SALT LAKE CITY — It may have been the only time I ever saw Rick Majerus at a loss for words.
His Utah basketball team had just lost to Colorado State by one point at home in a late-season contest, a bad loss that dropped the Utes out of first place with one game remaining in the 2002-03 season.
Majerus hadn’t been around to see it, however, having been ejected with two technical fouls for throwing a tantrum at the end of the first half, giving the Rams four free throws to start the second half, an obvious factor in the outcome.
Although he had left the arena and listened to the game on his car radio, Majerus was gracious enough to return to answer questions from the media after the game. Seeing how he wasn’t there to coach his team in the second half, and seeing how the Utes subsequently lost to an inferior team with a losing league record, I asked Majerus what I thought was an obvious question:
“Do you think you let your team down (by being ejected)?"
Majerus, always quick with a quip, was speechless for several seconds. Finally he stammered, “I’d have to give that some thought.”
To me, the answer was clear. “Yes, I let my team down. Not only did I give the other team four free points, I wasn’t there to coach my team when things got tough in the second half.”
Of course, Majerus or any coach would never say that. They usually feel justified that because an official made a call they disagreed with, they can act however they want to.
That long-ago incident reminded me of what has transpired recently with the Real Salt Lake soccer club. Its coach, Mike Petke, is missing three games because of an obscenity-laced tirade a couple of weeks ago at a Leagues Cup match against a Mexican team.
Considering that the MLS season is 34 games long, that’s nearly 10% of the season Real will be without its head coach. While his assistants are certainly competent coaches, there’s a reason the head coach gets the big bucks, and not having Petke for a couple of weeks could make a difference whether RSL makes the playoffs or not.
I’m not saying coaches or managers shouldn’t have a right to get upset and disagree with calls by officials, referees or umpires. But it goes over the line when they make it personal or take their complaining to an extreme, which apparently happened in Petke’s case. It ends up hurting the whole organization when a coach is suspended and misses games.
As volatile as Majerus could be at times, he actually rarely got technical fouls or was ejected from games. He would usually stand stoically on the sidelines with his arms folded across his white sweater. More than once I can remember him saying officials had a tough job and he wouldn’t complain about officiating after games. But the handful of times he lost it, it hurt his team.
Except for my turns as a church ball referee, I have little experience as an official. I do know that when I officiated I tried my best to make correct calls, which I believe 99.9% of officials try to do. Officials try their best, but are bound to make mistakes at times. If they’re truly incompetent, they won’t have a job very long.
One of the most impressive numbers associated with new Jazzman Mike Conley is zero. That’s the number of technical fouls he’s had in his 12-year NBA career, spanning 844 games. In fact, he’s never had a technical in college, high school or any level of organized basketball.
So yes, it is possible to keep your emotions under control and avoid getting a technical foul or get suspended for three games, for that matter.
As Conley’s former Memphis teammate Vince Carter told the Wall Street Journal, “He’s mastered the ability to approach the referee in a civil, sane way in a hostile moment.”
The bottom line is, coaches and players need to be in better control of their emotions like Conley. They may think they’re influencing the officials to their side, but in the end they’re just letting their team down.
Even Majerus acknowledged how silly it is to get overly upset that night he got the crucial T against Colorado State.
“It’s not surgery or war, two things you want to win,” he said. “It’s a game.”