Sports

More than a mentor, Majerus was a great friend

Jim Hayford first met Rick Majerus as an assistant coach at Azusa Pacific in 1996 in a small southern California gym looking at recruits. The meeting blossomed into a mentoring relationship and close friendship. The two remained friends until Majerus’ death from heart complications on Saturday.

—-

Coach,

You had nothing to gain by befriending me. Maybe you saw a little of me in you: a bald, overweight guy who loves the game. Just an NAIA assistant coach who thought maybe he could make a career out of this. But you took me in as a friend – me and another new friend, a San Francisco high school coach looking for a mentor. You loved us both, with nothing to gain.

You would call after midnight, frequently: “Want to meet me for a bite?” My wife wondered who you were. And, of course, I would go. I would pick you up, talk ball, listen, learn the game. The greatest nights of my life. I loved your presence, everything you said. The gospel of basketball.

Could I be a head coach? Your response: “Get an interview. I will get you the job.” I got the interview. You called. I got the job.

I succeeded as a first-time head coach. But then my daughter got cancer. Though never a father, you tried to tell me how to help her. I resented your advice.

“What does he know?” I thought. Then you tell me your best friend growing up had a child who beat leukemia. You knew. You told me about Al McGuire facing death. You understood.

I worked hard. I asked myself, “How would coach Majerus do it?” I called you to ask. Every call you would take. Every stupid question you would answer. It didn’t matter to you if I was coaching in front of hundreds of people and not thousands, only that I was coaching the game we both loved.

“I need money for my program,” I would tell you. Your response: “I will give you a game for as much money as they will allow.” You never said no, no matter where I coached.

Years later, you were announcing a game for ESPN in Spokane, me coaching at Whitworth. “Jim, let me do a practice with your team,” you said. “I miss the court. I will put in an offense that I would use if I was coaching Kansas.” My Whitworth players listened like never before. On the night of your death, I got texts from them. “Remember the time you let coach Majerus lead a practice? Thank you for that opportunity.”

Your final words that day: “You are so lucky to have a team. Enjoy it!”

I am offered a Division I job at Eastern Washington, the realization of a dream. I call for your counsel, Friday, after midnight. “Can you fly to where I am?” you said. “Let’s look at this.” Two days of swimming, eating, talking. The pluses. The challenges. I accept the job.

Six months later, the Eagles win in Hawaii. A 3a.m. phone call, Hawaii time. It’s you. “Great win! That is a hard road win. Enjoy it! I am proud of you.” Twelve years as a head coach, from the little NAIA job in South Dakota you helped me get to now, I’ve never felt so thrilled than when I heard those words.

You track our every game my first year as a Division I coach. You care like it’s your own team.

Then the phone calls stop. The messages aren’t returned. I know you’re ill, and I hurt for you. I miss the calls, the big meals, the basketball talk, the friendship.

The news comes on a Saturday afternoon. Rick Majerus, dead, at the age of 64. A basketball coach. A friend. My friend.

And a part of me died, too. I miss you, coach. More than you could know.

Your friend, Jim



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