December 11, 2012
Caleb Buchanan held tight to his Domino’s pizza. He wanted to enjoy it while celebrating alongside his Air Force teammates. They had just earned a crucial victory over Utah at Clune Arena on Jan. 26, 2004.
Rick Majerus, Utah’s brilliant, voracious basketball coach, had other plans for the celebratory pizza. He placed his hand on Buchanan’s shoulder, looked him in the eye. The game had ended minutes earlier.
“Hey, I’ll give you some money for that pizza,” Majerus said to Air Force’s startled senior center.
Majerus handed $20 to Buchanan, and the coach in the white sweater soon waddled away to consume his prize.
Buchanan, a 2004 Air Force grad, works in Virginia. He was laughing over the phone last week.
“I was a little surprised,” Buchanan said. “Usually the coach from the other team doesn’t ask you for food.”
But Majerus was not a typical coach. He was not a typical anything.
He died Dec. 1 of heart failure. This was partially due to his adoration of pizzas, McDonald’s single burgers, the entire right side of menus, bratwurst, gallons of soda and everything else mom warned you about.
His departure sent a jolt of agony through the basketball world. Nuggets coach George Karl struggles with tears when he talks about his old friend.
He’s not alone in his sorrow.
Joe Scott coached the Falcons the night Majerus purchased the pizza. It was a precious victory for Scott. During his first three seasons at Air Force, Scott used Majerus and the Utah program to inspire his players. Utah won titles. Utah did it right.
On Jan. 26, 2004, Scott and the Falcons conquered their role models, 62-49, leaving the Falcons with a clear path to the Mountain West title they clinched six weeks later. The worst team in the MWC transformed, in one season, to the best.
When Scott heard word of Majerus’ death, he was stunned. Majerus had struggled for years with his health, frightening his friends, but always returned to the court. Scott expected yet another comeback.
“Somebody who is 64 should still be coaching, should still be doing what he was doing,” Scott said last week after finishing practice at the University of Denver, where he coaches. “I didn’t think this was how it would end.”
But anyone who watched Majerus that night wondered if his story would end too soon.
No doubt, Majerus ranks as a basketball genius. His obsessive drive pushed Utah to 323 wins and the 1998 NCAA Final.
For 15 seasons, Majerus and his Utes played at Air Force. On each visit, he swam an hour at the academy’s aquatic center. Majerus, ever the contradiction, attacked the water with the same fervor he attacked a cheeseburger. Majerus, a devout patriot, talked with cadets and developed a deep interest in Air Force’s quest to mold military leaders.
At every destination, Majerus revealed his unpredictable, complicated nature. He discussed theology with reporters, wondering aloud if heaven awaits us. He left stupendously generous tips for waitresses. He spent years living in the Salt Lake Marriott, where he helped desk clerks with math homework.
He masterfully controlled his basketball team. He struggled to control his appetite and his health.
That was evident Jan. 26, 2004, as I sat at the press table watching Majerus. I had never seen a coach walking perilously close to death. Majerus, his face ghostly and scary, struggled for breath. He looked as if he might collapse right in front of us.
Long after the victory, Scott saw Majerus departing Clune. In one of his many quirks, Majerus traveled to games by himself.
Scott stopped to watch the coach he admired so much.
“He was moving very, extremely slowly,” Scott said. “At the time I thought it was because of the hard-fought game. I thought the guy takes his losses hard, which I knew he did, but then we found out the next day it was way more than taking the loss hard.”
Majerus resigned as Utah coach the next day to tend to his faltering heart. This trip to Clune marked his final game as Utes’ coach.
The final years of his life were a jumble. He accepted the USC job and resigned five days later because of his heart. He worked as an ESPN analyst. In his coaching farewell, he lifted Saint Louis to 26 wins and last season’s NCAA Tournament.
A.J. Kuhle was a rugged star for the 2003-2004 Air Force team that defeated Majerus. He retains admiration for one of our era’s finest coaches.
Kuhle, now a DU assistant, was standing behind Buchanan when Majerus completed his surprise purchase. He can’t help but laugh when thinking back to that Domino’s pizza.
“What did I think?” Kuhle asked before instantly answering. “Hey, I just thought he was hungry.”
Yes, Rick Majerus was hungry. For pizza. For victory. And, perhaps, for blessings never found in food or a mere game.