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Time Out: Majerus on leave

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Coach sidelined for the year due to health concerns

Perhaps in passing, in answering a question from Sports Illustrated’s Ann Killion, after his Saint Louis University Billikens stunned Memphis and nearly toppled the No.1 seeded Michigan State  in Columbus, Ohio, Rick Majerus said he was “burnt out. You know, it’s like, can’t I get a day off?”

Killion followed up, asking, “You just said you’re burnt out.  Please forgive me if this is bad timing, but you’ve made some references to being old…w”

Majerus cut her off and said, “Well, I am old. Listen. My AAPR card says I’m old and my senior discount…” The surrounding media all laughed. Rick Majerus sat exhausted, but like a king returned to his throne, addressing the media about SLU’s historic season, his outgoing seniors, and his future.

The head coach said that he made a commitment to his team and his recruits, and that he wouldn’t walk out on them, like Urban Meyer walked out on his team at Utah. “I really plan to be [back at SLU].  I wouldn’t do that to the kids. I made commitments to kids … I just want to take some time off,” he said.

While it may have been humor at the time, the joke turned serious this summer as Majerus, who has had seven heart bypasses and a stint installed, began suffering a serious compromise of his cardiac health. The joke ended completely on Aug.  24 when SLU announced that Majerus would take a leave of absence for the 2012-13 basketball season.

Majerus leaves SLU with a 95-69 record in five seasons, with a 517-216 record overall.

Assistant coach Jim Crews has been immediately named interim head coach for the season.

“I appreciate what Rick has done to return SLU men’s basketball to national prominence,” University President Lawrence Biondi, S.J. said in a statement released by the school. “I know that he would like to be here with his players and coaches this season, and all of us at SLU will keep Rick in our thoughts and prayers during this difficult time.”

It is unlikely that Majerus will return to the Billikens’ sidelines. His current contract is in its final years, and according to sources close to the coach, SLU has not begun negotiations on its extension.

According to SLU athletic director Chris May, Majerus is currently hospitalized in California; the University has been in contact with Majerus but did not release specifics on his condition or his status past the 2012-13 season.

The school learned Majerus would not be returning the day before the announcement was made. SLU also has made no decision on whether Crew will be promoted to head coach or other candidates would be interviewed for the position, assuming Majerus does not return.

“Crews is a longtime professional and is all-in with the task of leading the program this year,” May said. “He has led teams to numerous NCAA Tournaments, which is our goal. [We] continue to prepare for what promises to be an exciting basketball season.”

According to Crews, the players are “very emotional” about losing their coach but “they’re

absorbing it. We’re going to just take it one step at a time.” Majerus’ playing system will stay largely in tact, Crews said, except for a few added “wrinkles and new counters.”

Majerus came to SLU in 2007 promising to bring NCAA basketball to the then uncompleted Chaifetz Arena and propel the program to heights yet unseen by Billiken basketball. The 64-year-old coach had previously taken Utah to the NCAA championship game before leaving Utah for health reasons in 2004. He subsequently became a commentator for ESPN.

Majerus’ and therefore, SLU’s, road to Columbus was at times beautiful and at times, disastrous; the result of a sweeping overhaul, a crippling scandal and controversies resulting from Majerus’ notorious disobedience.

On April 30, 2007, Biondi replaced Brad Soderberg with Majerus, who had no time to assemble a team of his own. The team struggled to stay over .500. In 2008, Majerus released four players and added his first recruiting class, one that included Kwamain Mitchell, Willie Reed, Kyle Cassity, and Brian Conklin.

That core would lead SLU to 18 wins in 2008-09 and 23 wins and a CBI berth in 2009-10. Pundits around the country pegged the Billikens as a “team to watch” and probable NCAA participant for 2010. They would have to wait a year.

Mitchell and Reed were dismissed a week before the season started by the University for violation of student conduct for the fall semester. Both accepted their penalties; Mitchell opted to return to SLU in the spring and redshirt; Reed never returned to the court for Majerus.

The 2010-11 season, once so promising, was a bust. The team won only 12 games, and Majerus missed four games due to health reasons. The team finished tenth in the Atlantic 10 Conference and was quickly ousted of the conference tournament.

Majerus returned to form in 2011-12 as Conklin and Cassidy, now seniors, guided a new core of Cody Ellis, Dwayne Evans, and Mike McCall to a 25-7 record, which included a 12-4 A-10 Conference record that placed the Billikens second in the league. In Columbus, the Billikens stunned Conference USA regular season and tournament champion Memphis 61-54 and nearly upended Michigan State, losing 65-61 to the Tom Izzo-coached Spartans.

The last five years also brought their share of controversies. In 2008, Majerus publicly stated he was “pro-choice,” prompting then-St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke to call for his ouster.

In 2009, he raised eyebrows across the country by suggesting SLU belonged in the Missouri Valley Conference and not the A-10. That position caused rifts with both the league offices and Biondi.

The 2012-13 season is expected to be the season Biondi envisioned when Majerus was hired five years ago, perhaps the best in the history of the school. While that may yet come to pass, the architect of the Midtown rebuild has been sidelined by an enemy he could never master—his health.

 

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