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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.

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.

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.

"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.

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."

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."

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.

"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.

The criticism was short-lived. Biondi turned the tide of opinion in one fell swoop when he hired Majerus ten days after showing Soderberg the door.

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-Dispatch after 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.

"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

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."

The expectation is no doubt there.

"They're going to win that league soon — it's going to happen. He's too good," says Tommy Conner, a player and assistant under Majerus at Utah who is now the head coach at Westminster College in Salt Lake City. "What happens in between — there's going to be some that love him and some that don't. There's probably going to be something in the media that he said that may cause a stir. But the bottom line is that those players are going to get taught, they'll go to school and they're going to win. They'll win championships when he's there."

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