Majerus building Billikens into contenders
ST. LOUIS – Rick Majerus suggests the bison sausage. Oh, and the Nueske’s bacon – it’s from Wisconsin, same as him. And try the fresh-squeezed orange juice, too.
The enthusiastic recommendations pour forth from Majerus, the Saint Louis University basketball coach, over breakfast at Café Osage, an earthy spot not far from campus. If you need a dinner tip, he’ll send you to The Fountain on Locust, where they have his mother’s chili – cleverly called Rick’s Mom’s Chili – in the soup rotation. (He supplied them the recipe and they just about got it right, but can’t quite perfectly reproduce it. “Nobody can,” Majerus says, half proud and half sad.)
He wants you to see where the Billikens play. Chaifetz Arena, the four-year-old, $81 million, 10,600-seat on-campus gym is a gem, Majerus says. Attendance is good. You’ve got to come to a game.
The only thing missing was a Chamber of Commerce button on his XXL sweatshirt.
Spend some time with Rick Majerus and you get the feeling he is at home here, or at least at peace. You get the feeling that after a difficult 18 months, it’s all coming together for him, just as it inevitably did at Utah and Ball State and Marquette before. He has a nice hotel to live in, just like he did in Salt Lake City, a pool to swim his daily laps, and all these nice places to eat. Friends from his hometown of Milwaukee can make the trip here easily. He has a staff he trusts, players he likes and incoming recruits he loves.
Roll all those ingredients into a Majerus breakfast wrap – along with egg whites, cheese, peppers and onions – and you sense that the big man is about to take another bite out of college basketball.
“I like the guys,” he says. “We’re better than the sum of our parts, and that’s a tribute to the players.”
It’s also a tribute to their coach, who has won 500 career games with parts that rarely should have equated to so much success. His Billikens are 12-1, with double-digit victories over opponents from the Big East, Big 12, ACC and Pac-12. They’re ranked 13th nationally by Ken Pomeroy’s computer, 29th by Jeff Sagarin’s and receiving votes in both top 25s.
They are playing like a classic Majerus team: prudent shot selection, devilish defense, slow tempo, in control of the way most every game is played. Those are the same ingredients that took Utah to the 1998 national title game, Ball State to a 29-3 record in 1989 and Marquette to three winning seasons in the mid-’80s. Not a lot changes with Majerus – he carries an archaic cell phone and has no idea how to send text messages, only how to receive – but the style of play has worked across generations of players.
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With his guidance, the Billikens will be a handful in the Atlantic 10 race and are well-positioned for the school’s first NCAA bid since 2000.
“It’s exceeding my expectations,” says Dr. Richard Chaifetz, namesake of the program’s arena. “I knew we’d be good this year, but to come off 12-1, it’s a great start. We’ve got a great coach, I think the best arena in college basketball, some great players, we’re attracting more recruits and we’re getting more exposure. Winning begets better things.”
And money helps beget winning. Chaifetz, a neuropsychologist and founder of ComPsych Corporation, is a 1975 graduate of Saint Louis. After years of watching his alma mater trend toward mediocrity in basketball, he put considerable cash and energy behind an effort to upgrade the program.
Chaifetz kicked in $12 million for naming rights to the arena, and he got involved – monetarily and personally – in the quest to land a big-name coach.
Saint Louis’ previous four coaches had been a local high school coach (Rich Grawer), two guys upgrading from other mid-majors (Charlie Spoonhour and Lorenzo Romar) and a guy who had been a Division II head coach and a Division I assistant (Brad Soderberg). The result was a losing overall conference record across 25 years in a variety of leagues. Chaifetz spearheaded the novel idea in 2007 that SLU should put together a big offer and make a bold run at breaking its historic coaching mold.
The school sent out feelers to Rick Pitino, but couldn’t get him to leave Louisville. They eventually zeroed in on Majerus, who had just finished his third season as an ESPN analyst. Saint Louis had a healthy paycheck and a familiar background to offer to a Marquette alum and former coach – a Catholic school in a major Midwestern city with a focus on basketball.
In classic Majerus fashion, he kept Saint Louis waiting a good while. He has a bit of Hamlet in him at hiring time, having once taken the USC job for five days before suddenly bailing out. Finally, in late May ’07, he said yes.
Before long, he had Saint Louis on schedule, winning 23 games in his third season. Then came a terrible stretch that set the program and Majerus back.
In May 2010, four Saint Louis players were investigated in an alleged sexual assault. Charges never were filed, but two of the players left the program that spring and two others were suspended from the university. Of the two suspendees, one left school but starting point guard Kwamain Mitchell rode it out and re-enrolled last January.
Mitchell didn’t play basketball last season, and the short-handed Billikens struggled to a 12-19 record – Majerus’ only losing season as a head coach. Majerus also missed three games after a cut on his leg became infected.
Then, last summer, Alyce Majerus was at the end stages of a battle with cancer. An unmarried man with no children, Rick always revered his parents – speaking with special fondness about his mother. He spent most of the summer in Milwaukee sharing time with her before she died in August. Some in St. Louis questioned the amount of time he spent away from campus, but Majerus said he could recruit just as easily in Milwaukee as he could from campus – and loyalty to his mom was non-negotiable.
“I had a great mom and dad,” Majerus says. “My mom had a tough life, and it was a tough summer. But it was actually really rewarding being with her.”
When Majerus returned to St. Louis, Mitchell and a solid cast of others were waiting for him. Right now, Mitchell is the team’s third-leading scorer and top assist man, joined in double figures by senior forward Brian Conklin (15.0 points and 5.0 rebounds per game) and junior forward Cody Ellis (12.5 points in only 21 minutes per game).
It’s the kind of roster you’d expect from Majerus: a bunch of Midwestern kids supplemented by a guy from Oregon (Conklin) and four foreign players. Nobody was a hamburger All-American.
He says the days of recruiting sleepers such as Andre Miller at Utah are over, and points to current New York Knicks center Josh Harrellson as an example. Harrellson was from the St. Louis suburb of St. Charles and went to a junior college in nearby southern Illinois. Majerus was all over him and thought he had him – until Kentucky came in late with a scholarship offer. Instead of landing a potential program-changing big man, Majerus got to watch him starting for the Wildcats in the Final Four last spring.
But that’s life at the Saint Louis level, and that’s pretty much the level where he has spent his career. Majerus always has joked about the travel, scheduling and recruiting differences between coaching an Outsider program vs. an Insider program – “Recruiting at UCLA is like recruiting an alcoholic to a New Year’s Eve party” – but he also takes pride in being able to beat those teams when the opportunity arises.
He should get more of those opportunities in the coming years. With modern amenities in place and Majerus in charge, Saint Louis basketball has a chance to fulfill Chaifetz’s vision of outperforming its relatively modest pedigree.
“I don’t think there is a ceiling,” Chaifetz says. “We can be as good as we could be.”
Keeping Majerus around to build on the current momentum is paramount. He has famously fickle health and has been known to abruptly take in-season leaves of absence – but at age 63, the Saint Louis job has the feeling of a final act for one of the most fascinating figures in college hoops over the past 20-plus years.
Bet the bacon on the big man going out in style.
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