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Rick Majerus: Legendary Utah coach 'just loved basketball'

Published December 3, 2012 9:18 am

Wildly successful Utah coach dies Saturday at age 64 while he was awaiting a heart transplant.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Rick Majerus, the basketball coach who took the University of Utah to the 1998 national championship game, died Saturday in Los Angeles at age 64 while awaiting a heart transplant, according to his longtime friend, philanthropist Jon M. Huntsman Sr.

Having left Utah in 2003, citing health issues, Majerus coached Saint Louis University's team for the past five years. In August, he took a leave of absence for the 2012-13 season and then announced two weeks ago that he would not return to the school.

Majerus' history of heart trouble began in 1989, at the start of his Utah tenure, when he underwent bypass surgery and missed most of that season. His heart ultimately failed Majerus, but to Huntsman, that was his friend's best attribute.

"His heart was bigger than he was," Huntsman told The Salt Lake Tribune on Saturday, citing Majerus' generosity and treatment of people in need.

"He showed kindness and innate goodness to the underdog and the underserved," Huntsman said.

Known for joking about his weight and eating habits, Majerus was very conscious of his health, constantly fighting to improve it. A stent was installed in his heart in the summer of 2011, enabling him to coach SLU to a 26-8 record with an NCAA Tournament victory over Memphis in March, but his heart condition worsened over the past six months.

In his profession, Majerus is remembered as "a fundamentalist guy with a great basketball mind," said former Jazz coach Jerry Sloan.

In his 14 seasons at Utah, where his trademark was the white sweater he wore during games, Majerus regularly took the Utes to the NCAA Tournament and made four appearances in the Sweet 16 or beyond. His greatest achievement came in 1998, when his team led by Andre Miller and Michael Doleac delivered a stunning 76-51 win over Arizona to earn the school's first Final Four berth in 32 years. The Utes then defeated North Carolina in the semifinals and led Kentucky by 10 points at halftime of the championship game, only to have the Wildcats rally for a 78-69 victory.

Majerus became renowned nationally for his overachieving program and his eccentricities, including living in a hotel suite near the campus. Nearly two-thirds of his 517 career victories came at Utah, where many of his players also excelled academically. His tenure included minor NCAA sanctions for extra benefits provided to players and reports of mistreatment of some athletes, including former Ute center Lance Allred, who detailed his experience in a recent book.

Other players revered him, including All-America forward Keith Van Horn, whom Majerus counseled following the death of his father during his freshman season. Majerus was the godfather of one of Van Horn's daughters.

Overall, Majerus' work at Utah is highly regarded. "Rick left a lasting legacy at the University of Utah, not only for the incredible success and national prominence he brought to our program, but also for the tremendous impact on the young men who were fortunate enough to play for him," Ute athletic director Chris Hill said in a statement.

Johnnie Bryant, a Utah Jazz staff member who joined the Utes after the Majerus era, cited Utah's winning tradition as a major attraction in his recruitment. "What he did with the talent that he had was unbelievable," Bryant said.

After leaving Utah, Majerus worked as an ESPN basketball analyst from 2004-07. He became USC's coach in December 2004 before abruptly resigning, saying his health concerns kept him from committing to the job.

In 2007, he was hired to build Saint Louis into a nationally recognized program and succeeded in his fifth year, after overcoming the only losing season (12-19) of his career in 2010-11.

"He just loved basketball," said Frank Layden, a former Jazz coach and executive. "He could sit and talk basketball with you for hours."

In a Tribune interview last year in St. Louis, Majerus detailed his ongoing relationships with former Ute players, basketball staff members and friends of the program. He also spoke of decorating two doors of his hotel suite with photos sent by families who stayed in the room he sponsored at the Huntsman Cancer Institute.

Huntsman described Majerus as "a great inspiration" in the founding of the center, because of his mother's struggles with cancer. Alyce Majerus died in August 2011.

Asked then how long he intended to keep working, Majerus said, "If you told me I had to coach five more years, I'd be depressed. If you told me I couldn't coach five more years, I'd be depressed."

One of his players at Saint Louis, guard Kyle Cassity, marveled about Majerus' drive during a rough season. "It doesn't matter if we're up, down, winning, losing, he coaches, coaches, coaches," Cassity said. "He never stops."

kkragthorpe@sltrib.com

Twitter: @tribkurt

Reporters Steve Luhm and Bill Oram contributed to this report.