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Former Utah Utes coach Rick Majerus dead from heart problems at age 64

Published: Saturday, July 4 2015 8:06 a.m. MDT

Rick Majerus led Utah to the NCAA Tournament 10 times, and to the title game once, during his 15 years as coach. (Associated Press) Rick Majerus led Utah to the NCAA Tournament 10 times, and to the title game once, during his 15 years as coach. (Associated Press)

Rick Majerus, who became nationally renowned for his basketball success at the University of Utah over a 15-year period, died Saturday at age 64 in Los Angeles.

Majerus had been in grave health for several weeks with heart disease and was reportedly awaiting a heart transplant when he died.

Hired by Utah in April of 1989, Majerus led the Utes to some of their highest heights in his stay at Utah, including 10 conference championships and highlighted by a runner-up finish at the 1998 NCAA Tournament.

Known for his eccentricities, including living in a hotel his entire time in Utah, Majerus took the Utes to 10 NCAA Tournaments where his teams had a 17-10 record. Besides the NCAA Final in 1998 when the Utes lost to Kentucky after leading by 10 at halftime, Majerus coached the Utes to an Elite Eight finish and two other trips to the Sweet Sixteen. His teams advanced the second round nine times.

File: Utah coch Rick Majerus shouts out plays during the game against New Mexico Saturday, Feb 28, 1998.  PHOTO BY GARY M. MCKELLAR (Gary M. Mckellar, Dnews) File: Utah coch Rick Majerus shouts out plays during the game against New Mexico Saturday, Feb 28, 1998. PHOTO BY GARY M. MCKELLAR (Gary M. Mckellar, Dnews)

He resigned at Utah in the middle of the 2003-04 season due to health concerns and worked as an analyst at ESPN for three years before taking the head coaching job at Saint Louis University. In August, the university announced that Majerus would be taking a leave of absence this year, and then two weeks ago it was announced that Majerus would not return as the Billikens coach due to his declining health.

Utah director of athletics, Chris Hill, hired Majerus during his second year on the job and saw Utah basketball grow in success during the next 15 years.

"All of us in the University of Utah community are deeply saddened," Hill said in a statement. "Rick left a lasting legacy at the University of Utah, not only for his incredible success and the national prominence he brought to our basketball program, but also for the tremendous impact he made on the young men who were fortunate enough to play on his teams. His standard of excellence extended beyond the basketball court and into the academic and personal success of his players. He will be deeply missed and we grieve for his family and all of his friends."

FILE - In this Jan. 14, 2009, file photo, Saint Louis coach Rick Majerus stands on the sidelines during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Massachusetts in St. Louis. Majerus, the jovial college basketball coach who led Utah to the 1998 NCAA final and had only one losing season in 25 years with four schools, died Saturday, Dec. 1, 2012. He was 64.   (Associated Press) FILE - In this Jan. 14, 2009, file photo, Saint Louis coach Rick Majerus stands on the sidelines during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Massachusetts in St. Louis. Majerus, the jovial college basketball coach who led Utah to the 1998 NCAA final and had only one losing season in 25 years with four schools, died Saturday, Dec. 1, 2012. He was 64. (Associated Press)

One of the first local players Majerus recruited was Jimmy Soto, a point guard from Judge Memorial High. He was the starter for his first Sweet Sixteen team in 1990-91.

"I enjoyed my time with Rick," said Soto, who played from 1990-93. "I didn't always agree with him and how he handled things, but I have no complaints. He was more than just about X's and O's. He put guys in the best situations to succeed. He was definitely unique."

Current Utah assistant Tommy Connor is one of the few people who has both played for Majerus and coached alongside him. He played for Utah in Majerus' first year and then coached with him for seven years in the 1990s.

"I feel like I'm one of the lucky ones who had the opportunity to play for coach Majerus and coach with him," he said. "I had an incredible eight years of learning from what I consider one of the greatest basketball teachers and minds our game has ever seen. It's a sad day."

Bill Marcroft, who was the Utah play-by-play announcer for four decades, calls Majerus "the best coach I ever worked with," referring to Majerus' ability as a practice coach, recruiter and tactician.

** FILE ** Utah Head coach Rick Majerus yells to his players during the first half of their first round game against Indiana in the NCAA Tournament in this March 14, 2002, in Sacramento.  (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma) (Associated Press) ** FILE ** Utah Head coach Rick Majerus yells to his players during the first half of their first round game against Indiana in the NCAA Tournament in this March 14, 2002, in Sacramento. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma) (Associated Press)

He also called Majerus, "the most difficult" coach he worked with. But after getting over the initial intimidation, he learned to work with him and it said it became easier over the years.

Marcroft also saw a different side to Majerus, which many others also witnessed.

"Sometimes he was saccharine sweet, especially around kids," Marcroft said.

Even though Majerus was sometimes hard on him, Marcroft recalled that when he was in the hospital with Legionnaires Disease for a few weeks in 1994, Majerus would come up to visit him at nearly every night.

Throughout his tenure at Utah, Majerus suffered health problems. Just six games into his first season, Majerus underwent open-heart surgery for a seven-bypass operation and missed the rest of the season. Later he missed the 2000-01 season because of his poor health and in order to help his ailing mother in Wisconsin. Assistant coach Dick Hunsaker took over for the rest of the year.

The high point, which was also a low point for Majerus, was making it to the NCAA Finals in San Antonio in 1998. To get there, the Utes had to defeat defending national champion Arizona in the Western Regional final and No. 1 North Carolina in the semifinals.

In the finals against Kentucky, the Utes raced to a 41-31 halftime lead. However, they couldn't hold the lead and lost 78-69. For years after, Majerus lamented that loss, saying he often replayed it over in his mind.

He resigned on January 28, 2004 at the age of 55, two days after a loss at Air Force. He was reportedly suffering from chest pains and flew to California to see his cardiologist.

Less than four months later, Majerus took a job with ESPN-TV as an analyst. In December of 2004, Majerus resigned his ESPN position to take the head job at USC. However, just three days later he had a change of heart and returned to his job at ESPN.

Then in 2007, he was hired by Saint Louis, where he coached for five years before poor health forced the end of his coaching career.

email: sor@desnews.com

Rick Majerus

Born: Feb. 17, 1948, Sheboygan, Wisconsin

Hired by Utah: April 3, 1989

Record at Utah: 323-95 (.776)

NCAA record at Utah: 17-10 (.629)

Prominent players coached by Majerus: Keith Van Horn, Andre Miller, Michael Doleac.

Resigned at Utah: Jan. 28, 2004

Overall coaching record: 517-215 (.706)

Overall NCAA appearances: 12

Since Utah: 3 years as ESPN analyst, 5 years as Saint Louis coach (95-69)

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