Ex-Utah coach Rick Majerus building St. Louis for the long haul
Published: March 16, 2012 02:20PM
Updated: March 28, 2012 04:25PM

Columbus, Ohio • In recent days, Rick Majerus had to coach his assistants and players at St. Louis University on more than basketball, addressing topics like how to supply tickets to friends and the nature of the team’s travel accommodations.

The Billikens’ trip this week has been an NCAA tournament introduction for most involved with the program. For Majerus, after nine years away from the tournament spotlight, this is a return to college basketball’s grandest stage with his third team.

The modest St. Louis program does not have the name recognition of its coach, and Majerus has faced obstacles with the Billikens, from player suspensions to ideological differences with local Roman Catholic leaders. But Majerus, 64, has happily found himself a new home at St. Louis.

“On a personal level, it’s nice,” Majerus said of his 12th NCAA tournament appearance. “I’m not just saying this, I’m more happy for the players. I’m glad to be back; I like the challenge. But it was more fun to see how happy they were.”

The ninth-seeded Billikens (25-7) will face No. 8 Memphis (26-8) on Friday in a West Region matchup. It is the first time since 2000 that St. Louis has reached the NCAA tournament, and the first appearance for Majerus since 2003, his second-to-last season at Utah.

Majerus burnished his reputation at Utah, where he coached from 1989 to 2004. He led the Utes to eight NCAA tournament appearances during a 10-year stretch that included a trip to the 1998 national championship game. He resigned because of heart problems.

Majerus arrived at St. Louis in 2007. But first, in 2004, he was introduced as the coach at the University of Southern California. He unexpectedly resigned days later because his mother, who was battling cancer, did not want him to move to Los Angeles.

In fact, part of the reason he decided to accept the job at St. Louis was so that he could be near his mother, Alyce, who lived in Wisconsin. Majerus oversaw her treatment for breast and small-cell cancer, and visited frequently, until she died in August at age 84.

“It was really rewarding to be with my mom, to be with her in the hospice and all those years,” Majerus said. “It was good. It was more of an honor and a privilege for me. It was a life-defining experience, being with someone until they die.”

At St. Louis, Majerus has been able to able to build a contender. Majerus, who has 516 career wins, has a 94-68 record in five seasons with the Billikens.

His arrival coincided with the opening of the $81 million Chaifetz Arena in 2008. The attendance at the Billikens’ home games rose by roughly 20 percent this season.

“This program is going to be good for a while,” athletic director Chris May said. “It’s being built for the long haul. That’s what’s exciting about it. Rick has everyone in position to be successful. He has done it for a long time, and been good at it for a long time.”

There have been some off-court problems, however. Four St. Louis players were investigated for an alleged sexual assault in 2010, and although charges were never filed, two players left the program and the other two were suspended from the university.

In 2008, Majerus made perhaps his most high-profile foray into the headlines since he has been in St. Louis. While supporting Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, Majerus said he supported abortion rights.

The St. Louis archbishop at the time, Raymond Burke, expressed concern that a leader at a Catholic university like St. Louis would make such a statement. Burke, who has since been elevated to cardinal, said the university’s leaders ought to take “appropriate action” against Majerus, who said that he did not represent St. Louis in those comments.

A spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of St. Louis did not elaborate on Burke’s comments.

Although he may be as garrulous and freewheeling as ever, Majerus now delegates more responsibility to his assistants, no longer staying awake until 2 a.m. watching film. He also speaks distastefully of the year-round, and often seedy, nature of recruiting.

Yet Majerus said he had no plans to retire. He said he had largely been healthy, adding that he planned to go body surfing in Hawaii and California after the season. Not everything changes, though. He still lives in a hotel, just as he did when he was the coach at Utah.

“There’s a mint on my pillow, my bed is turned down and all my dirty towels are picked up,” said Majerus, who lives in the upscale Chase Park Plaza. “When I go home, I’ve got a mint that I’m going to eat, and tomorrow, it will all be the same.”

Majerus also proved this season that he still also has the ability — no matter the decade or the program or the circumstances — to find his way into the NCAA tournament.