SALT LAKE CITY — Rick Majerus wasn’t there, Saturday at the Huntsman Center, but in another sense, he was everywhere. His famed sweater was still in the rafters, honoring the former Ute coach’s brilliant career.
But something else was there, as well.
“There are still some guys that have got scars,” said former Ute Britton Johnsen. “I saw some teammates I had not seen since they left after the Final Four. There are still some scars. That said, to go to the Final Four — that’s pretty amazing.”
The 2018 Utes’ win over Cal was the main event on Saturday, but far from the most interesting. That belonged to the 1998 Utes, who were honored at halftime for having reached the NCAA championship game. Virtually every member of that team showed up. The autograph line that formed beforehand stretched far down the concourse. At halftime, the ex-players were introduced.
It was impossible to acknowledge the team without remembering its coach. When Majerus was acknowledged, it drew a loud cheer.
That the ’98 Utes would even sniff the Final Four was a long shot, considering the No. 2 pick in the 1997 NBA draft, Keith Van Horn, had just left. Despite a historically strong program, the Utes were routinely dubbed a “Cinderella” team in San Antonio.
North Carolina had Antawn Jamison, Brendan Haywood and the gravity-defying Vince Carter. Kentucky had Scott Padgett, Jamaal Magloire, Nazr Mohammed and Jeff Sheppard, all future NBA players. But it’s not like the Utes were decimated by Van Horn’s departure. They still had Andre Miller, soon to embark on a 17-year career in the NBA. Michael Doleac went on to a 10-year NBA career. Hanno Mottola logged 155 big-league games, while Johnsen appeared in 26. Alex Jensen became the MWC player of the year in 2000.
This was no bargain basement Ute team.
Equally important, though, was that the Utes had Majerus, the combative, profane, sentimental, endearing, infuriating, hilarious guy who could coach four armadillos and a sea turtle into the NIT.
“We felt a little uncomfortable with him. That’s why he never flew with us, never ate with us. But when he was on the court, he completed us,” said Mottola. “He was an unbelievable coach.”
Majerus ran a fair number of players off. Some simply weren’t up to his profanity-laced putdowns, others simply were not good enough. His practices were long and blistering, verbally and physically, and no one got spared. He once ranted at Van Horn, “Keith, why don’t you just transfer to Westminster and take Andre with you!”
“There was bad stuff, no getting around it,” Johnsen said. “He was a hard dude to play for and very demonstrative, and verbally abusive at times ... That was kind of his process of trying to get us to play hard and to get the most out of you. But I used to tell a lot more of those stories than I do now. Now it’s, yeah, it was fun going to the Final Four.”
When Johnsen was falsely accused of using racial taunts against North Carolina, Majerus rushed to his defense, staking his job on it. But he also soured on certain players and even assistant coaches, battled the media, schmoozed with other media, watched film all night and generally played the part of the high-profile, low-patience coach he was. Johnsen said as a pro in Europe he was warned of one coach who was “one of the meanest dudes” around.
Having experienced Majerus, Johnsen said, “After two weeks I was like, ‘This is a walk in the park.’”
While former Utes uniformly admit Majerus was no treat, they don’t deny he was a great coach. How great? Talent-wise it was a team that should have advanced in the NCAA Tournament anyway. But to reach the championship game?
“I don’t think we do it without him,” Johnsen said.
Majerus passed away five years ago. His legacy is that of a legendary coach, a fine comedian and a madman of the first order.
Has there ever been anyone like him?
“No. Never. I’ve never met anybody close to him,” Johnsen said.
But did they love him?
“It’s a very complicated answer,” Mottola said. “If I had a chance to do it again, I would do it. But to have my son play for him? That’s a complicated question.”