Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Forde [Print without images]

Thursday, January 24, 2008
Majerus: 'Good for your soul to be involved in this process'

By Pat Forde
ESPN.com

If Rick Majerus were like 95 percent of the men in his profession, he wouldn't have been anywhere near that Hillary Clinton rally last weekend.

Rick Majerus
Rick Majerus came to St. Louis in April after previous stops at Marquette, Ball State and Utah.
He would have been watching tape and pretending the real world didn't exist. He would have his political leanings stuffed so deep inside that nobody would know he cared about anything other than defending the pick-and-roll. And if a guy with a camera approached and asked him questions about abortion and stem-cell research, he would have dislocated his spine avoiding a direct answer.

But that's not Rick Majerus. He is that rarest of breeds: a coach with strong political beliefs and the guts to voice them.

"I would hate to think my life revolved around simply winning games," Majerus said Wednesday night, after a full day of basketball duties as coach at Saint Louis University -- and a full day of hearing his name in the news for non-basketball reasons. "It would certainly diminish the quality of my life if I weren't involved in these things. I've always believed in certain causes. I think it's good for your soul to be involved in this process.

The better part of discretion is never taking a stand on anything politically as a coach. But you can't go to the safe haven all the time.

--Rick Majerus

"The better part of discretion is never taking a stand on anything politically as a coach. But you can't go to the safe haven all the time."

Majerus is pretty far out of the safe haven now, after St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke entered, stage right, and all but declared Majerus unfit to work at the Jesuit university that employs him. That came in the wake of Majerus' comments to a television reporter at the Clinton rally last Saturday, when the coach said, yeah, he's pro-choice and pro-stem-cell research.

Burke isn't one to hold back when it comes to abortion opinions. In 2004, he said he would deny Holy Communion to Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry because of Kerry's support for abortion rights. Now, he is hammering Majerus, saying he will ask Saint Louis administrators to take "appropriate action" against their first-year coach.

"I was shocked," Majerus, a Catholic who talked extensively about his religious upbringing when he was hired, said of the archbishop's criticism. "And almost nothing shocks me anymore. …

"I have no bone to pick with the bishop, I really don't. He's entitled to his opinion, but I should be entitled to mine."

The Majerus file

Age: 59
Career record (through Jan. 23): 423-147
Coaching career: Marquette assistant (1971-83); Marquette head coach (1983-86); Ball State head coach (1987-89); Utah head coach (1989-2004)
Final Fours: One (Utah in 1998)
More: After leaving Utah, citing poor health for both him and his mother, he signed at ESPN as a college basketball analyst … In late 2004, Majerus signed to take over as the head coach at USC on April 1, 2005, only to resign less than a week later, citing his health. "I made a mistake," Majerus said. "I apologize to USC for any inconvenience or embarrassment." … He returned to ESPN, where he was an analyst until taking the St. Louis job on April 27, 2007.

Majerus didn't appear at the Clinton rally as a representative of SLU. But I'm guessing that if Burke were to canvass the SLU campus, he might find a few students, faculty members and staffers who agree with their basketball coach. In fact, he probably could find a few of them in the pews of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis on any given Sunday.

Difference of opinion -- and the thoughtful discussion of those opinions -- is supposed to be part and parcel of a university community. Even at a university with a religious affiliation. A campus with only one school of thought and one slice of the American demographic sounds like a pretty dull place.

And any campus that has Majerus on it never will be dull. Agree or disagree with his politics, but respect the fact that the big man's life is bigger than 84 feet by 50 feet.

He's an excellent basketball coach who took Utah on an improbable run to the 1998 national title game, but he's far more than that. He is intriguingly complex -- you probably can find as many Majerus critics as Majerus fans -- and never shallow. He wears his surgically repaired heart on his sleeve and puts his neck on the line for what he believes.

"I was brought up that way," Majerus said.

His dad, Raymond Majerus, fought on Okinawa in World War II, then came home and became politically active. A guy from small-town Wisconsin with no high school diploma wound up marching for civil rights in Selma, Ala. Wound up on the board of regents at the University of Wisconsin. Wound up, along with his wife, Alyce, instilling in their son an activist's zeal.

"I campaigned for Kerry in three states," Majerus said. "I'll campaign and help out whoever the Democratic party candidate is this year. I'm still registered to vote in Utah, and I'll fly to Utah to vote. I'll miss practice to do that -- and I'll miss a meal before I miss practice.

I believe in ending the war. I believe in gun control. I believe in stem-cell (research). I believe in pro-choice. I respect that women need to make the decisions that are right for them, and I think it's wrong for people to speculate what they would do in a gut-wrenching, agonizing situation.

--Majerus

"I believe in ending the war. I believe in gun control. I believe in stem-cell [research]. I believe in pro-choice. I respect that women need to make the decisions that are right for them, and I think it's wrong for people to speculate what they would do in a gut-wrenching, agonizing situation."

Those views haven't materialized just since he got to SLU -- Majerus used to eat lunch with Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch and debate gun control. But his passion for stem-cell research has increased since watching the father of his first Utah recruit, guard Jimmy Soto, die from the neurodegenerative disease ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig's disease) within the past year.

Majerus loved Al Soto. Loved the fact that he kept coming to the Utes' practices even after Jimmy graduated. Loved the way he heckled the players as they ran sprints. Loved his zest for life.

Watching him steadily deteriorate and die at age 55 affected Majerus.

"It's probably the single most debilitating disease on the planet," he said. "I sent Soto's dad to the Dominican Republic for a stem-cell transplant and helped pay for it. It gave him hope. Hope and faith are intertwined in religion -- you're hoping God is real, but you don't know. Stem-cell research gives people hope for a cure to diseases like ALS."

You won't hear this kind of stuff on your weekly college basketball teleconferences. You won't hear it from the podiums during March Madness. You never hear it from the mouths of the most influential athletes on the planet, who are scrupulously trained to avoid saying anything that might make an endorser queasy.

We know Tiger Woods believes in Nike and Michael Jordan believes in Hanes and Peyton Manning believes in Gatorade, but we sure don't know how they vote or how they feel about societal issues. Same with the vast majority of the coaches who have become the stars of college basketball, pockets lined with shoe money and other endorsements. With Majerus, we know.

With all his beliefs laid on the table in a deeply Catholic city, he will accept whatever response this controversy generates. He said he understands why the SLU president, Father Lawrence Biondi, cannot make a public show of support for him -- but he also does not expect any condemnation from the university.

"I don't anticipate repercussions," Majerus said. "But if there were, I don't need the job. I like the job, but if Father asked me to step down, I would. I think I would.

"Even if I did need the job, it isn't something that would deter me from this. I'm not going to change my opinions."

Pat Forde is a national columnist for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.