Remembering Rick Majerus

Saint Louis will take the NCAA Tournament floor on Thursday as they have all season with blue and white ribbons on their jerseys and the word “Coach” just above their hearts.

It’s a symbolic and poignant reminder of the late Rick Majerus, who died December 1 due to heart complications. Where the Billikens go, their Coach goes.

In another state and another sport, one of Majerus’s friends, Tucson Padres’ manager Pat Murphy will soon follow suit. He plans to add the Coach’s initials to a tattoo on his back (among other influential people in his life including Pat Tillman, Bruce Springsteen and his parents).

“The first time I ever heard about Rick Majerus, he was the coach at Marquette,” says Murphy. “The story came out about him living at the hotel, there was some crassness to his statements and I said to myself, ‘I gotta meet this guy. I think I’d really like him.’”

They didn’t cross paths until 2006 when Majerus was considered the leading candidate to become Arizona State University’s head basketball coach. Majerus wanted to learn more about ASU and reached Murphy through mutual acquaintance Mike McBride.

“Funny story: the first time I ever met him, he said ‘Hey! Who’s your all time starting 5? You got Russell or Chamberlain?’ Since that phone call, we were friends. After 20 minutes, it was like I’d known him all my life.”

Majerus did not get the ASU job (reportedly ASU did not offer because of his uncertain health condition) but the friendship between two brash and highly successful college coaches blossomed. They met up in Long Beach and later in Majerus’s hometown of Milwaukee. Murphy introduced him to Craig Counsell.

Murphy and Majerus with friends

“There’s few times in your life you can say, ‘My friendship with him was not only special but I feel grateful to have ever met him,’” says Murphy. “He just had a stark influence on you because he was the epitome of a coach, about being passionate about his job. When I think of him I think of passion and I think what a good friend means. In my dictionary of life, Rick Majerus’s picture would be next to it.”

Majerus later served as a Murphy mentor after he was fired from ASU in November 2009.

“When everything went down, he was one of the first people to reach out and say “Hey! Whatever you need,’” says Murphy.

“I was supposed to go there and sit on the bench at the Kansas game. He said, ‘You’re a  coach.’ He made me realize these types of things happen, it doesn’t matter if it’s fair or not, doesn’t matter if you got the raw end of the deal. He said, ‘If that’s the case, so what? Do what you do best. Don’t lose your edge about helping young people. There’s a reason this happened, just pave your way in a new area.’”

Murphy bristles at the notion that he was one of Majerus’s closest friends.

“I’ve probably met 15 people that knew him,” says Murphy. “How could he have that much time for all his friends? He had to have thousands of people in his life. He was just special to all of them. No tolerance for uppity people that were caught up in their title or arrogance. He was just a humble, blue collar, gym rat ball coach.”

After leading them to their first NCAA tournament berth in 12 years in 2012, Saint Louis announced in November Majerus would not return to the bench this season because of ongoing health issues. Just a few weeks later, the Coach who famously had just one losing season in 25 years passed away in a Los Angeles hospital.

“The day he passed I probably walked for three hours,” said Murphy. “The people in my neighborhood probably thought I was losing it. I talked to him for three hours.”

“The last time I talked to him I knew it was serious but I honestly thought he’d come out of it. The more and more it went on, you couldn’t talk to him. That was sad part; I couldn’t say goodbye to him. He was very private. It was just the way he wanted it.”

Today Murphy smiles when he remembers the good times (like the time his daughter Keli held a spot for him in line at Phoenix’s famous Pizzeria Bianco and then insisted she dine with him) and their short but influential relationship.

“You know what was amazing is I hadn’t realized how much I bragged about him about what a tremendous person he was and how much concern he showed me. The day he died I bet you I got 50 text messages saying, ‘So sorry about Rick.’”

“Everybody wants to leave a legacy and you know because you’re in their lives in a leadership position you know you’re going to leave some kind of influence, but Rick was just a great example of friendship, of passion and of being a coach. I will never lose that closeness and memory and that example.”

“He was as real as it gets.”

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