On first anniversary of his death, Billikens recall lasting legacy of coach Rick Majerus

ST. LOUIS — The final press conference of former Saint Louis University basketball coach Rick Majerus provided the world a glimpse into what it all meant to him — his players, the game and his future with both.
It was March 18, 2012. Michigan State had just knocked the Billikens out of the NCAA Tournament, handing SLU a 65-61 defeat in the round of 32. It seems like forever ago now.
 
Somewhere, in the bowels of Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio, Majerus sat at a table, with forward Brian Conklin and guard Kwamain Mitchell sitting to his right, and tried to make sense of it all.
“I don’t want you to think I’m out of breath or anything,” Majerus told reporters. “It’s just very emotional for me with Kyle (Cassity) and Brian. You get attached to kids. I’ll see them again. Not in the capacity that they’re in now.”
  
His eyes were shrink-wrapped with tears. Reporters had seen that before whenever the coach spoke of his mother, Alyce, and his father, Raymond. He spoke of his parents often.
 
Majerus loved his parents.
 
And he loved his players.
 
His players also loved him.
“He’s a great coach,” Conklin said at that press conference, stopping to fight back tears and unable to control his emotions. “I couldn’t imagine playing for a better coach, a better person. He doesn’t teach just about ball — he teaches me about life. He’s just a great figure for the community and for the city.”
  
Majerus died of heart failure Dec. 1, 2012, in a Los Angeles hospital. He was 64.
 
Saint Louis University had announced that August the coach was taking a leave of absence because of a health issue and Jim Crews had been named interim coach. In mid-November the school issued a press release that Majerus would not be returning to coach the Billikens because of an ongoing serious heart condition.
 
On Sunday, the one-year anniversary of his death, SLU took another opportunity to honor the coach who went 95-69 over his five seasons at the school and led the Billikens to the third round of the NCAA Tournament in 2012, the school’s first appearance in the tournament since 2000.
 
“I walked with him from the court to the press conference that day,” SLU athletics director Chris May said before the Billikens hosted Wichita State. “It was one of those you won’t forget. You knew that he had put it all on the line. He had such a bounce in his step, even when he was sick, knowing that he had delivered with this program and with these guys. What you saw in that press conference was how much he cared and how much the kids cared.”
 
Majerus was a complex man. There’s no denying that.
 
He will be remembered for his success on the court and in developing players. He won 517 games. He took 12 teams to the NCAA tournament, including guiding Utah to the 1998 championship game. Three of his players at Utah — Keith Van Horn, Michael Doleac and Andre Miller — went on to become first-round NBA draft picks.
 
He also had his enemies. He used more than his fair share of colorful language. There were stories about his mistreatment of players and feuds with reporters. He was labeled as difficult to play for and difficult to work for.
 
Majerus will be remembered for those things, too. Mostly, however, he’ll be remembered as a guy who loved the game, someone who lived and breathed it.
 
Ron Golden, a coach with the local St. Louis Eagles summer basketball program, recalled last week one of his first encounters with Majerus, when he had lunch with the coach, former assistant Angres Thorpe and radio color commentator Earl Austin Jr.
 
“While sitting there and just talking, he was explaining to Earl and I what kind of offense or what his plans were for the season,” Golden said. “He had watched film of Tommie Liddell and Kevin Lisch. He picks up one of Vito’s menus and starts diagramming plays on it. I just looked at Earl and afterward I said ‘I don’t think when they made those nice fine gold menus with the fine Italian script print on it that it was made for Rick to diagram plays on it.’ I often think about the fact that he wrote that book, ‘My Life On A Napkin,’ and my fondest memory of him is that just puts that right in line for me.”
 
There are so many stories. Majerus loved to tell stories.
 
Majerus referenced his former player Andre Miller so often it became a running joke with the local media.
 
But the legacy he left behind at Saint Louis University is a positive one — both in terms of the basketball program he took to new heights as well as the impact he had on the young men who played for him.
 
“The way he taught, I’ll take through the rest of my life really,” Cassity said last week. “What he instilled in me as a player, it went far beyond the game of basketball — it was more about life. He was quite the figure. He was his own man. A lot of people, you either liked him or you didn’t, but he was nothing but great to me and I can’t thank him enough for allowing me to play for him and get to know him.”
 
Former players Luke Meyer and Paul Eckerle spoke to the crowd at Chaifetz Arena during halftime Sunday about what Majerus meant to each of them.
 
“Really the fondest memories are the times that we had in practice, the times that really no one else sees except for the guys on the team,” Eckerle said last week. “You hear Coach going on tangents, telling stories, talking about life. Just the random things he would say that probably no one else would ever be able to hear or be able to appreciate it. There are things you encounter in everyday life that make you think about it and make you remember him and how he was and the things he used to say. 
“His words are always going through your mind. You can’t help but kind of repeat the stuff that he always used to say. I find myself just saying things that he used to say all the time. It makes you think about him.”
 
The Billikens were able to build on his legacy, as a basketball program, last season by winning the Atlantic 10 Conference regular season and tournament titles and returning to the NCAA Tournament. It marked the first time since 1994-95 SLU had made back-to-back tourney appearances.
 
“We’re left with the opportunity to become a major mid-major,” said Bob Ramsey, radio voice of the Billikens. “I’m not saying we are. I’m saying the opportunity to stay at a level with Georgetown, Xavier, Gonzaga, Marquette and those folks rather than kind of falling back to being just good. Majerus never had a question that the program could be there and he took it to that level. He took it to the next step.”
 
“I think that’s kind of the legacy,” Ramsey continued. “He was able to fulfill something that, heck, going back to the mid-80s people around here talked about and he pushed it to the next level, sometimes with everybody kicking and screaming. But he pushed it to the next level. Now it’s up to everybody else to try to keep it there.”
 
You can follow Nate Latsch on Twitter (@natelatsch) or email him at natelatsch@gmail.com.