“There goes the happy coach, back in his element. There goes the saddest man you ever saw.”

From the Moveable Type chuck-pearson.org blog, January 21, 2008.

This is just kinda submitted with minimal comment. This SI.com feature on Rick Majerus is big-media journalism at its finest – the type of profiling of a guy that SportsCenter simply will not give you, the warts-and-all treatment, face-to-face with who the guy is – and wonderfully descriptive writing to boot. Most sports geeks hate a guy like Bobby Knight and love a guy like Rick Majerus, because Knight comes across as such an S.O.B. to the media and Majerus never met a media guy he couldn’t crack up with a story. Yet you read this thing and you could easily imagine Knight pulling off some of the stunts and cussing out his players like Majerus is described as doing here – and then there’s Majerus’ habit of exposing himself and making people around him feel awkward, far beyond anything Knight would do, which doesn’t tend to keep people in modern academia employed for very long but coaches with track records of success can pull off.

But the raw shock value doesn’t make the piece. The picture of the coach who simply lives and breathes basketball, who is a wonderful human being but for the sport that he loves that brings out all of his demons. S.L. Price, who wrote the piece, avoids the temptation to address Majerus’ foibles with mock shock and horror – he uses them to construct a full picture of the man, hand in hand with all the positives, placing what makes him truly great side-by-side with what makes him so troubling.

The piece is seven pages long. Read them all. They set up this ending, which is devastating by itself, but literally had me shaking as I read it as the profile’s conclusion:

Something about pain: Rick Majerus prizes his. Because pain teaches you. Because pain is the price of chasing one’s passion, and if you don’t do that, you’re not alive. Because, ideally, losses like tonight’s 22-point thrashing at Boston College show how limited your immediate future is, and that kind of clarity can only help. Majerus inherited this Saint Louis team. Few doubt he can put the program in the national picture, but he figures on a three-year struggle, and who knows how long his body will hold up? He’s got a team, but for now it feels nothing like Utah.“I realize the position I’m in here now: These guys didn’t pick me; I didn’t pick them,” Majerus says after the Dec. 4 game. “We’re in each other’s worlds, and we’re looking at each other, like….” He shrugs. “It is what it is. I like these kids, they’re really nice kids. I would like any one of them as a son.”

That only sounds dismissive. Majerus knows basketball cost him a marriage, kids. More than once he investigated adopting a child alone and allowed himself to be talked out of it. But the boys he never had and raised are never far from his mind. The boosters saw that in the bar back in October, when, apropos of nothing, he dropped into a public reverie, his voice gone mournful and soft. “I wish I could’ve had a kid like Dwayne Polk or Luke Meyer,” he said of two of his seniors. “I don’t have any regrets other than that. I look at Luke and think, Boy, his parents must feel so special to have that kind of a kid.”

That sparked a tangent about parents today, and how they “want to take all the pain, all the heartache and all the sadness out of their kids’ lives. All the things that make you a better person, a better coach, a better teacher — all the things that are so much the fabric of life. I’m so much better for every loss I’ve had. I can….”

Majerus paused, and everyone in the place leaned forward in his seat. It was pin-drop quiet. When he spoke again his eyes had filled with tears, and the words came out slowly; suddenly it was 1998, March 30, and Doleac and Miller and Alex Jensen were beating Kentucky in the NCAA final, up by 12 early in the second half. No one had expected them to even get there. No one had expected Utah to beat Arkansas, Arizona and North Carolina — all those traditional powers — and now Majerus saw Kentucky, too, in his grasp. Then came Utah’s collapse, his overmatched players finally run down and beaten 78-69, the whole awful film of it unspooling again in his head.

“I don’t know how to tell you this,” Majerus rasped. “I don’t think I can get you guys there; I probably can’t, because it’s so tough to get to the Final Four. But, you know, I was just a bad player; any walk-on with me now is much better than I ever was. But I always loved to play, and I knew how to get my way in: I’d find all those guys who were good shooters and set picks for them and I’d go on the floor for loose balls. [At Utah] I had such great kids. I love those kids. They played their asses off, and we got to the national championship game; I can remember every moment of that game. You become so much better a person for all the bad things that happen to you. But all these helicopter parents, they just hover there, and they want to take all that away from their kids. They don’t want them to fight through it.”

And at that moment it became clear: the task Majerus set for himself long ago. It’s not just the searing losses that will teach his players. It’s him too: dealing out the hard knocks and heartbreak that he felt once. If parents won’t do it? Majerus will be the pain their kids fight through every day. Some may understand. He’s almost past caring. Majerus will walk that long tunnel to the locker room alone, head down, two people indeed. There goes the happy coach, back in his element. There goes the saddest man you ever saw.

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