Sports

Open letter to a friend who will be missed

Eastern Washington’s Jim Hayford, right, enjoys time with friend and coaching legend Rick Majerus.
Eastern Washington’s Jim Hayford, right, enjoys time with friend and coaching legend Rick Majerus.

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 get 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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