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.)

Before Soderberg, Biondi took heat for the way he fired head basketball coach Rich Grawer, who piloted the Billikens from 1982 to 1992. Grawer, who led SLU to a 5-23 record in 1992, told the Post-Dispatchafter his dismissal that he had offered to resign several times during the final months of season. Biondi waited until three weeks into the off-season to dismiss the coach — unfortunate timing that hurt recruiting. Similar to his handling of the recent regime change, Biondi made a show of hiring a big-name replacement, Charlie Spoonhour, upon whom he bestowed a salary of $500,000 — an unprecedented figure for a SLU coach at the time.

"That won't work with Majerus very long," says Doug Robinson, a columnist for the Deseret Morning News who covered Majerus' tenure at Utah. "You can't meddle with him. That won't fly. Chris Hill [the athletic director at Utah] bit his tongue a few times. He was insulted by the way Rick regarded him."

Thus far the relationship has been affable. Biondi agreed to Majerus' early requests for a strength-and-conditioning coach, an academic advisor for the team and pay increases for his assistant coaches. Majerus says Biondi even offered to personally lead a tour of the campus for recruits interested in academics.

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.

"His expectation is that I'll have a good team, and I'll try as hard as I can to do that," Majerus adds. "But honestly, we're the toy department of the university. We have a medical school with a great cancer unit and a geriatric unit, and a great law school. In the big picture, we [in the basketball program] don't mean a lot."

It is doubtful, however, that Biondi, who declined an interview request for this story, shares that attitude. The 69-year-old SLU president has staked a share of his own legacy — and more than $100 million of his school's money — on the new arena and Majerus' success.

And in a public-relations sense, the TIF deal for Chaifetz Arena was contentious. A lawsuit filed in 2004 by the Masonic Temple Association questioned the constitutionality of contributing public funds to build a private Catholic university's basketball arena. This past April the Missouri Supreme Court ruled in favor of SLU, noting that the Catholic Church does not technically control the school, and that the facility can be used for other events. (For more on the conflict, see Malcolm Gay's story "Grand Debate," published October 26, 2006, and available at www.riverfronttimes.com.)

The flexibility of the arena, which will host concerts and other "family events," is cited as its saving grace. Even if the team fares poorly, proponents say, the mere presence of the venue will give development in midtown and neighboring Grand Center a shot in the arm, drawing new businesses and foot traffic year-round.

"A really great team means a 10 percent swing in attendance [to Grand Center,]" says Vincent Schoemehl, former mayor of St. Louis and president of Grand Center, Inc., the nonprofit agency responsible for much of that area's arts revitalization. "Sure, you'd like to have it, but what's going to make the arena successful is the utilization for community events throughout the year. The quality of the basketball program will matter on the margins."

But Rodney Fort, a professor at the University of Michigan who specializes in sports economics, counters: "The success of a TIF depends on how responsive [property] buyers are around the stadium, and that's going to be sensitive to how well the team does. If something unexpected happens and the team is awful, [the city] won't be able to collect the money they've spent. It will have to come from somewhere else."

Neil deMause, co-author of the 1998 book Field of Schemes: How the Great Stadium Swindle Turns Public Money Into Private Profit, says the belief that stadium development helps turn around a neighborhood is a common misconception.

"New facilities are so geared to have everybody spend their money inside the gates. You might get a few bars, but you're not going to redevelop a whole neighborhood just because of a stadium," says deMause, citing research conducted during the major-league baseball strike of 1994, which revealed that fans spent their money on entertainment other than baseball while teams were locked out. "The problem is, you get people spending money on basketball, and that's fine, but they're not spending the money somewhere else. The net effect on the economy is extremely minimal."

In any case, the new coach will likely be held to the same standards as his predecessor: Win conference championships, earn a berth in the NCAA tournament, and do it quickly.

Lorenzo Romar, who coached at SLU from 1999 to 2002, says the "win now" attitude that pervades college athletics is compounded when a school like SLU doesn't possess the tools necessary to produce immediate results.

"It doesn't happen overnight. For it to happen in one or two years is not realistic," says Romar, who was lured away from SLU to coach at his alma mater, the University of Washington. "But there was a time when Arizona didn't have tradition, until Lute Olson got there. When you look at what St. Louis is doing with their new arena and with a great basketball coach like Rick Majerus, it could happen."

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