As one of his assistant coaches, I had a unique relationship with Rick Majerus and was fortunate to be considered one of his friends.
We first met in 2005 when I was the head coach at Wright State and Rick was in town for a fundraiser and to visit his longtime friend and mentor Don Donoher, the legendary coach at Dayton. On my staff was Donoher's son, Brian, who asked if I wanted to have the coach come over to practice. I jumped at the opportunity. Rick took notes the entire time and then spoke to our team afterwards.
Then he and I had our first "talking ball" conversation, and it was from there we hit it off and stayed in contact.
Three years later, he hired me as one of his assistant coaches after he landed the Saint Louis job. Working with him morning, noon and night, we all worked diligently to restore the SLU program. It was extremely challenging as he was just returning to the sidelines after being with ESPN, with a completely new staff which had never worked together and a completely new team as well. Nevertheless, we still managed to win 16 games and I always told him that was one of the best coaching jobs I'd ever seen.
People always ask me what it was like to work for Rick Majerus. He was demanding and at times combustible, just like every other head coach. But being a former head coach, I understood the shoes he was walking in.
During the season on our "days off," you would arrive in the office in the morning, then we would meet at noon for lunch on The Hill and talk about our team, recruiting, scheduling, academics and in between he would have to take some calls. Before you know it is was 5 o'clock and he would say, "Let's go have dinner and talk ball."
As we prepared for that first season, he had us come to Milwaukee, near where he grew up, for staff meetings. We went to the playground he grew up on and walked through all of our offensive and defensive drills and concepts outside on the cement, with cracks and weeds popping out of the ground. It was so pure. It was so Rick.
As a coach, he was an extraordinary teacher of the game and a master of detail. He would always cite people he learned from or coached with, such as the great Al McGuire, Don Nelson, George Karl, Del Harris, Don Donoher and Doc Rivers, whom he coached at Marquette. He had a philosophy and a plan for skill development and every phase of the game. His preparation for opponents was overwhelmed with detail.
The first time I ever scouted a game for him, I thought I had just taken a final exam. He was one of the best at preparing his teams for a game. Like all great coaches, his favorite place to be was practice or watching film. In the film room, he could pick out multiple breakdowns or good plays in just one possession.
His teams and players always improved under his tutelage. His practices were special because there was never any slippage from him. Whether it was the first practice of the year or the last, he was always well-prepared and detailed. He beat teams that were more talented because his teams were better prepared -- and when he had equal or better talent, he rarely if ever beat himself.
There are many reasons he will go down as one of the greatest coaches of all time in my book. His knowledge of the game, his thirst to learn more and his ability to translate that knowledge to his teams was remarkable. Games are won and lost in practice and coach Majerus conducted an incredibly detailed practice with purpose.
Every once in a while, though, a detail slipped through the cracks. In 2007, I will never forget our first scrimmage. It was against Memphis with Derrick Rose and Co. We had a thin roster and had to start a walk-on who was an extremely hard worker but had the tough assignment of covering D-Rose. It was the first time Rick had coached in a game since his Utah days, and we had only practiced for a few weeks. In these closed scrimmages, you don't worry about scouting reports and sometimes don't even know the players' names on the opposing teams.
So in the first four possessions, Rose drove and scored on our walk-on, and coach called a quick timeout, practically foaming at the mouth. He ripped the walk-on for not leveling the drive and staying in front of his man like we did in practice and jumped on the rest of the team for not helping and rotating over. As I watched him hold the walk-on accountable in a loud tone, I leaned over and whispered to him that it was Derrick Rose we were talking about, the top recruit in the country. It fell on deaf ears until we broke out from the huddle and the team walked back on the court -- and he turned and looked at me and said, "Oh, that's Derrick Rose?"
But as detailed and demanding as he was on the court with his players, he was equally concerned about their academic effort and progress. He would spend hours lecturing them about the importance and value of their education and how hard all of their parents sacrificed for them over the years. Rick would get off on life-lesson discussions that were deep and personal. One of his main points and phrases to all of his players was, "I don't expect an A, but I do expect an A effort in the classroom, and in your conduct and character toward others."
Those weren't just words. He led by example. Rick had an extremely generous and caring side that few got to see or experience. Although he never had a family of his own, he got to know my wife, Theresa, and daughters quite well, taking us out to eat and hugging my girls after every home game. He would send Christmas presents to the girls; last year he sent my wife and daughters each a pair of sneakers as they started off the school year. That’s just the way he was.
He constantly said to me, "You have a great coach's wife who loves you and well-behaved children who love you unconditionally ... I wish I had your life." Coming from Rick, that meant the world.
That gift of communicating was a special thing. You know how hardly anyone writes letters anymore? Well, Rick treated it like an art form. He would write the most meaningful letters to recruits, fans, friends and colleagues. Shortly after I took my current position at ESPN, he sent a wonderful letter and signed it "your friend," Rick Majerus.
He was also one of the first people to reach out when he found out my dad passed away, and called me several times until he reached me with these great words: "The greatest thing is you were a great son and he knew you loved him and he loved you." It meant so much at the time and still does today. He always had a way to make you laugh, too. "Your dad and my dad are grilling brats and Italian sausage together right now," he said.
I will miss his friendship, his passion to teach and coach, the late-night calls to "talk ball." Our conversations always would go back to his mother or my family.
Please understand, he was more than just a future Hall of Fame basketball coach. He was a caring, loving son to his late mother, Alyce. He was a real friend. A friend who cared. No matter what the subject of the conversation was, he ended every phone call with "Whatever I can ever do to help, you just tell me."
Much to my sadness, those phone calls will no longer be made. I'll no longer hear those trademark Rick Majerus phrases.
But that doesn't mean I'll ever forget them. A man never forgets his friends.
Rick sure never did.