him, and he is notoriously tough in practice.

"It's something you have to get used to," Utah center Michael Doleac said yesterday.

But he also demands that they excel in class. His whole style is one of tough love more than mean-spirited derision. The players seem to understand.

"He's just trying to make you better on and off the court," Doleac said.

In the end, he is a walking set of contradictions.

He underwent heart bypass surgery seven years ago, but he still wields a heavy fork and jokes about his weight.

His passion for basketball dominates his life, but he wants his players to have other interests.

He looks like a guy sitting in the cheap seats, but he is a coaching intellectual and superb strategist; it was his triangle-and-two defense that shattered Arizona in the West Regional final.

Maybe it's a stretch to say he wants to win the Final Four more than anyone from North Carolina or Kentucky, where the fans demand winning, but Majerus has waited a lifetime for tonight's opening tap.

His whole career, his whole life, has built to this moment, this chance to write his own history.

It's just impossible for anyone else to want it more.

Pub Date: 3/28/98

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