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.)

Majerus embraces the challenge. He's known among his peers for his ability to shrewdly evaluate talent and get the most out of what he has to work with. Some of the players who starred for him at Utah, such as Mike Doleac, who now plays for the NBA's Miami Heat, weren't even offered scholarships by other schools. Majerus boasts — truthfully — that he has "put a guy in the NBA at every position you can put a guy at.

"I've been offered the no-brainer jobs and I turned them down," Majerus adds, letting fly another of his trademark one-liners. "I tell people recruiting to UCLA is like recruiting an alcoholic to a New Year's Eve party."

Recruiting is where the soon-to-open arena is paying immediate dividends. SLU has already received verbal commitments from five players for next year's freshman class, including two six-foot-eleven-inch centers and a highly touted point guard. Chaifetz gives Majerus an edge over his predecessors, who were left to sheepishly explain to recruits why they had to practice in the decrepit West Pine gym.

SLU's $80 million, 10,000-seat venue, Chaifetz Arena, opens next year. The university is counting on the project to spur development in Grand Center.
Bill Greenblatt/UPI
SLU's $80 million, 10,000-seat venue, Chaifetz Arena, opens next year. The university is counting on the project to spur development in Grand Center.
"All of the players have struggled with the mental part of [playing for Majerus]," says Alex Jensen, who played for the coach at Utah and is now an assistant at SLU.
Jennifer Silverberg
"All of the players have struggled with the mental part of [playing for Majerus]," says Alex Jensen, who played for the coach at Utah and is now an assistant at SLU.

"It's a lot of things the kids see on TV," SLU assistant coach Porter Moser says of the new facility. "The locker rooms, the film rooms, the training rooms, the weight rooms — kids love that."


Anyone who has ever worked with Majerus has a food story.

"He'd had the job in Salt Lake for maybe a month," says Donny Daniels, who worked as an assistant under Majerus at Utah. "When I got the job [as an assistant], he took me on a tour of the city and he pointed out — it had to be twenty restaurants that he liked. They didn't even have twenty restaurants in the city at the time. I think he was hoping they had that many."

"I've been around when he's eaten the majority of a large pizza," says Tommy Conner, a player and later an assistant coach at Utah. "I was always sure not to take the first piece. I believe that got me in trouble early in my first season coaching. After that I'd make sure Coach got his first."

Weight has been a constant struggle for Majerus. He was forced to leave Utah midseason because of weight-related health problems three times. Six games into the 1989 season, he had quintuple-bypass heart surgery. In 2004 he accepted the head coaching job at the University of Southern California only to resign less than a week later, citing concerns about his health.

"I think my health is good, and my doctor thinks it's good or I wouldn't have taken the job," says Majerus, who turned 59 in February. "But no one can be the guaranteer of their health."

He has previously been reported to weigh about 370 pounds. Though he appears to have slimmed down slightly (he says he exercises by swimming about a mile per day), Majerus curtly declines to give his current weight, saying, "I don't think that's of much interest to anyone."

He hasn't always been so cagey. Majerus has a penchant for self-effacing humor that shines when he talks about his weight. He famously told reporters at a press conference during his run to the Final Four in 1998, "Some guys drink. Some guys smoke. Some guys chase women. I'm a big barbecue-sauce guy." And he jokes in his 1999 autobiography My Life on a Napkin, "I tell people I have one artery for every major food group."

When he resigned from USC before ever coaching a game, he said, "They weren't getting the guy who puts in eighteen-hour days."

Eighteen-hour days, however, hardly seem adequate now. Majerus describes a constant barrage of film sessions, meetings, speaking engagements, interviews and practices. He's in and out of the West Pine gym so frequently he doesn't even have his own office.

"You remember what you left the program as and you forget how hard it was to get it to that spot," Majerus says, noting that it has been nearly twenty years since he began building Utah into a perennial contender.

The coach's silhouette isn't his only well-rounded facet. He liked to sit in on classes at Utah. He has traveled to all 50 states and six continents. Friends and colleagues describe how he speaks articulately about organized labor (his father was a union official in Wisconsin), business (billionaire industrialist Jon Huntsman is a close friend) and politics (Utah Senator Orrin Hatch is also a friend).

He's eccentric. He wrote in his autobiography that he doesn't know how to turn on a computer. He says he took the job at SLU because it's close to his mother, a cancer survivor who still lives in Milwaukee, his childhood home. (Majerus' Wisconsin roots betray themselves each time he opens his mouth; the accent is unmistakable.) He is rumored to carry a basketball in the trunk of his car at all times, explaining that you can't have a game without a ball. Once divorced, with no children, he lived in a Marriott Hotel for fourteen years while coaching at Utah, and in St. Louis he resides at the Chase Park Plaza, though he says he's found a penthouse condo he'd like to buy near the SLU campus.

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