Rick Majerus was a big man with a big contract, but a small profile on the local sports scene in the early years of his five-year tenure as St. Louis University’s men’s basketball coach. And make no mistake about it, Majerus, who died last weekend, was his own man and did things his own way whether it was building a program or dealing with the media.
“There certainly were quirks and intricacies,’’ said Tom Timmermann, the Post-Dispatch Billikens beat writer who chronicled Majerus’ entire five-year stint at SLU. “He was totally different than anyone I’ve ever covered.’’
The school hired him to try to vault the program, which was moving into a new building, back into an upper-echelon attraction locally as well as to put it back on the map nationally. Getting publicity was a big part of that. But for the first few years, Majerus and the Billikens created about as much buzz in the local media as a Rams practice-squad move and it was hard for some to gain access to him and the program.
“The walls were put up very early’’ in Majerus’ tenure, one local television sportscaster said two years ago. “It’s almost impossible to cover” SLU.
Majerus didn’t make players available before practice and because there was no telling when those would end, it was impractical for TV crews to hang around.
“You were always on your toes around him,’’ said Bob Ramsey, who has seen just about everything at SLU in his 27 seasons of broadcasting the Billikens. “He could be tough at worst, but he ran the whole gamut. He also could be as congenial and funny as anyone you could imagine. And the quirkiness always made it an adventure. You always had to brace yourself. It’s rare a broadcaster has to have his head on a swivel, but he made you be ready for anything. It was truly an interesting challenge.’’
Majerus eventually mellowed and last season the program finally reached the promised land – the NCAA tourney – in which the Bills beat Memphis than narrowly missed against Michigan State, the top seed in the West. But heart problems prevented him from returning this season and he died Saturday.
Frank Cusumano, a sportscaster at KSDK (Channel 5) and KFNS (590 AM), had many dealings with Majerus.
“I think initially, because of his Hall of Fame status, he may have thought he didn’t need the media as much,’’ he said. “But I thought he realized very quickly that SLU wasn’t No. 1 in the pecking order in terms of coverage in our town’’ and he evolved with that.
That evolution came in his own way. For a while about the only noise coming from the program he was hired to pump up in St. Louis was away from the basketball court. His comments in 2007 that he was pro-choice regarding abortion and favored stem-cell research led to a public feud with St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke. Those stances are opposite to those of Catholic teachings – and SLU is very Catholic.
He drew more publicity to the program in early 2010, but again it was of the eyebrow-raising variety. After being a no-show for the opening installment of “The Rick Majerus Show,” he appeared in Week 2 – with an order: “Take my name off ... call it ‘The Billikens Show,’’’ he insisted. “With our schedule, I’m not able to allocate the time on these evenings” although he was obligated to do so according to the school’s contract with WXOS (101.1 FM) to broadcast SLU’s games.
That night he was on for only a little over half the hour-long show. But while he was there, it truly was his show. When Ramsey, the host, said it was time for a commercial, Majerus interrupted and asked that they be delayed until he was done. He did the same thing a few years earlier.
“Anybody who knows the broadcast business knows that is insane,’’ Ramsey said. “But guess what — we acquiesced. We moved all the commercials to the back of the show.”
The intrigue was just beginning, though. Majerus fully pulled out of the show the next week, saying his charity work and the team’s less-than-ideal travel situation helped force his hand.
“I just cannot commit every Monday night,’’ he said.
But the same night that comment aired on WXOS, Majerus appeared on Chicago radio station WGN. And in an even more bizarre twist, KTRS (550 AM) picked up WGN’s feed, putting Majerus on a St. Louis station that competes with SLU’s broadcast partner – at the exact time he was supposed to be on WXOS. That left WXOS officials steaming, and the show was canceled.
“That was Rick being Rick,’’ Ramsey said. “With him there are no checks and balances. I never found it to be confrontational, he always was real professional and businesslike, even pleasant. But if he wasn’t going to do it, he wasn’t going to do it.’’
Timmermann concurs and talks about Majerus giving only “yes’’ or ‘‘no’’ answers at postgame news conferences in the instances when it was evident he didn’t want to be there.
“It was obvious it wasn’t going to happen,’’ Timmermann said of getting a usable quote. “I established a rule with myself that after four questions (that only got a yes or no answer) I’d drop it.’’
Sometimes on the road Majerus wouldn’t be available until long after the game, making it tough for a writer on deadline. But that was Majerus being Majerus. Timmermann noted that Majerus only failed to return a call twice in the entire five years.
A NEW ERA
Controversies eventually ebbed and the program began winning.
“Because I knew him previously he always was gracious,’’ Cusumano said. “It got to the point he’d call me and say, ‘Hey I’d like to come on and talk about this upcoming game.’ He was extremely generous with his time.’’
And when Majerus began talking, he often would be like a runaway freight train seemingly never wanting to stop and no telling where he was headed.
“I would make sure I’d book him at 10:30 (a.m.), not 10:45, because I was afraid we’d go over the top of the hour when we had to break,’’ Cusumano said. “Sometimes we’d be talking about a trapping zone defense and we’d get on to Vietnam.’’
Ramsey knows all about that.
“The shortest distance between two points is a straight line – unless you were talking to Rick Majerus,’’ Ramsey said, chuckling. “... Often you would ask one question and you’d get most of the topics (you wanted to ask about) in one answer.’’
Other times it was tough to pin him down on a specific point, especially after a game.
“His brain was floating through 40 minutes of basketball and 10 players,’’ Timmerman said. “ I don’t think he was dodging answers but it was like he was an iPod on shuffle — he’d go in a bunch of different directions. You’d think this is going to be a great quote, but then all of a sudden he’d change gears.’’
THE BOTTOM LINE
Ramsey, who partners with Earl Austin Jr. on the Bills’ radio broadcasts, sums things up.
“We weren’t close, but after the first year or so he realized I wasn’t trying to make a reputation (off of him) and he was very complimentary in public about the job we did,’’ he said. “Our commentary was on a lot of game tapes they used for review, so he was familiar with our work. I was honored he’d make a point at booster club and postseason events to compliment the broadcasts. He wasn’t one to throw around compliments unless he meant them, so I thought that was pretty cool.’’