Majerus recovered from shaky Leno opener

Deseret News 04/07/1998

By Scott D. Pierce
Deseret News television editor

Last week on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno," we saw a Rick Majerus we've never seen before.

We've seen the University of Utah's basketball coach funny and sharp-witted. We've seen him charming and personable. We've seen him bored and disinterested. We've even seen him somewhat churlish and petulant.

But we've never seen Majerus appear nervous and perhaps even a bit intimidated before. (Heck, most of us have never seen him in a sport coat.)

Not that he didn't have good reason. Appearing on any television show is tough, and appearing on a late-night network show is tougher than most.

And it didn't help that his 7 1/2-minute segment started off, well, pretty badly. In response to a comment by Leno that "you guys were not, probably, high in the office pool" when the NCAA tournament began, Majerus responded, "No, I think you had to be clairvoyant, Mormon or a white supremacist or something."

Huh? White supermacist?

The audience didn't laugh much. Leno bellowed, "Forget the last one." Fellow guest Billy Crystal looked nonplussed.

It was, apparently, an attempt at humor that failed. Badly.

But Majerus made a bigger comeback than Kentucky. From there on out, he was funny and charming as he joked about his wardrobe, his girth, his residence in a hotel.

Some of the jokes were familiar to Utahns, like his comment that his seven-bypass heart surgery was "one for each major food group." But they worked well for Leno and his audience.

And he told a great story about being mistaken for either one of the Three Stooges or Uncle Fester from "The Addams Family."

Leno still isn't a master interviewer, but he was polite and very complimentary of Majerus, his team, his players' academic achievements and Salt Lake City.

After that rough start, Majerus did a nice job. And it was great to see him, to see anyone from Utah, get the attention.

Not to mention the fact that it was nice to see that even someone as glib as Majerus can look nervous in front of the cameras.

NOT THAT BIG A SURPRISE: Leno was certainly courteous and supportive, but at the same time he overplayed the whole Utes-as-underdogs angle. He acted as if they were a 16th seed from the Colonial Conference, not a third seed that spent most of the season ranked in the top 10.

QUOTABLE: Leno even came up with a joke in his opening monologue that featured the Utes:

"It's tough to coach in Utah because many of the players are Mormon and they go on missions," he said. "This is true. The players go away sometimes for as much as a year. As opposed to Jerry Tarkanian's players who go away for five to 10 years."

(OK, so Leno obviously doesn't know much about LDS missions, but you've got to love the shot at the Shark.)