ST. LOUIS (AP) - At Rick Majerus‘ final stop, the lone concession to the coach’s health woes were the footstools stationed at each corner of the practice court.
Close by anytime he needed a breather. Close enough, too, to jump up for some hands-on assistance with the proper stance or to lead a quick walkthrough.
The jovial, basketball-obsessed coach who led Utah to the 1998 NCAA final and had only one losing season in 25 years with four schools, died Saturday. He was 64.
Utah industrialist Jon Huntsman, the coach’s longtime friend, confirmed in a statement released through The Salt Lake Tribune that Majerus died of heart failure in a Los Angeles hospital. The coach had been hospitalized there for several months.
Players remembered Majerus, who got his start as an assistant under Al McGuire at Marquette, as a coach who was exacting and perhaps a bit unorthodox at times, but always fair. Majerus was known for assembling rosters with an international flair, and his final team at Saint Louis had players from Australia and New Zealand.
“It was a unique experience, I’ll tell you that, and I loved every minute of it,” said Saint Louis guard Kyle Cassity, who was mostly a backup on last season’s 26-win team after starting for Majerus earlier in his college career. “A lot of people questioned the way he did things, but I loved it. He’d be hard as hell on you, but he really cared.”
At the postgame news conference following Saint Louis’ four-point loss to top seed Michigan State in the NCAA West Regional, Majerus and his players wept.
“Coach has done so much,” Brian Conklin said back then. “Being his first recruiting class, he told me that we were going to help him build something special here. He’s a great coach. I couldn’t imagine playing for a better coach, a better person. He doesn’t just teach you about basketball, it’s about life.”
Saint Louis athletic director Chris May said in a statement that what he would remember most about Majerus “was his enduring passion to see his players excel both on and off the court.”
“He truly embraced the term `student-athlete,’ and I think that will be his lasting legacy,” May added.
The school announced Nov. 19 that Majerus wouldn’t return to Saint Louis because of the heart condition. He ended the school’s 12-year NCAA tournament drought last season, and bounced back from his only losing season, with a team that won its opening game and took top regional seed Michigan State to the wire. The Billikens were ranked for the first time since 1994-95.
Majerus was undergoing evaluation and treatment in California for the ongoing heart trouble and the school announced he was on leave in late August.
“That’s a tough one for me,” Boston coach Doc Rivers, a former Marquette star, said after the Celtics’ loss in Milwaukee. “He’s the one that gave me my nickname. I knew before (the game) that he wasn’t going to make it through the night. I don’t want to talk much about it.”
“Rick would hold court at night with a case of beer in the basement,” Fisher said. “Phenomenal coach, a better person, cared about family, cared about people. He will be missed by everyone.”