The Utes: a Class Act on Any Stage
SAN ANTONIO — The University of Utah, losers in the NCAA Men's Collegiate Basketball Championships to Kentucky, conducted a significant albeit largely unobserved clinic in behavior for anyone astute enough to pay attention.
Everyone should have.
In many ways, how the Utes coped with everything that cascaded over them here last weekend was of more import than the game.
For openers, Utah felt inordinate pressure to succeed because it's not often it gets to strut its stuff on the national stage. It has been 32 years since it was in the Final Four. It isn't unreasonable to surmise it could be 32 more before it returns.
Most people know little about Utah because it labors in the abyss of the Mountain time zone. When was the last time a TV show promo on a network was announced in Mountain time? This is compounded because Utah plays in the Western Athletic Conference, which gets less respect than dirt.
So when the Utes do play in national view, many still regard them as a carnival freak show, like watching the fat lady swallow 10 canaries at once, then chirp a song. Interesting, but not to be taken seriously. Sort of like their coach, Rick Majerus, happily fat and routinely very funny.
The other day, he was explaining how the university turned down his request for tenure. Snorted Majerus, "It was like I asked them to throw in girls.'' Majerus is a first-rate hoops coach, easily in the Top 10. But, because he is humorous and because he is at Utah, and because Utah lives and plays where Utah does, he, like his school, can be taken too lightly.
And always, there is the undercurrent of racism because Utah teams, certainly including BYU, tend to be disproportionately white in a sport that has become disproportionately black. Mormons get most of the blame. The truth lies, oh, who knows? Whatever, it can look downright strange to sometimes see Utah playing with four or even five white players. The Utes star, black point guard Andre Miller, admits he wondered what it would be like playing with "slow white guys.'' It's not, he says, as bad as he feared. But the fact is, it's hard to get quality black athletes to go to a white school in Utah. Period.
So when North Carolina's Makhtar Ndiaye accused Utah freshman Britton Johnsen of hurling the N-word at him, Majerus could not have been more impassioned in defense of his player. Majerus faced the issue head on, publicly, instantly, and said he'd resign if it turned out to be true. Few insiders believed Ndiaye, who is a walking technical foul anyway. A day later, Ndiaye allowed as how Johnsen didn't really say that. But the damage was done because it confirmed a stereotype that Utah doesn't deserve.
But Majerus got the discussion over with without acrimony and proceeded with trying to win a national championship. No festering. Nicely done.
Then the issue arose that Majerus had once had a verbal run-in with Kentucky player Scott Padgett. But Majerus was kind and measured in his discussion of the incident, saying it wouldn't have happened in another environment. He praised Padgett. He didn't come close to saying the obvious: Where does any player get off popping off to the coach in the first place? Especially Majerus who is definitely in charge rather than the inmates. Philosophy sample: "To those players for whom defense is not important, they will be given the best seat.''
And when the Utes lost, Majerus confessed he probably should have used his bench better - which he probably should have. He was candid and upbeat about his own players but confessed, "I've got to get better players."
Honesty should never offend nor require an apology.
And when talk turned to whether he might move on to another coaching job somewhere, Majerus was low-key and hit just the right notes. He loves Utah, loves the people, blah, blah, blah. But, well, listening is good. So he has and probably will, on occasion, listen when others come calling. Maybe soon.
And to handle all this in the super-charged atmosphere of the Final Four is truly remarkable. Would that all other college teams behave in a similarly exemplary manner. Every college basketball coach should sit at Majerus's knee for a spell, listen very carefully, then act accordingly.
* Douglas S. Looney's e-mail address is email@example.com