It's 11 p.m. and the phone rings. It's Rick Majerus, returning your call. Sure, it's late, but Majerus is just getting started. Give me a call around midnight, he tells sports writers who are trying to run him down. That's the best time to catch me. Midnight MST - Majerus Standard Time.
He has only a few minutes, he says, which is the way he starts most conversations this time of year. Just a few minutes. Then he's off to urgent business. He's got videotape to study, coaches and confidants to consult with, more videotape to study, more basketball to ponder, and, who knows, he might even get some sleep (what does he dream? Xs and 0s and referees?).Obsessed, temperamental, driven, brilliant, Majerus is the University of Utah's maniacal basketball coach, and he is on a mission to save the world, or so it seems. He virtually runs through airports to his next appointment; he flies into town a day ahead of his team and sequesters himself in a hotel room to watch videotape deep into the night; he takes late-night walks to sort through basketball's infinite possibilities; he succumbs to occasional angry outbursts of such intensity that they are frightening to witness; he emerges from games bathed in sweat.
"This is what I get paid to do," he says.
From November to March, there is almost nothing else. He practices so long and hard that he has just plain worn out some of his teams. He rarely goes to bed before 2; he's too wired. Sometimes he has the videotape machine removed from his room simply to prevent another late-night temptation.
But these days that might be too much to ask. Not only is it March and tournament time, but his basketball team, which was in a groove for two months, is suddenly foundering. One suspects that in some ways, Majerus loves it. Not the foundering, but the challenge and the chance again to be something of an underdog. It's a role he relishes.
Why do you think he's become the master of underselling his team each year? If Majerus were leading the Marines into a war against Luxembourg, he would convince you that they didn't have a chance. Too small. Too slow. Too inexperienced. Bad bodies.
Give him a basketball team of such players, and he'll go to work happily. He could have had the Vegas job, but who wants the pressure of expectation? What would he do with finished talent? Where's the coaching in that?
Give him a team with a problem. Injuries. Inferior talent. Inexperience. This is when he's at his best. Making the most of slim resources, moving the game pieces around the court like a chess master, overcoming odds with his own brains and saavy, overcoming weaknesses with team play, which, in his mind, is the beauty and the point of the entire exercise, aside from winning.
For a while this season everything was all wrong because nothing was wrong. The Utes were coasting along, and no one had been shot by a hand gun, no one had fallen through a plate glass window, no one had had open heart surgery, no one had broken a knee or an ankle, no one had left the team, and the Utes weren't losing. They won 17 of 18 games from late December through February and climbed to ninth in the national polls, and Majerus hadn't even earned a technical.
Then came last week. Suddenly, referees were out to get him; the stars were lined up wrong; a player was suspended from the team; another was injured; Majerus was slapped with a costly technical.
The Utes lost back-to-back road games to New Mexico and UTEP, and Majerus was crushed. After the first loss, he sought the refuge of a concrete stairwell in the back of the arena and sat there alone for 15 minutes. "I hate losing," he muttered. Later, he went for a walk that finally ended in the wee hours in downtown Albuquerque, miles from his hotel. He called a cab for the return trip.
That's what he does to clear his head. Walk. He ponders matchups, what he'll tell his players the next day, special plays. The night before the second Utah-BYU game he set out for another late-night walk from his hotel-room home on the Utah campus. By the time he finished his musings, he was at the Red Lion Hotel in downtown Salt Lake City and calling a cab for a ride home.
Two nights after the New Mexico loss, the Utes played UTEP. In the first half, Majerus protested a foul call and was given a technical, which turned into a seven-point swing. It cost the Utes the game. Instead of going for a walk, this time Majerus stayed up until 5 a.m. talking basketball with confidants and viewing more film.
Majerus is digging in again as events conspire against him. His starting center has been hobbled with a sprained ankle for two games. His top reserve has missed the last three games on suspension. His team has lost its last two games.
With all that working against them, the Utes will play in this week's Western Athletic Conference tournament. For Majerus, it promises to be another week of late nights and after-hours walks.