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.)

The Allred story didn't reverberate much outside Salt Lake City. Less than two weeks after the Tribune published its article, Majerus stepped down as head coach at Utah, attributing his departure to concern about his health. The announcement made national headlines.

Majerus does not deny that he is demanding of his players. Ask anyone who has ever played or worked for him to describe the coach and they invariably utter the words "intense" and "attentive to detail." The two often go hand in hand as Majerus passionately schools his players on the fundamentals and intricacies of the game.

His new charges at SLU speak glowingly about the little things their coach has imparted already. Freshman Anthony Mitchell describes how Majerus added more rotation to his shot by adjusting the way he grips the ball, moving his thumb closer to his index finger. Senior point guard Dwayne Polk tells how Majerus emphasizes that he has to have his toes pointed toward the basket at all times in order to improve his shooting accuracy. Tommie Liddell, who is left-handed, says Majerus has instructed him to do everything off the court with his right hand, including eating and brushing his teeth, in order to improve his off-hand dribbling.

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.

"I guess it's because I wasn't a great player and I had to do the little things right for me to be able to play," says Majerus, who was cut from Marquette's basketball team after attempting to play as a walk-on his freshman year of college in 1967.

When Majerus isn't satisfied with his players' performance, he lets them know about it. He says his in-your-face style stems from the simple fact that he so desperately wants his charges to succeed.

"Take Tommie Liddell, for instance," Majerus says, describing how he thinks his star player, who came to the Billikens from East St. Louis High School via Hargrave Military Academy, can reach the NBA with the right work ethic. "I don't think Tommie will transfer, I don't even think he can. But does he want it as bad for himself as I want it for him?"

Liddell, meanwhile, says, "I'm not going to lie. He's probably the most hollerin' coach I've ever had."

"All of [the players] have struggled with the mental part of it, because he wants you with him mentally all the time, 100 percent," adds Alex Jensen, who played for Majerus at Utah and is now an assistant on the SLU staff. "I think he's gotten in everyone's face at least once so far, but I think they all realize that once you take it personal, then it's bad. Because it's not personal. I think they all see that he wants to make them better."

"He doesn't mean any harm by it, he just wants you to do the best that can be done," says Polk, who played his high school ball at Vashon under the tutelage of Floyd Irons, another coach with a legendary reputation for tough love. "He's similar to Floyd Irons, but it's not so much yelling and screaming. It's more teaching."

The Allred flap wasn't the only controversy Majerus weathered at Utah.

Early in his career, the school reprimanded him for a comment he'd made on a local radio show, that he'd seen "a lot of irregular sexual behavior in women's athletics." His courtside profanity and tirades offended sensibilities in conservative Salt Lake City, so much so that the Deseret Morning News nicknamed him "Raunchy Rick." In 2003 an investigation found that Majerus had committed several minor NCAA violations. The charges included buying his players meals (a scandal the local press dubbed "Food-gate"), exceeding practice limits and allotting too many tickets to games for recruits on campus visits. He also gave players "movie money," sums players said sometimes doubled or tripled after victories. (Majerus explained at the time that the amount of money distributed depended on the length of the trip the team was on.)

As punishment, the NCAA required Majerus and his staff to attend a compliance seminar and reduced the number of days he was allowed to spend on off-campus recruiting and player evaluation. The NCAA also placed Utah's athletic program on probation for three years.

Many speculated that the violations arose out of the independence given to Majerus by Utah's athletic department. He is unlikely to receive the same kind of leeway from his new boss, SLU president Lawrence Biondi, who has earned a reputation for meddling with his men's basketball coaches. Most recently Biondi went over the head of the school's athletic director Cheryl Levick, both in firing Soderberg and hiring Majerus. Levick resigned from her post and the school is still searching for a successor.

After Biondi's abrupt execution of Soderberg, the school president's critics in the local press pointed out that the incumbent coach had had the program headed in the right direction, that the firing had come at a bad time (in the midst of a key off-season recruiting period) and that the coach was handed his walking papers before he'd had the chance to reap the recruiting benefits afforded by the new arena.

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