Majerus back on bench

King of one-liners eager to coach after TV stint

Saturday, November 3, 2007

— Rick Majerus had it pretty good the last couple of years.

He watched all the basketball he wanted and never had to sweat the results. He dropped in on friends across the country. Nobody bugged him about his weight or his health. All this, and he got to stay in his hometown of Milwaukee, too.

Those cushy days are gone. now. After three years as an analyst with ESPN, Majerus is on the bench again, trying to make St. Louis a force in the Atlantic 10 and beyond. His schedule is packed, his voice is already hoarse and restaurant owners are doing the dance of joy.

As for those visits with his old friends, well, they'll just have to wait.

"Bob (Knight) called and said, 'Why don't you come down here and hang out with me for a few days?"' Majerus said. "I would no more have time for that than Botox injections."

Yes, college basketball's king of the one-liners is back in the game.

"I missed practice," he said. "I like the guys. I really like seeing them get a good education and grow up. I like keeping score, although that won't be as fun this year."

Majerus is, without a doubt, one of the game's premier coaches. His 422-147 record gives him the seventh-highest winning percentage (.742) among active Division I coaches, ahead of Jim Boeheim and Lute Olson. In his 17 full seasons, he's never had a losing record and has made the NCAA tournament or the NIT all but two years.

He took Utah to the NCAA tournament 10 times, failing to get out of the first round only once. The Utes played for the national title in 1998, losing to Kentucky.

But his health has often overshadowed his success.

He was only six games into his tenure at Utah when he needed bypass surgery in 1989. He coached one game in the 2000-01 season before he took a leave to deal with health problems and to care for his mother, Alyce, who had been diagnosed with lung cancer.

He left Utah in January 2004 after having chest pains, and cited his health when he backed out of the Southern California job three days after accepting it.

"It's a fair question," said Majerus, whose weight has climbed as high as 370 pounds. "You get a little annoyed because you kind of get frustrated with yourself."

Exercise has never been his problem. He's run a marathon, swims at least a mile every day and has an exercycle in the corner of his hotel room.

But food, that's a different story. Name a city, any city, and Majerus can wax poetic about the best places to get any kind of meal. He's already persuaded one of the restaurants near campus to serve Usinger's bratwurst, a Milwaukee institution, and he's on a first-name basis with the best spots on The Hill, the city's famous Italian enclave.

His lifestyle doesn't help. Coaches are a notoriously maniacal bunch, watching film until all hours of the day and night, sneaking in sleep and meals where they can. Throw in recruiting and the schmoozing with administrators, alumni and boosters, and something's got to give.

"I am watching what I eat more," said Majerus, who says he has a freezer full of prepared healthy meals. "I think my health is good. I always tell people this: No one can ever be guaranteed of good health. There's a bartender on the phone there and you and I. One of us is going to get cancer."

While staying at ESPN certainly would have been easier, Majerus' friends weren't surprised he got back into coaching.

"He never outwardly said it, but I could feel he had the urge to get back to the sidelines," said Dick Vitale, who worked with Majerus at ESPN. "That's his home. He really loves teaching, he loves being on the floor."