Rick Majerus – The kindest man I ever met.
I've told this story many times to family members and friends, but I never imagined sharing it publically until now. I met Rick Majerus in late 2001 while traveling to Utah for work. I stayed at the Marriott hotel on the University of Utah campus where Coach Majerus also called home. He had a suite at the hotel that he used during the season according to some friends. I didn't know this when I booked the hotel so you can imagine my surprise when I ran into him in the lounge while watching ESPN and catching up my notes from my daily sales calls. Coach Majerus is an unmistakable guy when you meet him in person and that was confirmed by the sincere smile and “hello” he granted me as we passed. I mentioned some of the games I had seen during the Thanksgiving break and talked about a few of the upsets. He said, “You never know in college basketball, upsets are inevitable.”
I thought that would be the only time I would ever see Coach Majerus and I recorded it as a positive experience while thinking to myself, “what a nice guy.” Later, I would realize what that actually meant. The next evening I was in the same lounge with my laptop doing some work and planning my sales route for the next day. To my surprise, in walks Coach Majerus, he grabs a few appetizers off the food bar and walks by. He stopped, wheeled around and said: “Hey, aren't you the fella who told me about those upsets last week?” I replied, “Yes sir, there were some great games that week.” He smiled and said, “Are you busy right now?” Not to be one to be too busy for Coach Majerus I said, “oh it's just work stuff, but it can wait” while dying to hear what he was about to offer. He then offered, “Would you like to go to the game tonight?” Now I am thinking, what a really nice guy to offer me tickets to the game tonight and I started to think of who in Salt Lake City I could call to invite along. I said, “Sure I would love to go!” Thinking I would hear something like, “I'll leave you some tickets at the box office”, but instead he said, “Well…let's go, we don't want to be late.” Puzzled at his response I said, “You mean, right now? With you?” He smiled and replied: “Of course, who else?” I told him I would be right downstairs I just needed to drop off my stuff in my room and I would be 5 minutes at the most. He shook his head and called over to the concierge by name and kindly asked her if she would return my items to my room for me so that we could leave immediately. She obliged and we were off. The whole time I am in shock as to what is going on along with being completely star struck at this coaching legend who is taking a perfect stranger to a game with him. I figured, why not? This couldn't get any better. Well, it did.
We headed downstairs and the bell hop had pulled his Ford Explorer around and handed Coach the keys. Coach immediately tossed them to me and said, “You don't mind driving do you? I have some things to do on the way.” I of course agreed and we were off except I had no idea where to go. Coach knew this and very kindly gave me turn by turn directions to the rear of the arena. As we drove, Coach asked several questions such as where I grew up and how big my family was and whether I played any ball as a kid. He mixed in references to my story such as guys he had recruited in the Southeast where I grew up and he wondered why I wasn't a Blue Devil or Tarheel fan. He mentioned the difficulty in recruiting good players from the Southeast to come play in Utah. He also wondered why a short guy, who only played basketball as a kid, liked college basketball so much. I explained how my father, who didn't let us have a TV when we were kids, would occasionally rent one and we would watch March Madness and be enthralled by the exciting tournament. He thought that was funny and made a reference to how kids watch too much TV these days anyway.
We parked and a couple of eager assistants ran out to gather his bags, confused by my presence, but didn't question the Coach as we headed into the arena. He never mentioned that I was a stranger he had met in the hotel just the day before; instead he treated me like family. I figured this was the end of my journey with the Coach and I would be given some seats and watch the game. We walked down the hallway and into the locker room. We sat down by his assistants and he introduced me to everyone. I was trying to take it all in as he started his pregame talks with the assistants on their game plan, who should play, etc. He turned to me and said: “are you hungry?” I politely declined, but he insisted and said, “Hey look, don't be shy, we are getting food, you might as well have some too. How about a hot dog, Coke, something? Whatever you want, just tell these guys and they will bring it.” I ordered a hot dog and a coke and watched them plan the game. Coach opened up a locker and there, neatly stacked were his trademark sweaters, each neatly arranged in plastic wrappers. I thought to myself, “Does he wear a new sweater every game? That's pretty cool.”
The food arrived and we had our hot dogs and Cokes while the players filed in getting ready for the game. Coach turned to me and said, “Hey, let's get you a seat.” We walked out to the basketball floor and he grabbed another young assistant and asked him to find me a seat to the game, preferably behind the bench with a good view. I saw the assistant speak with some folks in suits and within a few minutes I was offered a seat right behind the bench with the best view I've ever had for a game. He asked me if I needed any food or drink and if I should require anything throughout the game to just come and get him. Again, not used to being treated this well, I politely declined and watched the game. The game was great (they played Idaho State I believe) and the Utes won with a comfortable margin, pulling away in the second half. I paid close attention to Coach and he guided his team with the same animation and fervor that he was famous for. It was a real treat to watch him up close in action. I could hear everything as he shouted warnings, advice, disappointment and praise throughout the game.
As the game ended, I was completely satisfied with my experience as it was one I would never forget. I thought about turning to go to the exit when the same young assistant who had seated me earlier grabbed me and said, “Coach would like you to come to the locker room.” So I headed back where I heard his speech to the players which was congratulations mixed with valuable advice on defense, offense, the value of free throws and how each of these makes a huge difference at the end of the game. The coached turned to leave the room and he recognized me. He asked in a very genuine tone as if I was his own son, “How did you like the game? Were your seats okay? Did you get something to eat?” I nodded and thanked him for the 20th time for the hospitality and experience. We chatted briefly about the game and about the free throws. I remember him saying, “There is no reason to miss a free throw, you have no one guarding you and you have time to get your feet set, it's that simple.”
I congratulated him on the win once again and he then apologized that he had to run to some post game meetings and he that would bring me along, but they would be boring for me. He grabbed a young assistant and instructed him to drive me to the hotel. I thanked him again and with a firm handshake we parted. His assistant asked me how I knew the Coach on our way back to the hotel. I told him how we had just met the night before. The assistant was confused, but smiled and said, “Yeah, Coach Majerus is a great guy.”
Unfortunately, I had to leave the next day and on my way out I left a note with the concierge thanking him for his time and thoughtfulness while wishing him the best in the upcoming season. I've watched over the years as his coaching time ended at Utah, then the time at ESPN and the unfortunate experience with UCLA. I've wondered, given his health and if his mother was closer, if he could have made some real history at UCLA. Given the recruiting pull of the school and the resources at his fingertips, we could have seen one of the greatest coaching runs ever. I believe he later admitted that his mother's health and being so far away from her is the reason for his sudden departure. I think that sums up the Coach very well. While he was arguably one of the sharpest minds in basketball, he knew what was important, like staying close to family or inviting a perfect stranger to a ball game with him. So is Rick Majerus the kindest man I've ever met? I would have to say yes.