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Rick Majerus, basketball coaching tactician, dies
Nicole Auerbach-USA Today
Rick Majerus, who won more than 70 percent of his games as a men's college basketball coach and took Utah to the 1998 national championship game, died Saturday at age 64.
Majerus' girlfriend, Angie Kvidera, confirmed to USA TODAY Sports that Majerus died Saturday in Los Angeles.
The final on-court chapter in Majerus' career was a fitting one: a 65-61 loss in a taut chess match against another of the sport's great bench coaches, Michigan State's Tom Izzo, in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
Majerus concluded a 25-year head coaching career – which included stops at Marquette (his alma mater), Ball State, Utah and Saint Louis – with a 517-215 record. He reached the NCAA tournament 12 times, most notably leading Utah to the 1998 national title game before losing to Kentucky. Last season he took the Billikens to the NCAAs for the first time in 12 years.
PREVIOUSLY: St. Louis Billikens face future without Majerus
He was an exceptional basketball mind and a teacher of the game. But his personality was far more complicated. He was alienating to some but the first person to reach out when a former player lost a loved one. And he took time off from coaching at one point to tend to his ill mother.
One of the episodes that best encapsulated what often appeared like a man conflicted was his pursuit of the USC head coaching job in 2004. That December, upon accepting the job, he was euphoric, saying during his introductory news conference, "I hope I die here. I hope I coach here the rest of my life."
Los Angeles media dubbed him a unique additional to a West Coast locale already with its share of quirky eccentrics in entertainment and sports. Bill Dwyre of The Los Angeles Times wrote that Majerus would have been "a John Belushi of jockstraps."
But a career at USC never materialized. Within a week, Majerus reneged on his commitment and returned to ESPN as an analyst after an emotional news conference in which he said he was "in denial where my health actually is … I realized (USC) was not getting the guy they hired. I came to that conclusion myself. I am not fit for this job by my standards."
Majerus accepted the Saint Louis job in April 2007, won 95 games in four seasons and had the school poised for poised for perhaps its best season under Majerus this year. But on Aug. 24, Saint Louis issued a 610-word press release stating that Majerus would miss the entire 2012-13 season because of heart issues. Over the following weeks, word spread among coaches throughout college basketball that Majerus' situation was grave and that not only would he never coach again but that his life was in danger.
Majerus remained in California receiving treatment for a serious heart condition. Details of the condition were not made public, and even those involved in the Saint Louis basketball program are unaware of the type and extent of heart condition Majerus has.
And on Nov. 16 Saint Louis announced what many in college basketball felt was an inevitability: Majerus' career at Saint Louis was over.
Two days later, Angie Kvidera, Majerus' girlfriend who has known him for 30 years, told USA TODAY Sports that Majerus was suffering from a "very serious" heart condition, adding that, "We can feel all the thoughts and prayers that are coming his way. It is just a really, really long hard road. I know in my heart he is going to get through this. He has got the determination and strength that he will. It is just a long road."
Throughout his life, Majerus was someone unafraid to poke fun at his weight or living conditions. He told The Sporting News in 2000 that he enjoyed living in hotels because "there's clean towels, my bed is turned down every night and there's a mint on my pillow, no matter what psychological or emotional crisis the maid is going through."
On another occasion, he said, "Some guys smoke. Some guys drink. Some guys chase women. I am a big barbecue-sauce guy. I am like that guy on the 'Odd Couple,' and it is not the neat guy. I go into my room and find pieces of pica under the laundry."
And he told the Reno Gazette-Journal in 1999: "Nobody thought I would be a great coach. I am kind of the guy you'd expect to be driving an 18-wheeler through town."
No school haunted Majerus more in the NCAA tournament than Kentucky. Utah lost to the Wildcats in the 1996 Sweet 16, the 1997 Elite Eight and in the 1998 national title game.
Leading up to the 1996 game, Kentucky's Rick Pitino suggested Utah should be favored against the Wildcats, the eventual national champions who now are considered one of the best teams of the past two decades. In response, Majerus told The Salt Lake Tribune: "If we are getting in a sumo ring, he and I, then he is the underdog. I will crush him. But on the court, we are in trouble."
And Utah was. Three years later, after losses to Kentucky that ended three consecutive seasons, Majerus told The New Orleans Times-Picayune: "When I die, they might as well bury me at the finish line at Churchill Downs so they can run over me again."
He is now gone, his humor overshadowing a man whose brilliant basketball mind operated along side a complicated personality.
"He is one of the great tacticians and coaches and students of the game," CBS Sports analyst Clark Kellogg said last week. "He sees it and explains it in a unique way, which I have always enjoyed.
"He will be missed."
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