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Majerus Goes From Bleachers To Bench

Final Four, 1994. As usual, Utah is not part of the show in Charlotte. Nor is Utah coach Rick Majerus. He is in Charlotte because he loves basketball, and on the night before the semifinals, he is in the concierge lounge of the Marriott, dressed in a sweatsuit, sampling the hot snacks, talking about basketball and life in general.

If there is an Everyman of coaches in this year’s Final Four, which begins today at the Alamodome when Kentucky meets Stanford and Utah faces North Carolina, it is Majerus.

Surely, you know the stories by now. Majerus …

Lives in a hotel near the Utah campus because of the amenities any bachelor would love, room service and housekeeping service.

Loves to eat - especially mintchip ice cream, which he will consume steadily while breaking down tapes of upcoming opponents.

Is quick with one-liners, accessible to a fault … the kind of guy you would love to have next to you during a game … the media darling of this Final Four.

But that is just one side of Majerus, who in eight years at Utah has won nearly 80 percent of his games, including 29 of 32 this year, and has transformed the team from the once lowly regarded Western Athletic Conference into a national power.

The other side is the complete professional, a detail-oriented coach who is not confrontational with his players but offers “tough love.”

“I’m not a touchy-feely coach,” said Majerus, who will use sarcasm to get his point across to his players.

Friday as Utah prepared for its first Final Four appearance since 1966, Majerus was as businesslike as he could be.

Yes, he said, the Utes are happy to be here, but he didn’t want them to accept that as the ultimate achievement in a Final Four most people assume will climax with a Kentucky-North Carolina championship game.

“We didn’t expect to get here at the start,” Majerus said. “Maybe the players did.”

As a matter of fact, so did Majerus … not right away, but as the season progressed and Utah won game after game in the first season of the post-Keith Van Horn era.

Majerus, who is 50, overweight, with a history of heart problems, has become fatalistic about lots of things in his life. But when it comes to coaching basketball, he has a master plan.

Usually, it starts with the private time he programs into his daily routine. He will simply sit by himself and think about the problem of the day, which generally is figuring out a way for the Utes to win another game.

No distractions, no visitors. Just Majerus and his mind, looking for some edge.

“If you sit and stare at a house for an hour and a half, you’re going to learn something different about the house,” said Majerus, who came up with the gimmick triangle-and-two defense that stumped defending champion and top-seeded Arizona in last week’s West Regional final.

Majerus will come up with a plan and then talk to his players. Make that lecture them. It is a Socratic approach. Majerus will quiz his players, probing them on what they know and, more important, what they don’t know.

“Practice is not fun and games with him,” said center Michael Doleac, the Utes’ leading scorer and team leader. “He’s probably funnier with the media than he is with us.”

Majerus’ success has allowed him to lash out at some of the obvious hypocrisies in college athletics. The NCAA’s well-publicized stance against gambling triggered a reaction last week at the WAC tournament in Las Vegas.

“We’re at the WAC tournament and they want us to show the kids a film on gambling and we’re staying on top of a casino,” Majerus said. “I asked if they wanted me to show it in the craps pit or maybe while the kids were picking keno numbers.”

Majerus’ background is blue-collar. His father was an auto worker, a union man.

Majerus played at Marquette and served as an assistant coach there to Al McGuire before spending four years as the Golden Eagles’ head coach and then moving on to Utah.

McGuire was Majerus’ mentor, offering advice on everything. “I’ll never forget he told me I’d better like myself because that’s who I’d be spending most of my time with,” said Majerus, who in 1989 underwent septuple bypass surgery.

His weight balloons during the season when his exercise decreases and his ice cream intake increases. Friends worry about his health. So does Majerus, but not at this time of year.

He is close enough to touch a national championship, closer than he has ever been before.

Conventional wisdom says his bid won’t last beyond tonight and on Monday, Majerus will be hanging out, watching games like he always has in March.

But maybe not. Maybe this is the year Rick Majerus satisfies his insatiable appetite for winning. He concedes he’s restless. Maybe he will move on from Utah in a few weeks to a more high-profile job.

Maybe he won’t.

For now, Majerus knows what he must do: Win one more game and then another to cap the season.

Everything else can wait.