Rick Majerus

LOS ANGELES — Rick Majerus' new basketball coaching job comes with a doctor's permission slip.

Given the OK to return to the high-stress, late-night, eat-on-the-run profession he loves, Majerus took over Southern California's underachieving program Wednesday, although he won't be on the bench this season.

Majerus signed a multiyear contract and will become head coach April 1. However, he'll begin recruiting immediately, filling the assistant's job vacated when Jim Saia was promoted to interim coach after Henry Bibby's firing.

Majerus did not want to shunt Saia to the side or force USC's six seniors to quickly learn his system. So, for now, Majerus will wait.

Last January, Majerus retired for health reasons after 15 seasons at Utah. He tried to satisfy his passion for the sport by analyzing games for ESPN. Then USC came calling.

"I really missed it," he said. "It's a Joni Mitchell song, 'Don't it always seem to go, you don't know what you got 'til it's gone.' "

Famous for a big appetite that led to bypass surgery in 1989 and forced two other extended leaves from Utah, the 56-year-old Majerus has battled the bulge for years.

"My health is good or I wouldn't do this," he said. "Both my doctors encouraged me to do it. I wouldn't put anyone, least of all myself, in harm's way."

Majerus swims a mile daily and rides an exercise bike.

"Working out has never been a problem. My problem is I eat," he said.

He's got a plan to control his caloric consumption — hire a personal chef and buy a house rather than live in a hotel like he did during his tenure at Utah.

Clearly aware of Los Angeles' obsession with looking good and being fit, Majerus joked, "I've got to eat where Jennifer Aniston eats. I got to find these salad places."

He's less likely to act on another suggestion: "My doctor told me to get a love life." Married briefly in the late 1980s, Majerus' true love affair has always been basketball.

"I have a great passion for the game and I love the game," he said. "I still have a ball in the back of my car. I wouldn't coach ever again if I could keep playing."

When he wasn't on ESPN talking about that night's game, Majerus compared X's and O's with the coaches he was covering. They'd urge him to rejoin their ranks.

"All I ever did was talk ball," he said. "They laughed at me when I did my first TV game. I came with 38 pages of notes. I looked at all this tape and the guy said, 'You don't have to win the game for both teams. You just got to talk about it.' "

But talking hoops wasn't the same as coaching, so he resigned in the first year of a five-year deal with ESPN to join USC.

"I'm so excited about the possibilities that are here," Majerus said. "I love Southern California, and I won't coach anywhere ever again, I don't think."

Athletic director Mike Garrett said USC carefully checked Majerus' health records and had him meet with its doctors.

"There is no issue here about his health," Garrett said, adding he would be satisfied to have Majerus for any amount of time.

"We need someone who can come in here and turn this program around," he said.

USC basketball has languished for years at a school known for its national championship football team. The Trojans also play second fiddle to crosstown rival UCLA's tradition-rich basketball legacy.

The school recently broke ground on a campus arena that is expected to open in 2006. Currently, the Trojans play in the aging Sports Arena located off campus, which has hurt recruiting.

"I'd come here even if there wasn't a new arena," Majerus said. "It's an add-on."

Saia stood at the back of the room Wednesday, staring at the program's future coach.

"He's going to let me coach the team," Saia said. "He wants to stay out of the fray." He doesn't want to come to games, he doesn't want to come to practice. I'm sure he'll watch us on TV and evaluate the freshmen and sophomores."

The Trojans are 1-1 since Saia took over last week. Fired four games into his ninth season, Bibby had a 131-111 record at USC and took the Trojans to three NCAA tournaments.

Majerus coached Utah to the national championship game in 1998, losing to Kentucky, one of the school's 10 NCAA tournament appearances during his tenure. His other stints were at Ball State, Marquette and with the NBA's Milwaukee Bucks as an assistant.