Today, a week after his death, many of Rick Majerus' friends, former players and colleagues gathered to wish the basketball coach farewell from this mortal coil. Del Harris and George Karl were reportedly there, as was Glenn Rivers, whose nickname Majerus pinned on him years ago when he saw the young man wearing a Doctor J T-shirt:
The nickname stuck, no matter how hard Rivers fought it.
"From eighth grade on, Rick would say, `Doc.' I would say `Glenn,' " Rivers says. "Finally, Rick won. I gave in. When I signed to go to Marquette, in the Chicago papers, it said, `Glenn Rivers signs to go to Marquette.' In Milwaukee, it said, `Doc Rivers signs to go to Marquette.' So I knew once I got there my name was going to be Doc, whether I wanted it or not."
This works out to a great Majerus story, not least because you can view it from one of two angles. Let's see which one you're inclined to take.
1. Gosh, what a quirky fellow. What won't college basketball's jolly cherub do for a grin?
2. What the hell sort of prolonged-adolescent jerk staples a nickname to a kid who doesn't want it?
And somewhere on that spectrum (maybe around 1.4?) was Rick Majerus in full. For every story about what a cuddly, concerned, lifelong underdog the man was, there's another about what a peculiar breed of persistent bastard he was. Of course, this being America, we forgive the dark side just so long as you give good quotes, win ballgames and display enough charisma that you remain more intriguing than threatening, a novelty. The press reflects the public in this regard better than almost any other: If you're a good story, you'll usually stay in our good graces, no matter your social misdemeanors.
Majerus' alleged physical and emotional gruffness to his players aside, he—wait, though. The only thing really bizarre about Majerus is how casually he seemed to take his pants off. The rest is mostly run-of-the-mill basketball coach bullshit. But that's not to say he wasn't one truly strange man.
In Majerus' case, his novelty began with his heft. The man was built like a pumpkin, working in a sport where the athletes are built otherwise. He was too heavyset to be any good as a college player under Marquette's Al McGuire (who referred to Majerus as "Rick the Pick") and just kept on growing until he neared 400 pounds. Seth Davis' nuanced remembrance of Majerus includes this delicious passage:
If you're a college basketball reporter of a certain age, you probably also have some eating-with-Rick-Majerus stories. The man was always eating, always too much, often late at night. There was the time when I rode with Majerus and a couple of his buddies back and forth to the Utes' game at BYU in Provo. … [W]e ended up at a downtown diner at 1:30 a.m. As I reported in my story, Majerus ordered the super stack of pancakes topped with blueberries, bananas and chocolate chips (with extra butter and syrup), two eggs over easy, a toasted English muffin and two orders of bacon. "A lot of people say hunger is the best seasoning," he told me. "I think winning is."
To modify a "Blazing Saddles" line: A man eat like that, he is going to die. But of course a food addiction, food used to mute epic sadness, becomes a Family Circus cartoon by life's end, even when you wear it and it wears your heart out at 64.
At this point, no one BTN has mentioned that Appling has two fouls. However, we are aware that Rick Majerus will be having pizza with God.— Matthew Herek (@mherek) December 8, 2012
A thing that happened: BTN announcer said Rick Majerus is currently eating a big pepperoni pizza and talking about basketball with God.— Mark Schaaf (@markschaaf) December 8, 2012
The magnum opus on Majerus is S.L. Price's 2008 Sports Illustrated piece. We're not going to be able to say anything more capably than he did, but we can point you to a couple of passages that point to Majerus' peculiar shadow:
Of the 80 recruits Majerus signed with the Utes, only 33 survived to play as seniors. Nearly 59% of them transferred or otherwise left early, most unable or unwilling to meet Majerus's exacting standards or endure his mercurial, sometimes crude, even cruel behavior. And some who stayed considered bolting too. By Christmas of his freshman year, 1996, Mottola had scribbled himself this note: This is beyond what I can handle. For the next three years his stomach lurched each time he saw Majerus step onto the court.
Through all that, Majerus also stuck up for his players in baffling, wonderful ways, as when he announced he'd resign if one of his freshman did in fact use a racial slur during the 1998 Final Four. Price's operating theory by the story's end is that every ounce of scorn he heaped on his players was a burden he bore in order to fire them into men. Price chisels this quote out "one of the coach's longtime associates," and it about sums the thing up: "It would be a lifetime job trying to figure him out. I can't explain him. I can't reconcile the two people you see."
Our own Drew Magary did his best to put forth a Unified Theory of Majerus in 2011. Thenceforth no one should discuss Majerus in full without at least acknowledging the possibility that the towel-shitting story is real. If Majerus is truly eating pizza with God, I'm sure it came up.