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December 3, 2012

Majerus left lasting legacy

News of Rick Majerus' death spread quickly over the weekend, and with it came a rush of memories for what the enigmatic coach did for Utah basketball, and what he meant to a fan base that almost universally loved him.

I'm not going to pretend that I knew Rick Majerus. I didn't. I started covering Utah basketball in a professional sense a year after Majerus left Utah under hurried circumstances. I only met him once, briefly shaking his hand. He was cordial to me. That was the extent of my face-to-face interactions with the man.

However, I felt like I knew him. As a basketball obsessed kid growing up in the Salt Lake Valley, I remember listening religiously to his post game interviews on the radio, as Majerus would break down the game with play-by-play man Bill Marcroft, often quipping about how his team more resembled a ski team than a basketball team. Terms like "oh-fense" and "selfish to a fault" entered my lexicon. Majerus' quick wit and basketball acumen shone through in those moments, and to this day, I remember the radio shows fondly.

His eccentricity was part of the appeal. He lived in a hotel. His appetite was legendary. He talked about books and emphasized education. His abilities as a basketball strategist were unparalleled. Majerus could do more with less talent and athleticism than any coach in the country. And when he did have legitimate talent, the teams were a joy to watch. He drove BYU fans crazy, which for Ute fans in the 1990's may have been his most endearing trait. As far as many of them were concerned, Majerus was the basketball antichrist - and Ute fans ate it up.

My favorite Majerus memories came on senior night every year, as he would pay tribute to the players he coached - often tearfully. I've spoken to many of his ex-players, and he wasn't always the easiest guy to deal with.

And the wins piled up. That's what most will remember. After all, it's hard to forget 323 wins, nine conference championships and 10 NCAA tournament appearances.

Many of the worst stories that made the rounds about the man were at least partially true. It wasn't uncommon to see players transfer out, especially those that wouldn't or couldn't deal with Majerus' harsh way of coaching. He famously battled with members of the local media and sometimes even those who worked for him or with him in the athletic department.

However, despite his flaws, Majerus also had a heart of gold. Those who numbered among his friends truly loved him and valued their relationship with him. I've heard countless stories of kind acts that Majerus did for people, many of which were never reported on publicly, but made a difference nonetheless.

It was disappointing to see his tenure come to an abrupt stop, but things around the program seemed to lose their luster for Majerus after the magical final four run in 1998. Little did fans know, but the shocking upset loss to a Wally Szczerbiak-led Miami of Ohio team in the second round of the 1999 NCAA tournament marked the beginning of the end of Majerus' days at Utah.

Despite his unceremonious exit, Majerus will forever be known as one of the most colorful figures in Utah sports history. Even though he hasn't coached a game in Utah since the 2003 season, Majerus' impact was felt and he will be missed.


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