ST. LOUIS – Kwamain Mitchell recalled the first time Rick Majerus visited his home, trying to recruit him to Saint Louis. Mitchell’s mother made a big meal and after a plate Mitchell was full.
Majerus wasn’t, took a look at Mitchell and said, With that body you can eat three or four more plates.
Hundreds of people turned out at Chaifetz Pavilion on the Saint Louis campus Friday to honor the Billikens’ basketball coach who died Dec. 1 of heart failure at the age of 64. He was remembered fondly, with speakers describing him as funny but passionate, exacting but caring, and a coaching genius who got the best out of his players both on and off the court.
Large photographs near the front showed the rotund coach surrounded by young men a foot taller, working the sidelines, seated on a stool patiently teaching attentive players. Dozens of plays drawn up by Majerus, scribbled in marker on white paper, encircled the room, a practice gym where Majerus spent countless hours passing on his basketball knowledge.
Interim coach Jim Crews, whose team is 5-3 this season, said Majerus has made a mark that has resonated through the sport.
His fingerprint is all over college basketball, Crews said. Everywhere you go, there he is.
Majerus demanded effort both in the classroom and on the court. Two of his Saint Louis players, Brian Conklin and Kevin Lisch, were academic all-Americans.
His success on the court was impressive, too – a 517-216 record in 25 seasons, just one of which had a losing record. He had 15 20-win seasons and two 30-win seasons. He led Utah to the 1998 NCAA finals and took 12 teams to the NCAA tournament, winning at least one game in all but one of those appearances.
Milwaukee-born Majerus played on the freshman team at Marquette and got his coaching start as an assistant under Al McGuire in 1971. He was head coach at Marquette from 1983-86, Ball State from 1987-89, Utah from 1989-2004 and, after a few years as an ESPN commentator, Saint Louis for the past five seasons.
His biggest success was at Utah: A 323-95 record with 10 conference championships in 13 seasons. Three of his Utah players were first-round NBA draft picks.
At Saint Louis, Majerus turned around a program in a decade-long decline. He brought in players from outside the U.S. and got the most out of overlooked prospects, his teams known for their gritty defense. Majerus was 95-69 and led the Billikens to the third round of the NCAA tourney last season, the team’s first appearance in the tournament since 2000.
Majerus had been in ill health on and off for years, battling weight and heart problems.
He had a stent inserted in August 2011 and missed some games last season after gashing his leg in a collision with players.
He was undergoing evaluation and treatment in California for ongoing heart trouble, and the school announced he was on leave in late August. Then in November came the announcement that he would not return.
Crews said he learned a lot of basketball from Majerus, but he learned a lot more about life.
Family, friends, food, basketball, players – if that was involved, Rick was singing and whistling a happy tune, Crews said. It was always about people, and that was what made Rick so special.
Majerus’ funeral Mass is scheduled for today in his hometown of Milwaukee.