Rick Majerus, who returned to coaching less than a year after open heart surgery to lead Utah to the Sweet 16 of this season's NCAA Tournament, Wednesday was named Coach of the Year by United Press International.
Majerus was selected by a nationwide panel of UPI sports writers, who also considered Randy Ayers of Ohio State and Danny Nee of Nebraska for the honor. Jim Calhoun of Connecticut was last season's recipient.Majerus had septuple bypass surgery in December 1989 and missed the rest of the 1989-90 season. Under doctor's orders, he dropped 50 pounds before returning to the Utes this season.
Utah, with two seniors and five players who weren't on the team last year, was picked to finish sixth in the Western Athletic Conference. Instead, the Utes ran away with the league title and finished with a 28-3 record and a No. 10 national ranking. Their season ended with a tournament loss to the nation's best team - Nevada-Las Vegas.
Utah's roster was at total odds with the accepted formula for success in college basketball. Majerus had a former professional baseball pitcher, three walk-ons, a Tongan center who reportedly didn't wear shoes until age 7 and four players back from Mormon missions.
There was also a 5-foot-7 point guard and a center who the coach required weigh no more than 260 pounds on game day, or be benched.
Add to that the fact that Majerus lives in a hotel, doesn't own a suit and has just one tie, and that his backup center was nearly killed in a shooting incident during the season.
In any case, this team came together. With only one star player in junior forward Josh Grant, Majerus used his entire bench and had nine players average double figures in minutes.
Still, when these Utes received the fourth seed in the West Regional, some scoffed at the team's record, citing an easy schedule in a weak conference. Utah won its opening-round game, defeating South Alabama 82-72, then picked up believers when it went to two overtimes and beat Michigan State 85-84.
That set up a date with No. 1 UNLV. The Utes were in the game for more than 30 minutes, but the Runnin' Rebels were too much down the stretch and won 83-66.
"Back in October I told my buddies maybe we could get in the NIT and draw a big crowd at home," Majerus said before the UNLV game. "To make the Sweet 16 is really fabulous for us. These guys have done a great maturing. We've come a long way."
And so has the coach, and not just on the coaching sidelines.
Majerus, who did an equally brilliant job at Ball State before coming to Utah, is an admitted "restaurant junkie." He weighed 320 pounds and was having chest pains a year ago when doctors told him to quit coaching and have surgery or maybe miss his 42nd birthday.
After the surgery Majerus was told to change his eating habits and begin to exercise, other than calling for room service.
"They used to say my courtesy car on the road would be a pizza delivery truck," Majerus, now 270 pounds, said last week. "Some guys drink or smoke. I eat."
But most guys can't coach. At least not like Majerus. Considered to be one of the game's most innovative thinkers, Majerus is a coaches' coach.
"Rick knows more basketball than anyone in the world today," said Al McGuire, for whom Majerus was an assistant coach at Marquette. "His sheer knowledge is above anybody's. He has the finest basketball mind in the world right now." Majerus proved just that this season, leading an unlikely collection of players to within reach of a national championship.
"They're a great group of guys that compete," Majerus said. "You know what it is? It's characterized by the word 'team.' Everybody contributes. Everybody's happy for everybody else. We just kind of fish around out there and see what happens."