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.)

He says his work with charities is more important than what happens on the basketball court. Later this month he's slated to host a Halloween party and benefit at Shriners Hospital for Children.

Players joke that he coaches the team as though it's a college class, giving them blank notebooks in which to take down the day's lessons. He clips articles from the New York Times and hands out photocopies to the team. Most recently it was a story about impoverished garbage pickers in India, meant to emphasize that there's more to the world than basketball. Before that it was a story about how associates of embattled NFL quarterback Michael Vick testified against him when he was on trial for dogfighting. The message: Choose your friends carefully.

"I never start or end a practice without letting them understand why we've convened," Majerus says. "We're not a professional team. The most important part of the agenda is the academic agenda."

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.

Majerus is fiercely loyal and expects nothing less from colleagues and players. Alex Jensen, an assistant coach at SLU, is just one of many former players he has helped break into the ranks of college coaching. Keith Van Horn, who played for Majerus at Utah and went on to an NBA career, asked the coach to be the godfather of his child.

He also has his detractors. While many of Majerus' former players and colleagues agreed to be interviewed for this story, several others flatly declined to comment. Those who were interviewed and criticized the coach were often cryptic in their remarks.

"I think when he started getting more success, he started getting pulled away. When you start winning, things change. Other people get into your life. Boosters, TV, the media, new friends. Those were all people that wanted to be a part of Rick," says Jeff Judkins, an assistant under Majerus for ten years at Utah. "Some of his best friends when he came to Utah he's not friends with anymore, and that's kind of sad."

"He's such a complex person," offers Mike Sorenson, a reporter who covered Utah basketball for the Deseret Morning News, a Salt Lake City daily affiliated with the Mormon Church. "He could be nice as anyone, interested in your family, and the next moment he could care less."

Majerus' time at Utah was not without controversy. According to a report published in the Deseret Morning News, only 24 of the 69 players he recruited from 1989 to 2002 stayed with him through their senior seasons. Take out junior-college recruits and players who transferred in to Utah, and a mere thirteen players played four full seasons. By contrast, a 2006 NCAA report noted that Division I basketball programs graduate an average of 45 percent of their players in six years or less.

Often, Majerus says, he bluntly tells players when they don't have the ability or work ethic necessary to succeed in his program, letting them know that the only way for them to get off the bench is to leave the school.

"Sometimes I make mistakes, sometimes kids make mistakes," Majerus says. "Alex Jensen, my assistant coach, is one of my all-time favorite players. But his older brother played for my team, and I transferred him out to Weber State. Not everyone can play everywhere."

In many cases, however, players simply couldn't handle the way Majerus ran his teams. Andrew Bogut, who now plays for the NBA's Milwaukee Bucks, was prepared to transfer after his freshman season at Utah before Majerus resigned. He has since called Majerus "brutal" and commented on the Bucks' Web site, "I saw nearly every guy want to quit at certain stages of their careers there. It was just one of those things."

Lance Allred is a Majerus recruit who fled Utah for Weber State after the 2000-2001 season. Allred has 75 percent hearing loss that renders him virtually deaf and was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder after he left Utah. In a story published in the Salt Lake Tribune in 2004, Allred alleged that Majerus berated him in front of the team, saying, "You're just a deaf dumb fuck. You must have a learning disability.[...] You've weaseled yourself through life using your hearing as an excuse. You're a disgrace to cripples. If I was a cripple in a wheelchair and saw [the way] you play basketball, I'd shoot myself."

Allred told the Tribune that Majerus sent him to get tested for a learning disability despite the fact that he had a 3.6 GPA and that the coach "called me [vulgar slang term for female genitalia]. He called me that C-word for the rest of the year. It seemed like he used it more than my name."

Majerus publicly denied the allegations, countering that "[m]y experience with disgruntled players has been that there is sometimes a revision of history." He also told the Tribune that Allred's family had filed a claim with Utah's office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action, which ruled the coach was not guilty of discrimination.

Says Chris Bone, manager of the EOAA office: "The policy is we don't discuss cases, we don't talk about whether we had cases or we didn't, or any of the details. I can't comment whether there was or wasn't a claim."

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