Majerus' magic forges lasting memories

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I wish I could find the T-shirt.

It probably sits in a box in a basement closet underneath my old Ball State letter jacket, a napkin from “The Chug,’’ some yellowed Daily News clips and other stuff that conjures up fun college memories. On the shirt that was hot on campus my junior year in the winter of 1989, a likeness of our portly and wildly popular basketball coach that season is throwing a recliner surrounded by the words: ''Who needs Bobby? We’ve got Rick Majerus.’’

We’ve got Rick Majerus.

It was no small feat to make Bobby Knight the second-most popular coach in Muncie, Ind., not so soon after the Hoosiers’ 1987 national title, but that is what the magic of Majerus did. By Majerus’ second and final season at Ball State, everybody adored the fat man who jogged slowly enough around University Gym to hold conversations with students who marveled at his interest in their hometowns and majors. They loved him. We loved him. Everybody on campus loved the guy.

Majerus, who died Saturday too young at 64, forever endeared himself to BSU students by bringing hot chocolate and coffee to the hundreds who lined up for premium Purdue tickets into the wee hours of a cold December morning. When the Cardinals made the NCAA tournament to cap a special 29-3 season, Majerus arranged for pizzas to be delivered to the masses back in those same ticket lines.

I remember a Majerus radio show from a dorm drawing 300 students and him staying after to talk to them about his favorite restaurants. I remember his awful sweaters and a local restaurant sign that screamed, “Majerus for President.’’ I recall showing up at the gym for offseason football workouts and wondering who all the people were watching basketball practice. They were fans Majerus welcomed to watch his open practices.

This was before Majerus did all the great things on the grandest stages in college basketball that so many people so eloquently eulogized him for Saturday; before the books and banquets and coaching stardom. This was pre-Final Four Majerus, a man who turned 40 amid relative obscurity at Ball State with two decades of impact yet to make on a sport that just won’t be the same without him. This was one of the most colorful, entertaining, fascinating men I had the privilege to observe as a Ball State student-athlete.

My own most extended exposure to Majerus came during postgame news conferences when, as a volunteer assistant for the sports-information office, I regularly typed up the coach’s quotes -- edited for profanity. He swore a lot, as everybody knows. He laughed. He taught. He cared. He told the best stories and the funniest jokes, making him larger than life on a mid-sized campus in east-central Indiana. When Majerus left for Utah at the end of the 1989 season, the news hit us on campus as hard as if they had canceled Letterman.

Our paths would cross again a decade later, indirectly but indelibly, only the next time produced a memory much less fond.

It was 1999 and I was the sports columnist at the South Bend Tribune when Majerus had emerged as the favorite to replace John MacLeod as the Notre Dame basketball coach. The job had been one long coveted by the devout Catholic who, in my mind then and now, represented the ideal choice for a program that had been stagnant for too long. My role required me to state an opinion and it was that Notre Dame would be lucky to hire a coach of Majerus’ integrity.

The headline of my column in the March 21, 1999, Sunday edition of the South Bend Tribune said, “The book on Majerus? He fits ND’’. The gist came in the eighth paragraph: “…The question is not whether Notre Dame can afford to risk hiring Majerus, but rather can it afford not to?’’

The problem was, in the first seven paragraphs I described Majerus’ eccentric personality based on passages in his new book, “My Life on a Napkin.’’ During his interview for the job, Majerus had given the book about his unorthodox lifestyle to the late former Notre Dame athletic director Michael Wadsworth and said, “This is who I am.’’

The book’s revelations I referenced in the column included Majerus professing to be the first Final Four coach to sunbathe on a nude beach in Hawaii, confessing to being spotted by a Utah fan in Amsterdam’s Red Light District, calling himself a “lapsed Catholic,’’ and cheating on tests in college. I wondered in print how conservative Notre Dame officials might react while reading the book.

Then I found out. Turns out Wadsworth’s superiors hadn’t read the book. I later was told by several university sources that key decision-makers learned those outrageous details for the first time reading the local paper Sunday. They were so concerned about image that the flight on the private plane scheduled to fly Majerus from Utah to South Bend that day to discuss contract terms was canceled.

Notre Dame instead hired Matt Doherty and, later that spring at a banquet speech in Evansville, Ind., Majerus cited the column as a major reason he wasn’t hired. After I came to Chicago to work for the Tribune, I once tried to explain to Majerus at a Final Four my unwitting role in keeping him away from Notre Dame.

Whether the coach was being polite or simply choosing not to revisit the past, he never let me finish the story. He never dwelled on what might have been because what was exceeded Majerus’ wildest expectations. He was happy. He preferred to ask me questions about a mutual friend in Chicago and reminisce about the year at Ball State he always considered one of his best in a brilliant coaching career.

And, oh, how it was. Somewhere, I have a T-shirt that proves it.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh

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