I'm very sad I didn't have the privilege of experiencing the entire Rick Majerus era.
I was born in 1984 and was just 5 years old when he was first hired at Utah. I was too young to remember his early '90's conference championships and NCAA tournament runs. In fact, my first real Utah basketball memories are from the 1997 WAC tournament when Keith Van Horn made his memorable game-winning put-backs in back-to-back games against SMU and New Mexico.
For me, that is where it all began.
I was just 12 at the time and remember the scene clearly. I watched the games on our old, bulky TV with my mom and dad. My dad, a Utah grad and the reason I am a Ute fan myself, was a big Utah hoops fan and had been since his youth. He was passionate about Utah basketball and had spent a lot of time in the Huntsman Center in his teens and twenties long before I came along. Those two games opened my eyes to Utah basketball thanks in small part to the dramatics of the endings (though as a 12-year old I didn't realize how big the plays really were at the time) and in large part to what I saw out of my dad. For the first time in my life I remember seeing some major excitement out of him. Those games drew me in to Ute basketball when up to that point in my life all I knew about the University of Utah was football.
From that point on my developing sports brain had a new team to follow. Utah football, Denver Bronco football, and Utah basketball.
The next year during the WAC tournament a close friend and I stayed up watching the Utes play every game. That year at 13 years old I attached myself to that team – and that coach – and from that point on Coach Majerus was THE coach in my mind.
1998 was the year the Utes made their run in the NCAA tournament that culminated with a loss to Kentucky in the National Championship game. I learned things during that tourney run that I had never heard of before. The triangle-and-two. The box-and-1. Majerus pulled off some of the greatest coaching moves I had (and have) ever seen and the wins he earned because of them only cemented his legacy in my mind.
It's unfortunate his tenure at Utah ended the way it did. The relationship between the man and the university that he had worked so hard for and sacrificed so much for began to deteriorate. I won't pretend I know all of the details of the disagreements between the school and Majerus, but both sides had their reasons to be upset.
After completing nearly 15 seasons, winning 10 conference championships, and collecting over 350 wins as Utah's head man Majerus stepped down in early 2004 due to health concerns. Everybody close to the program knew that there were other issues that had nothing to do with health that played as much a role in the split if not more than the big man's health and though not everybody wanted to see it, just about everybody agreed the time had come for the two sides to part ways.
I remember where I was the day the news broke. I had just gotten out of class at Weber State University and was listening to the radio in my car on my way home. The breaking news sounder played. I can still picture myself stopped at the red light on 44th and Harrison Boulevard in Ogden shocked – and yet not so – as the hosts on the show read the news release.
Nearly seven years had passed from those first Ute hoops games I caught on TV with my parents and I had made a lot of memories in regards to Utah basketball along the way. I grew from a 12-year old sixth-grader into a 19-year old college student. I attended late night 10:00 tip-off ESPN home games. I stayed out until well after midnight with friends watching games at the Huntsman Center. I saw games that drew 15,000 screaming fans decked out in red and white. The Utes didn't lose a home basketball game between January 1997 and December 2000. I was at a LOT of those games.
Andre Miller. Keith Van Horn. Michael Doleac. Alex Jensen. Hanno Mottola. Nick Jacobson. Nate Althoff. Phil Cullen. Britton and Jeff Johnson. Marc Jackson. Travis Spivey. Tony Harvey. These names (and many, many others) mean something to me, and it's all thanks to Coach Majerus.
Because of him I became a fan of the school. Because of him I was able to cheer for and connect with legendary Ute players. Because of him I am the Utah fan that I am today.
I was a Majerus fan until the very end. Rest In Peace Coach.