SALT LAKE CITY — An NCAA tournament that includes the Utes should never pass without mention of Rick Majerus. His spirit lingers, 13 years after he last took Utah to the postseason.
It stands to reason that even now he would be associated with Ute basketball. He coached his teams to a 17-10 March Madness record. He was memorable, funny, eccentric and successful. It wouldn’t hurt this year’s team to remember him when the pairings are announced today. That’s because he set the standard on preparation.
He knew opposing players right down to their favorite salad dressing.
That might be the case with Larry Krystkowiak’s Utes, too. But when Majerus arrived at Utah in 1989, it was revolutionary.
“His game preparation was way ahead of the curve,” said former Majerus assistant and current TV analyst Joe Cravens.
That’s not an exaggeration. Every coach today prepares obsessively. Cravens admits “you have to do that now, just to be even with everyone.” But in the 1990s, the mercurial Majerus had two main reasons to live: food and basketball, and he excelled at both. His hotel room/apartment was crammed with VCRs so he could break down films simultaneously.
That’s how the Utes reached the Sweet 16 twice, Elite Eight once and the national championship game once under his direction.
Cravens, a Utah assistant from 1989-93 (including one season as interim), estimates the combined coaching staff put in 100 hours preparation per opponent. As the team readied to play Texas in a 1992 regular-season game, Cravens drew a diagram of how the Longhorns ran the high screen. It included a line representing the screening player with his back to the sideline. But game film showed the player had his back pointed toward the corner — only a slight difference.
“The next day Majerus just undressed me because I had the angle of the screen drawn the wrong way,” Cravens said.
A strategy session with Majerus was painstaking. Sometimes the staff would spend an hour talking about how to defend a post player when he caught an entry pass and whether to put a body on him or leave a gap; whether to lean on the shoulder or back of the player.
The same preparation went into breaking down every opposing player.
“If a guy was going to scratch his behind,” Cravens said, “you had to know which hand he used.”
That was for the regular season, which was merely a precursor to the postseason. If the Utes won their first-round game, Majerus expected the next scouting report to be ready when they entered the post-game locker room. His assistants had to prepare equally for both potential opponents.
Under any circumstances, tournament basketball isn’t for the faint of heart. Sleep time in March often amounts to three hours a night.
“You are a physical and emotional rag at that point,” Cravens said.
That explains the wild swings the tournament engenders. Majerus could be funny and likable in press conferences (re: jokes about dating Cindy Crawford and Ashley Judd) but privately combative with reporters, players and assistant coaches. Yet tears would run down his cheeks after the season’s final game as he discussed departing seniors.
Cravens knows that feeling. After the Utes finished the 1992-93 season with a tournament loss to Kentucky, his eyes met senior Jimmy Soto’s in the locker room and both dissolved into tears.
“Emotions are just so raw at this time of year,” Cravens said.
Dreams soar and plunge in 40 minutes of game time.
Some noted when Majerus passed away in 2012 that he should have had his win-loss record engraved on his headstone. It was, after all, his life’s work. His only work.
“You get to the postseason and you’re trying to live that dream, to get the chance to wear that Cinderella slipper,” said Cravens, who also coached Weber State to the NCAA tournament in 2003. “”You’re always thinking why not us?”
Majerus and his madness did more than just get the Utes to the dance. For one wild spring, they even wore the slipper.
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