CHICAGO, December 2 -- The World Wide Web in 2004 was a far different world than the one we know now, but it held an eye-glint reflection of things to come. Real-time conversations among strangers were only possible in "Java applets," the term "sports blog" hadn't been coined yet, and "meme" was still a word found only in biology journals. But we Photoshopped Rick Majerus' head onto Fat Albert's body anyway
Rick Majerus was still an ex-coach during Season 1 of The Mid-Majority, but still very much a presence in Our Game. He played the role of the awkward crazy-uncle studio sidekick on ESPN, and they'd let him out occasionally to do color commentary on a live game. He was able to get away with pretty much anything on the air, and he often did, because he'd earned the right.
With the WAC's Utah Utes in 1998, he personally engineered one of the greatest Final Four runs out of mid-majordom in history, long before Butler and George Mason and VCU, and he was able to do it because he was smarter than everyone he went up against. And because his entire brain, even the parts that are usually reserved for sex or survival, was wired for hoops. Everybody in the college basketball business has a Rick Majerus story, and the only bad Rick Majerus stories are the ones that don't contain all three of the compulsory Rick Majerus story elements: a.) food, b.) his penis, and c.) him drawing up a play.
When I joined the actual sports media, Rick Majerus reentered the coaching ranks at Saint Louis. That meant that I had to deal with Rick Majerus personally, and I was mortified. Things are different when you come face-to-face with people and have to work with them on a daily basis. The night before I met him for the first time, I didn't sleep. I had my explanation ready: I only made fun of him out of respect. That would fly, right? He was sure to understand.And it turned out he didn't read the Internet at all. "It's all garbage," he told me later. "I don't have time to read all that, I'm too busy looking for my next meal." He also couldn't name the schools in the Atlantic 10 when he got the job, and only came up with four when I asked him to name them all. "I did premier games," he explained. "Nobody gives a shit about the Atlantic 10 in Bristol."
But because he had walked between the poles, because he knew what it was like to be a member of both the coaching profession and the talking-head corps, he sure knew how to manipulate us. Whenever he saw people in the interview room he didn't recognize from the beat, that's when the best quotes would come out. (Remember when he said that SLU should join the Valley
He drove his sports information director crazy. Some of the stories about what went on at Coach Majerus' practices and in private got out to the public
, a few led to investigations, most didn't see the light of day. "You don't want to know what's going on here," I was told. Once I was told a little, I didn't want to hear more.
Rick Majerus had, in his mind, an image of what basketball perfection was. He had a mechanism to get these ideas out of his head, and he did so incessantly: on napkins, sticky notes, scraps of paper, anything available. The actual human beings in front of him, real players, rarely met this standard, and it frustrated him to no end.
One time, in an empty locker room in Pittsburgh after a Billiken loss, he broke down in front of me -- the same tears he had shed during the news conference in December 2004 when he resigned the head coaching position at Southern California after five days (which I promptly had made fun of in this very space). "We've got a bad problem here," he blurted. "I don't have any players." Several weeks later, his team scored 20 total points
against George Washington.
His frustration and perfectionism led to cruelty, extreme harshness and outright abuse. Those are some of the terrifying stories you'll be hearing now that he's gone, all the embittered former players who are glad he's dead, the ones whose only sin was that they were a step slower and slightly more human than the basketball supermen in Coach Majerus' imagination. Media, new and old alike, don't have much tolerance for complexity or fallibility or humanity, and have their own requirements for perfect demigods.
But in my best behavior, I am really just like him
. I have an astounding capability for producing venom, we all do, and don't pretend you don't either (especially those of you posting Twitter jokes about his weight a day after his death). We all have the choice of being apologetic or unapologetic for the pain and damage we cause, but we bear the responsibilities and consequences of those choices. Coach Majerus picked his path and lived on it. He left this earth wifeless and childless, and last summer he lost his long-ailing mother -- the true reason why he left the USC job, as well as the answer to why he chose Saint Louis, a quick air shuttle away from her home in Wisconsin. He leaves behind a bigger list of enemies than family tree, so he will only be remembered as long as we, the college basketball community, remember him.
In storage back East, along with all the other remnants of my seven years on the road covering basketball, there's a folded up final stat sheet from a Saint Louis game, upon which Coach Majerus sketched a play on the back. This is just one of thousands, or possibly millions, of similar documents held by journalists, coaches, staff members, and I'll bet even fans. If you have a napkin or sticky note or scrap of paper with a Majerus play on it, please share it on Facebook or Twitter or any other social mechanism we have now that didn't exist in 2004. They are the tangible evidence of his basketball genius.