COLUMBUS, Ohio —Perhaps it was a benchmark of sorts — the first news conference in NCAA basketball tournament history in which a coach mentioned Chaucer, Whitney Houston and the Christian Science Monitor in a 17-minute span.
At least it was the first time since Rick Majerus last was in the NCAAs, which would have been almost a decade ago in 2003. Majerus was coach of Utah then. Now, after three years off and four years of building, he’s leading the Saint Louis Billikens to their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2000.
Majerus, though, spent more time making fun of his age and eating habits than he did talking basketball. Oh, and making fun of Twitter was also on his agenda.
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“I can’t see this Twitter thing,” Majerus said when asked his social network policy. “You know . . . ‘Just went to the beach, the water was wet.’
“It’s like, ‘What is that?’ You know, it’s funny. I mean this sincerely.”
Or, as he said in response to another question about texting and posting on social media: “Who would follow all that stuff? What kind of life do you have when you could read a book or go to a play and you’re sitting there looking at a machine?”
Yes, he also admitted he’s a bit of a dinosaur in that regard, that he does things most people nowadays don’t do, such as physically pick up and read four newspapers per day, all delivered: The New York Times, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Christian Science Monitor and Wall Street Journal.
He said he gets the Monitor for international news, though he admitted it’s slipped quite a bit. Not enough that he doesn’t also admit reading it “in the bathroom” and in his easy chair.
“It’s a contemplative experience,” he said.
Majerus’ way, as he said, might be gone, but his way on the court certainly is not. He brings a record of success in his 25 years of coaching at Marquette, Ball State, Utah and Saint Louis. Included is an overall record of 516-215, 12 NCAA appearances and 15 20-win seasons. Majerus does it the old-fashioned way — with balance, smarts and defense.
The Billikens’ leading score is Brian Conklin, a grad student who averaged 13.9 points. Nine guys play, and Conklin and Kyle Cassity are playing while they earn their MBAs. Sophomores Dwayne Evans and Jake Barnett have 4.0 grade-point averages. Majerus has players from New Zealand, Greece, Oregon and Milwaukee.
Opponents average just 57 points against St. Louis, which has recorded 119 fewer turnovers and 58 more steals that its opponents. The Friday night matchup against Memphis features a fast team that goes up and down the court against the slower, plodding Billikens, a matchup that Majerus said is “what makes this a great tournament.”
“We can’t run with these guys,” Cassity said. “That’s not our game.”
Conklin channeled his inner Majerus when asked what was special about being in the tournament.
“The police escort was kind of cool,” he said. “It’s funny, you need a police escort to go two blocks.”
Majerus has seen quite a bit of life in his 64 years. He’s had heart surgery more than once, most recently a year ago when he had a stent inserted. He left coaching in 2004 because of his health and decided not to coach at the University of Southern California after accepting the job so he could return home to care for his mother, who had small cell cancer. This year he missed a game when he was hospitalized because, he said, “I’m an old guy, a bit inept and kind of foolish.”
Which meant he mixed up medications and took blood-pressure pills rather than blood thinners. And it all happened after he took his one-mile morning swim. The mix-up sent him to the hospital.
“They asked me what pills I mixed up . . . ” Majerus said. “I said if I knew what pills I mixed up, I wouldn’t have mixed them up.”
He laughs at his own maladies, pointing out his best friend has ALS and his mother had cancer.
Doctors, he said, “see me as a guy they can go in through his wallet.”
He added he’s “an authority on a lot of things with the heart, especially the payment.”
He also readily admits he is his biggest problem, calling food his “drug of choice” and saying everyone has something they fight. He was respectful and serious when he said because of his issues with overeating he can relate to Whitney Houston’s personal and painful struggles.
“Everybody has something,” he said.
Majerus also takes his profession seriously. He works at it, coaches intensely and watches tape into the wee hours. He also brings a healthy perspective that many lack.
“Chaucer said it best,” he said. “‘There’s ghoulies and beasties and things that go bump in the night.'”
The key, he said, is fighting . . . something Majerus does every day.
“I really never look at my health issues as ‘woe is me,'” he said. “I’ve seen the reality of that. And it’s not a pleasant thing.”