Big Man on Campus

Sit back and marvel as Rick Majerus hoists SLU basketball from the morass of mediocrity. (Just don't let him near your pizza.)

Rick Majerus bursts out of a stiflingly hot gym and into the narrow hallway outside the Saint Louis University basketball office. The combination of an unseasonably hot September day and the gym's lack of air-conditioning has him sweating right through his white SLU T-shirt, which in turn has caused the Buddha-like belly of the school's Billiken logo to cling tightly to the equally rotund gut it swathes.

With the NCAA season only a few weeks away, this is the busiest time of year for the new head coach and his staff. A workout with his players just went an hour longer than expected and now Majerus is running behind on his tightly scheduled eighteen-hour day. Even worse, he's late to pick up a prospective recruit at the airport. An assistant coach whisks him out the door to a waiting car. And just like that he's gone, leaving the faded blue carpet, peeling wallpaper and chipped paint of SLU's basketball headquarters in his wake.

It won't be long before Majerus and his players abandon the gym on West Pine Boulevard for good. After this season the team will move into spanking-new Chaifetz Arena, located on Compton Avenue just north of Highway 40, the crown jewel of SLU's $650 million midtown redevelopment project. The school is banking on the $80 million, 10,000-seat facility to attract jobs, investment and secondary development to the area.

Jennifer Silverberg
Saint Louis University president Lawrence Biondi and his million-dollar man, new head basketball coach Rick Majerus.
Mike Blake/REUTERS
Saint Louis University president Lawrence Biondi and his million-dollar man, new head basketball coach Rick Majerus.

More than that, they're counting on Majerus to produce teams that will fill it.

"He has committed his heart and soul to lead this effort, and I have committed the financial, physical and personnel resources he needs to get us there," SLU president Lawrence Biondi said when he announced Majerus' hire on April 27.

Ten days earlier SLU fired Majerus' predecessor, Brad Soderberg, despite the fact that the Billikens had won twenty games the previous season — the highest total for a SLU team since 1998. Soderberg, however, failed to take the team to the NCAA tournament in five seasons as coach. With the addition of Majerus, a highly successful, charismatic coach who shepherded the University of Utah to the NCAA championship game in 1998, the message was clear: A pricey new arena requires a coach capable of bringing home the trophy.

The stakes are high. Along with $70 million in private funding, Chaifetz (pronounced shay-fets) is bankrolled by $8 million in tax-increment financing (TIF) — a gamble on the part of the City of St. Louis that the new venue will increase property-tax revenue in the surrounding area.

Majerus himself didn't come cheap. The salary that accompanies his six-year contract is widely pegged at nearly $1 million per year, on top of what SLU paid to buy out the balance of Soderberg's $400,000-per-year deal. The numbers are speculative: University spokesman Chuck Yahng says the school's policy as a private institution is not to divulge details of its coaches' contracts.

But the new coach's name alone has already made an impact. Since he took the reins, the school has sold more than 700 new season-ticket packages — 112 of which were purchased the day he was hired, according to Yahng. Currently, says Yahng, basketball season-ticket holders number about 6,500.

"What I'm confronted with at every turn is there's not an abundance of fans, which is obvious to everyone," Majerus says during a 30-minute phone interview preceding a dip in the pool at the Missouri Athletic Club, part of his daily exercise regimen. "I'm trying to generate the interest of fans and hopefully the fans will embrace the players and the program. It's a series of small steps," the coach adds, concluding with a dry cliché that belies the sense of humor that made him a media darling at Utah and earned him a four-year stint as a commentator for ESPN after he quit his head-coaching job in 2003: "Nothing helps like winning."

Winning is something Majerus is good at. In twenty years of coaching, he has never suffered a losing season. In amassing a career record of 422-147 in three previous head-coaching jobs — at Marquette, Ball State and Utah — he has been named national coach of the year on three separate occasions. He took Utah to the NCAA tournament ten times in twelve seasons, including two trips to the Sweet Sixteen, one to the Elite Eight and the 1998 runner-up finish in the championship game. His résumé also includes a stint as an assistant coach with the NBA's Milwaukee Bucks and a gold medal as an assistant coach for "Dream Team II," the U.S. national team that won the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) world championship in 1994.

The fact that Majerus can lay claim to nearly twice as many NCAA tournament berths (eleven) as SLU has in its entire history (six) illustrates just how challenging rebuilding the program will be. History is against him: The last time a SLU coach finished with a career winning percentage higher than .600 was 1965. The team hasn't sniffed the NCAA tournament since 2000, when the Billikens bowed out in the first round — to a Majerus-coached Utah squad.

While Majerus inherits a team that returns ten scholarship players and four starters, including all-conference guard Tommie Liddell and all-conference defensive selection Kevin Lisch, the lineup lacks size and depth. Restocking the shelves has been a priority for Majerus, but in the fiercely competitive world of basketball recruiting, the SLU program's comparative lack of prestige drives many highly regarded prospects in the talent-rich Midwest to established regional programs like Kansas, Illinois and Marquette, or to teams in the burgeoning Missouri Valley Conference.

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