BY PEDRO VELAZCO
Ball State’s men’s basketball team lost to Butler on Saturday afternoon. It didn’t compare to the loss Ball State suffered that night.
Former Ball State coach Rick Majerus died Saturday of heart failure after a long hospitalization, and more than two decades fighting heart problems. He was 64.
Majerus coached Ball State for two seasons, the 1987-88 and 1988-89 campaigns. The imprint he left on the program and its fans lingers decades later in the memories of people who watched his squads.
Taylor boys basketball coach Andy Lewman was a student at Delta High School, just a few miles away from the BSU campus, during Majerus’ tenure. He watched the Cardinals practice a handful of times and took in games at Ball State’s old Irving Gym. It’s since been replaced by Worthen Arena, which seats approximately twice as many as the old gym.
“Irving Gym didn’t have very many people in it at some of the games and then Majerus shows up and he puts all these things together and you couldn’t get in,” Lewman recalled. “The gym was packed to the rafters. That arena wouldn’t be standing there if Majerus hadn’t been involved in the basketball community.
“I remember going to Irving Gym when you had to stand up and suck it up and get out of people’s way [because it was so crowded].”
Majerus, who had previously coached at his alma mater, Marquette, left BSU to coach Utah, reaching the 1998 championship game with the Utes. He later coached St. Louis before stepping down due to health problems this year.
His squad was 14-14 in his first season at Ball State. Then, with an influx of talent from Indiana and surrounding states, the Cardinals went 29-3 the following season, beating Pitt in the NCAA tournament before falling to No. 1 seed Illinois in Indianapolis. The following season, Majerus left for Utah and former assistant Dick Hunsaker led Ball State to the Sweet 16 and a memorable two-point loss to eventual national champion UNLV.
“The thing that will always stand out in my mind is sure, Dick Hunsaker took the team to the Sweet 16, but who put that all together was Majerus,” Lewman said.
Lewman is friends with former Ball State player Greg Miller. The current coach at his old high school, Yorktown, Miller was a sophomore and junior on Majerus’ Ball State teams, and remembers the coach fondly. He was scouting a Muncie South game when he got a text message about Majerus’ death, and spent time talking with ex-teammates that night.
“That news kind of sinks pretty deep,” Miller said. “You hate to have that happen to a guy that has affected and impacted so many young men’s lives.”
Miller was a senior on the Sweet 16 team, which played the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament in Majerus’ new stomping grounds, on Utah’s floor. Ball State took down Oregon State, which featured future NBA star Gary Payton, in the opening round and Louisville in the second round.
“I still remember the story,” Miller said. “We got out to Utah to play ... and he met us in the gym. Right before the hour practice [at the venue], he gets us in a huddle and he’s so excited to see us. He had just gone through septuple bypass surgery and he couldn’t wait. The [media] cameras were all over us in his huddle.
“He starts taking down his shirt low and wants to show us the scars of his surgery. Then he starts taking his pants down and we say, ‘That’s enough!’” Miller remembered with a laugh. He told the story to illustrate his point about how Majerus didn’t care what the situation was, if he had a teaching point, he was going to make it. “Really nothing else got in the way, nor did it matter.”
That team still bore a strong imprint from Majerus’ teachings. It was a hard-working crew, heavy on role players.
“The biggest challenge for us as players was trying to match his intensity,” Miller said. “As a player, you should never want to get outworked by your coach, and you knew before you got to practice, during practice and after practice, he was going to be analyzing film trying to get that mental focus, to be that tactician and find a way to win and do well, with anybody’s players.”
Those who came in contact with him remember Majerus for his humor, humanity, and razor sharp basketball mind.
Northwestern High School coach Jim Gish arrived on Ball State’s campus as a student after Majerus’ tenure was over, but later took in coaching clinics held by Majerus.
“His knowledge of the game exceeds, or did exceed that of many people at his level,” Gish said. “His knowledge of the game was phenomenal.
“He was probably the most detailed coach that I’ve had the opportunity to spend time with. We stole some of his offensive philosophies.”
Lewman got to watch first hand a few times in Muncie as Majerus would take the Cardinals through practice.
“The thing I remember about Majerus [in practice] ... he did the drills. He’d always have a crewneck sweatshirt and shorts. He’d be out there and he’d be doing it. He was passionate about the game of basketball. I think that’s what stood out to me more than anything: his passion for the game and teaching the game, it was at a different level. His practices were intense. They were flat-out intense.”
Those are some slices of why Majerus will be remembered by Ball State fans for years to come.
“I went there a year after he left and the thing that I recall is that even the people of Ball State talking about how his shoes couldn’t be filled,” Gish said. “I think for a mid-major like Ball State he brought an excitement, and his recruiting background speaks for itself. His ability to bring players in and make them a high-caliber player, it spoke for itself.”