ST. LOUIS – 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 and former presidential candidate 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.
“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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
Majerus had a history of heart and weight problems dating to 1989 that persisted despite a daily constitutional of a mile swim.
He had a stent inserted in August 2011 in Salt Lake City and missed some games in the 2011-12 season after gashing his leg in a collision with players.
He backed out of a commitment to coach Southern California due to heart problems.
Majerus was 95-69 in five seasons at Saint Louis and had a 25-year record of 517-216, with 15 20-win seasons and two 30-win seasons.
He had his most success at Utah, going 323-95 from 1989-2004. He was at Marquette from 1983-86, and Ball State from 1987-89.
Ball State was 29-3 in 1988-89 under Majerus, including the school’s first NCAA tournament victory.
At Utah, Majerus produced 10 conference championships in 13 seasons.
Gonzaga assistant coach Donny Daniels spent a decade as an assistant under Majerus.
“He was a caring man, a gracious man, giving of himself,” Daniels said. “He did so many nice things for me. He taught me how to coach and how to be efficient.”