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Majerus touched Blair County

December 4, 2012 - Neil Rudel
The college basketball and sports world lost one of its giants over the weekend with the passing of Saint Louis University coach Rick Majerus.

I did not pretend to know Majerus. I admired his 35-year career from a distance -- his pedigree under Al McGuire, the fact that his Ball State, Utah and Saint Louis teams consistently competed at a high level without the best talent, the manner in which he handled himself and the values for which he stood.

Majerus came to Altoona once as the guest speaker at the Blair County Sports Hall of Fame banquet in 2000.

While he was not the biggest name the Hall reeled in before him (Joe Paterno, Terry Bradshaw, Bob Knight, Dick Vitale, Joe Theismann, Mary Lou Retton) or since (Bobby Bowden, Jim Boeheim, Chris Fowler, Ben Roethlisberger), no one struck a better chord with the audience than Majerus.

He made fun of himself, and his weight battle which ultimately claimed his life at 64, and went from stand-up comic to motivational speaker in an instant.

Some of his one-liners ...

*"I was told everybody would be five minutes. I hope these people time the rest of my life."

*"I've had seven bypasses -- one for every major food group ... I've got cuff links bigger than the piece of chicken they gave me."

*On his tuxedo: "They make me wear this stupid tie. I feel bad for the next poor bastard who has to wear this after me."

*When someone sought his autograph earlier in his career: "I heard people saying, 'Who is it? Who is it? Then some guy in the back says, 'It's one of the [Three] Stooges.'

*On advice McGuire gave him on marriage: "He told me not to marry a beautiful girl, that she may leave you. [McGuire said] An ugly girl may leave you, but so what?"

*On spotting the invocator in the audience: "I appreciated your invocation, but it was damn long. I've been to resort masses there were quicker than that prayer."

Once warmed up, though, Majerus turned inspirational.

He talked about the quality he sought in recruits, saying he liked to go to the best games because he wanted to see how a prospective recruit might handle defeat. "I watch when a player loses and what the game means to them," he said.

To that end, he used to do some television work for the Utah Jazz and called John Stockton "the greatest competitor I've ever seen -- 4-5-6 hours after the last [playoff] game he comes out, inconsolable, pointing the finger of blame only at himself."

He was proud that, at least through 2000, when he was still coaching at the University of Utah, all of his players graduated, and none left early for the NBA. "Money is the most overrated thing there is," he said. "Money can't love you back. The biggest single mistake you can make is leaving for money. You're making a deal with the devil. You're trading away education and the discovery of self."

He said neither of his parents graduated from high school, and his father worked for the Kolar toilet factory in Milwaukee.

"We were low-middle class," he said. "We didn't have a lot."

And yet, he never considered himself poor.

"I don't think you're poor if you don't have any money," he said. "I think you're poor if you don't have a dream."

A walk-on at Marquette, he was "a very bad player," but he played for a "great coach" in McGuire, and he grew to be a student of the game who prided himself in coach-player relationships.

On the night he was in Altoona, three coaches were honored, and another served as a presenter for his star player.

Most guest speakers tell their life story without necessarily taking the time, or the interest, in the community they're addressing. Majerus, then 42 years old, was different.

"Coaching is trying to help somebody else improve their life, and this dinner tonight is a celebration of coach and athlete -- and still feeling that indebtedness and gratitute to each other. And then it's about parents."

Majerus told the audience he makes "about 10 speaking engagements a year" and donates his honorium to a cancer foundation in memory of his late mother.

"I'm genuinely touched to be here tonight to do something in a positive vain," he said. "You're so lucky if you've got wonderful parents. It's the single most important bond in life. When you're with your kids, I hope you appreciate them, and all the little kids I took pictures with tonight, I hope you'll hug your mom and dad."

Majerus, enjoying his night in Smalltown USA, concluded by saying, "You've got something really special here. I do a lot of these things. You can feel the sense of community here ... and the fondness of coaches to players and players to coaches. I hope you never lose that, and it's really been an honor to be here."

Majerus drew an immediate standing ovation from the crowd of 700-plus, and master of ceremonies Stan Savran, the veteran Pittsburgh broadcaster who has emceed all the Blair County Sports Hall of Fame banquets (1987-2012), paid him a special tribute.

"Rick, if I may .. we've now had nine banquets over 13 years, and no one has ever summarized the feeling and the raison d'etre of this banquet better than you just have."

Count Altoona PA among the many towns saddened by his passing.

Editor's note: Neil Rudel is one of the founders of the Blair County Sports Hall of Fame. Majerus' quotes for this blog were taken from a video of the banquet in Altoona in 2000.

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