Commentary

Rick Majerus gave his heart and help

Originally Published: December 1, 2012
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

They say Rick Majerus died of heart failure. They're wrong.

The Rick Majerus I knew was all heart. His life, all 64 years of it, was a breadcrumb trail of random acts of kindness. I'm not sure I can recall a conversation with him that didn't begin or end with, "How can I help?"

OK, maybe there was one: about a week or so ago, when we did the speakerphone thing. Me in Wheaton, Ill., him in his Los Angeles hospital room.

He wasn't able to speak much above a whisper, which meant I could remind him about one of the worst purchases he ever made: a two-seater Thunderbird convertible that groaned when he sat in it. Majerus and tiny sports cars were meant for each other like Majerus and broccoli smoothies.

Rick loved that ridiculous toy car. He loved his mom. He loved the entire right side of restaurant menus.

[+] EnlargeRick Majerus
Todd Warshaw/Getty ImagesRick Majerus was wildly popular in Utah, where he won 323 games in 14 seasons.

He also loved practices more than games. Academic All-Americans more than Associated Press All-Americans. Sheboygan, Wis., boyhood friends more than big-money boosters.

I read the wire story lead on his death, the one that described him as "the jovial college basketball coach who led Utah to the 1998 NCAA final and had only one losing season in 25 years with four schools."

He wasn't jovial in practices. Or games. Those were intellectual cage matches for him. Whatever the spread was in those games, Majerus was worth at least three points, probably more.

That year Utah (Utah!) reached the national championship game and actually led Kentucky at halftime, Majerus and the Runnin' Utes had to beat No. 1 seed Arizona in the West Regional final and then No. 1 overall seed North Carolina in the Final Four semis. I was embedded with Utah as part of an ESPN The Magazine assignment.

Usually after wins, Majerus would hunker down with a postgame pizza and game video of the next opponent. But after the 25-point victory against Arizona and its NBA roster, Majerus could be found in the hotel whirlpool, sipping on an umbrella drink.

That was the same night, as he floated off the court in Anaheim, Calif., he spotted me in the tunnel and said, "Give me a hug, Polish Falcon."

The Columbia Journalism Review might not like it, but when the 300-pound Majerus cornered you for a hug, well, you were getting a hug.

And it was the same night the coaching staff and players sprayed each other with soft drinks and stood happily in the shower area for an impromptu team photo. The innocence and joy on their faces still makes me grin involuntarily.

Majerus was 10 of the smartest people I've ever known. The Jesuits educated him well. He was a coach, but he could have been a councilman. He lived in a hotel during much of his career, but his suites often were filled with books. He'd call at night just to talk about a Maureen Dowd column he had read an hour earlier.

He won games, lots and lots of them, but I swear he cared more about seeing his players get diplomas than victories.

He could charm an entire national press corps. He could alienate an entire local media corps. He could hold court. He could hold grudges.

Majerus didn't suffer fools. He was brilliant, complex and demanding to a fault. He also was loyal, caring and giving to a fault.

He thought the NCAA was dumber than a chia pet. He despised the hypocrisy of rules that lacked a gram of common sense. So, sure, Majerus would take a doggie bag of leftovers to a foreign player on his roster who was alone and homesick in a dinky off-campus apartment during the Christmas holidays. If it was a violation, Majerus could live with the shame.

[+] EnlargeRick Majerus
Jim Owens/Icon SMIWherever he coached, Majerus was one of the sport's most genuine personalities.

How he made it to 64, I have no idea. They cracked open his chest years ago and did major reconstructive surgery. His heart and doctors were on a first-name basis.

Majerus joked about his weight and his diet, but, my god, he tried countless times to arm wrestle his food cravings to the ground. Food would always win.

He had one of the great laughs. He spoke in that Wisconsin accent in which offense became O-fence. He sobbed when he learned that one of his best friends had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's.

To this day, I think the only reason he agreed to let me write his autobiography is because it would help pay for my kids' college tuition. That was Majerus.

The last time I saw him was at my daughter Taylor's wedding. He didn't actually dance, but he did sort of shimmy with his girlfriend, Angie. A few months later, he came down to Chicago on a recruiting trip and treated my wife to lunch. A few months after that, he was admitted to an L.A. hospital.

Rick was a sucker for Mark Twain. His favorite Twain short story was "The Five Boons of Life."

An angel of sorts comes down to Earth and offers a young man his choice of Fame, Love, Riches, Pleasure and Death. "Choose wisely," says the angel, "for only one of them is valuable."

The youth chooses Pleasure, then Love, then Fame, then Riches -- and is cursed by each.

The angel returns and says of the one choice -- Death-- the youth ignored: "I gave it to a mother's pet, a little child. It was ignorant, but trusted me, asking me to choose for it. You did not ask me to choose."

My friend Rick Majerus understood the preciousness of life and death. And I know what he would have said to that angel.

"How can I help?"

Gene Wojciechowski | email

Columnist / College Football reporter