Sunday, December 2, 2012

College Hoops Lost So Much In Rick Majerus

We've lost the heart and soul of college hoops. We've also lost a basketball legend. There's no doubt Rick Majerus stood for everything college sports signifies. If grandparents were to reminisce with their grandchildren about a selfless and generous person, or talk about wisdom in sports, the man who comes to mind is the late Majerus.

Parents didn't mind welcoming Majerus into their homes and didn't have an issue sending their kids off to Utah. When he died Saturday of heart failure, America reflected on the strongest and kindest coach to teach kids, to shape their lives, to prepare them for the real world, and lastly, inspire children. Nobody adored basketball more than Rick, and no other coach has ever taught or disciplined young players like Rick. Everybody loves a winner, and wherever Rick coached in his wondrous career, he definitely was a winner and had an influence on kids’ lives.

Amazing, isn't it, how Majerus has left the face of the earth?

Majerus, 64 years young, recently left Saint Louis University, where he coached for the last five seasons, for health issues. His death happened so soon, although there's no such thing as premature death, although he had been fighting heart problems for quite some time. Majerus was unhealthy, his health was always an issue with a history of weight and heart problems, his leg also wasn't ever the same since cutting it in a collision with players a year ago, when he nearly had to have it amputated.

For so long, he's had a myriad of heart bypasses, he's walked slowly and struggled to breathe, as it became very problematic. Flashing back to the good times, and ignoring a bevy of health issues, Majerus prominently cements a legacy forever, one nobody can ever erase. It's a real shame he's deceased, but Majerus' death is not surprising when he wasn't feeling well, when he had been suffering quietly and couldn't any longer coach at Saint Louis, where he had recent success last March.

For a long time, he desperately desired to return to the Final Four -- he was always dedicated and attached to a game he truly savored more than anyone else in college hoops. Majerus, a fiery teacher of the game, has studied, coached and led some of the game's most successful college programs for 25 seasons. From Ball State to Marquette to Utah to Saint Louis, he was an incredible 517-216, winning more than 70 percent of his games with 12 NCAA appearances.

We'll eventually move on and succumb to reality, but for the time being, we'll mourn the death of the most jovial college basketball coach. As with all deaths, comes memories and things we hardly ever forget about a particular person, and so nobody will ever fail to mention that Majerus led Utah to the 1998 NCAA final when the Utes lost to Kentucky. More than anything, Majerus had only one losing season in 25 years with four schools, and three of his players at Utah were NBA draft picks. After the 98 Utes team advanced to the national title, Keith Van Horn was selected as the No. 2 overall pick.

Relatively speaking, Van Horn, Michael Doleac and Alex Jensen, among former Utah stars, paid visits to Majerus' home and spoke with their former coach. That's right, after having an influence and touching so many lives, he was a likable man, and someone who many looked up to as a father figure and someone who wanted to see his players succeed. The last we've seen Majerus was back in March, following a win over Memphis and a loss to Michigan State. From what I recall, Majerus broke down in the midst of a postgame press conference in the aftermath of an emotional loss in the NCAA tournament.

The last we've seen Majerus he was also in good spirits, always smiling and giving his heart to people. But his heart had finally stopped given, when he lived a complete and prosperous life. For all of his great runs and success at four different schools, he's taken 12 teams to the NCAA tournament with two 30-win seasons and 15 20-win seasons. The climax of Majerus' career took place at Utah, where he built a foundation with the landscape of stars and parity, and as a result of it, he complied a record of 323-95 from 1989 to 2004.

Majerus, ladies and gentlemen, was one helluva coach. He's got a Hall of Fame resume, he's created a legacy that cannot ever be touched, and now he's an angel flying high in the heavens. It's only kind to speak nicely and respectfully of Majerus, with all he's done to the landscape of college basketball, with all he's done to help change lives and teach kids. Majerus was a character of college basketball, an all-time custodian everywhere he coached, in every locker room he stood in and to everyone's heart he touched and brought to life with his hilarious, animated and intellectual basketball mind.

This time, unfortunately, he couldn't overcome his health problems and needed a heart transplant, but had trouble receiving one because of his age. There were times when Majerus joked about his weight and his diet as if he was one of those fat kids from the old movie Heavyweights. Not once did his weight or Ben Stiller bother him. It should come as no surprise that Majerus spent much of the summer at a Los Angeles hospital due to his ailing heart. Not long ago, Saint Louis University announced he'd be stepping down because of his health, and then recently released another statement that he wouldn't be returning to coach the Billikens at any point.

Which brings me to why he was so emotional when Saint Louis was eliminated from the tournament. He realized that time was running short on his career, that his health issues were going to unexpectedly end his accomplished career. The ultimate feeling is that he knew when nobody else knew. So amazingly, though, he was fighting off the pain and still enthusiastic enough to hang in there as long as possible.

With a shot as Saint Louis head coach, Majerus took the Billikens to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2000. The temptation of too much food would always take over after the game, for a guy who lived in his hotel room and for a guy who normally ordered a postgame pizza. It wasn't just a one-time thing, but a ritual to pig out on food and watch film of the next opponent. He was a funny character, a man who was savvy when it came to knowing the top restaurants in nearly every city, and knew what every menu had to offer. There weren't too many nights when he didn't go out for dinner at one of the finest joints in town. The man had an obsession for food and hotel vending machines, with candy bars to sneak out of his room for a midnight snack.

Clearly a demanding coach, Majerus was always up for the challenge and expected much from his players and assistant coaches. And as his condition worsened, he saw and spoke to a lot of his kids, who came to visit the ailing coach. And now Majerus is an angel above.

As an angel, he can speak and touch another angel's heart now. There wasn't ever a need for a heart transplant.