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McGRATH: Loss of Rick Majerus, Bill Jauss made 2012 difficult year

Rick Majerus never changed even after he became college basketball icon. | Tony Dejak~AP

Rick Majerus never changed, even after he became a college basketball icon. | Tony Dejak~AP

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Saturday’s Loyola-DePaul game notwithstanding, college basketball’s offerings tend toward the slim over the holidays, which is probably just as well. What can possibly top football’s luminous Beef O’Brady Bowl for tradition, drama and sheer excitement . . . unless it’s another breathless ESPN update on why Tim Tebow is not playing for the Jets this week.

Football, though, has given us Notre Dame, Northern Illinois and Northwestern playing in big-boy bowls this season — the Irish in the biggest one there is — and who saw that coming? What’s next, the Bears in the playoffs?

Truth is, I can’t watch college hoops without thinking of my friend Rick Majerus, the unfailingly quirky but uniquely effective college coach who left us earlier this month. Among other things, I miss the late-night conversations. When he was coaching at Utah, Majerus sometimes lost track of the two-hour time difference between Salt Lake City and Chicago, but we knew better than to panic if the phone rang around midnight.

“Either one of the kids is in trouble or it’s Rick Majerus,” my wife would observe.

With the kids in bed and accounted for, it was usually Majerus. And no matter where the discussion wandered over the next half-hour, he’d always close with a reminder to be on the lookout for players. This from the guy who once dismissed my evaluation skills as appropriate for the Stephenson County Ag League, but so what. The admonition represented one of Majerus’ most endearing qualities. He never changed, even after he’d become one of the most recognizable sports figures in the country.

Majerus’ mere presence at Saint Louis would have made the Billikens attractive to the college-level CYO that seven fellow Catholic schools are forming from the rubble of the Big East, which is paying a devastating price for its unrequited obsession with football.

It’s a shame Majerus won’t be around to go against Georgetown, Villanova, Marquette, DePaul and the rest of the Catholic hoops power structure on a regular basis. That’s where he belonged.

I’m probably in the minority on this, but I think Loyola belongs there, too, probably because I’m old enough to remember the ’63 Ramblers and the impact they had on Chicago while becoming the only team from Illinois to win the NCAA tournament.

Porter Moser, Loyola’s ambitious young coach, said he’d given no thought to the work-in-progress Catholic Conference, that competing in the Horizon League is plenty for the Ramblers right now. But Moser has big plans for his program. He wants to make a splash in Chicago, and he’s more likely to do that playing Georgetown, Villanova and Marquette than he is Wright State, Cleveland State and Milwaukee.

I followed the Ramblers’ every dribble in their championship season through Red Rush’s inimitably energetic radio calls and Bill Jauss’ less flowery, more reliable print accounts in the Chicago Daily News.

On Dec. 15, a week after Majerus’ funeral, Loyola staged a classy re-enactment of a historic episode from that season: the Mideast Regional semifinal against Mississippi State, which required the Bulldogs to travel to East Lansing, Mich., under cover of darkness to circumvent segregation laws banning Mississippi teams from mixed-race competitions. Loyola’s iron-man lineup for the “Game of Change” featured four black starters: Jerry Harkness, Vic Rouse, Ron Miller and Les Hunter.

Three years later, Texas Western (now Texas-El Paso) used five black starters in a title-game victory over Adolph Rupp’s rigidly all-white Kentucky team. Miners coach Don Haskins is universally hailed as a social-justice pioneer, but it was no less courageous for Loyola’s George Ireland to start four black players in 1963 Chicago. We weren’t exactly a bastion of racial harmony back then, not that we are now or ever were.

Ireland, a demanding, driven man, was 88 when he died in 2001. He had faded from the scene, not interested in the “America’s Grandfather” nostalgia that made contemporary Ray Meyer so endearing long after his retirement from DePaul.

Jauss, thankfully, was still practicing journalism here and was asked to write Ireland’s obituary. He turned in a masterpiece based on first-hand knowledge, a well-crafted blend of sociology, history and sport that told an unflinchingly insightful story of a man and his team, an era in a city.

Typical Jauss. He threw himself into every assignment with a cub reporter’s relish. No story was too big for him, or too small. A pro’s pro who defined the term, and a genuinely nice man, always.

Bill Jauss left us in 2012 as well. Tough year. Here’s hoping for better in 2013.

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