The selection of Rick Majerus, the University of Utah's bulky but brilliant basketball mentor, as national Coach of the Year is an award richly deserved, not only for athletic success but for building young men who are students as well as ballplayers.
The United Press International recognition, voted by a nationwide panel of sports writers, is a fitting acknowledgment of the meteoric comeback by Majerus, who was sidelined for open heart surgery last year early in his first season as U. basketball coach.Coming off heart surgery and working with a collection of no-name players, most new to the program, and with the Utes being picked to finish near the bottom of the Western Athletic Conference, Majerus coached his team to an amazing rec-ord. The Utes won the WAC title, breaking the league record for conference wins, made it to the final 16 in the NCAA tournament, and finished 30-4, the best won-lost mark in U. history.
All this is enough to make one wonder what Majerus can possibly do for an encore. Certainly, he has brought instant success to the U. basketball program in a dramatic way.
This was not a fortuitous accident. Majerus lives and breathes basketball all year. Al McGuire, basketball commentator and former coach at Marquette where he won a national title, once had Majerus as an assistant coach. He says that Majerus right now can be classified as "the finest basketball mind in the world."
That is high praise indeed. Yet the Majerus story has other, more important features. When the U. hired him, it was understood that academics would be every bit as important as basketball. The coach has lived up to that commitment, emphasizing classwork in its rightful priority - namely, as more important than basketball in the long run.
Despite his intense personality and sometimes rough language, Majerus has the respect and admiration of his players. No matter how tough he is on them, they know he has their best interests at heart.
Congratulations to Majerus for the national recognition that has come to him and to the university. And special applause to the basketball team. They are the ones who ultimately made all the honors possible.