ST. LOUIS Rick Majerus had it pretty good the last couple of years.
He watched all the basketball he wanted and never had to sweat the results. He dropped in on friends across the country. Nobody bugged him about his weight or his health. All this, and he got to stay in his hometown of Milwaukee, too.
Those cushy days are gone. now. After three years as an analyst with ESPN, Majerus is on the bench again, trying to make St. Louis a force in the Atlantic 10 and beyond. His schedule is packed, his voice is already hoarse and restaurant owners are doing the dance of joy.
As for those visits with his old friends, well, they'll just have to wait.
"Bob (Knight) called and said, 'Why don't you come down here and hang out with me for a few days?"' Majerus said. "I would no more have time for that than Botox injections."
Yes, college basketball's king of the one-liners is back in the game.
"I missed practice," he said. "I like the guys. I really like seeing them get a good education and grow up. I like keeping score, although that won't be as fun this year."
Majerus is, without a doubt, one of the game's premier coaches. His 422-147 record gives him the seventh-highest winning percentage (.742) among active Division I coaches, ahead of Jim Boeheim and Lute Olson. In his 17 full seasons, he's never had a losing record and has made the NCAA tournament or the NIT all but two years.
He took Utah to the NCAA tournament 10 times, failing to get out of the first round only once. The Utes played for the national title in 1998, losing to Kentucky.
His stay at Utah wasn't always smooth.
He had numerous players leave the program during his 15 years and he jettisoned many himself. His team was put on probation by the NCAA in 2003 for indiscretions ranging from free meals for players to excessive practice time. He left amid allegations of discrimination and verbal abuse against one of his players.
And his health has often overshadowed his success.
He was only six games into his tenure at Utah when he needed bypass surgery in 1989. He coached one game in the 2000-01 season before he took a leave to deal with health problems and to care for his mother, Alyce, who had been diagnosed with lung cancer.
He left Utah in January 2004 with an official reason of experiencing chest pains and cited his health when he backed out of the Southern California job three days after accepting it.
"It's a fair question," said Majerus, whose weight has climbed as high as 370 pounds. "You get a little annoyed because you kind of get frustrated with yourself."
Exercise has never been his problem. He's run a marathon, swims at least a mile every day and has an exercycle in the corner of his hotel room.
But food, that's a different story. Name a city, any city, and Majerus can wax poetic about the best places to get any kind of meal. He's already persuaded one of the restaurants near campus to serve Usinger's bratwurst, a Milwaukee institution, and he's on a first-name basis with the best spots on The Hill, the city's famous Italian enclave.
His lifestyle doesn't help. Coaches are a notoriously maniacal bunch, watching film until all hours of the day and night, sneaking in sleep and meals where they can. Throw in recruiting and the schmoozing with administrators, alumni and boosters, and something's got to give.
"I am watching what I eat more," said Majerus, who says he has a freezer full of prepared healthy meals. "I think my health is good. I always tell people this: No one can ever be guaranteed of good health. There's a bartender on the phone there and you and I. One of us is going to get cancer."
While staying at ESPN certainly would have been easier, Majerus' friends weren't surprised he got back into coaching. His name was mentioned for openings at several other schools after he left Utah, and Denver Nuggets coach George Karl tried to get him to be his assistant.
"He never outwardly said it, but I could feel he had the urge to get back to the sidelines," said Dick Vitale, who worked with Majerus at ESPN. "That's his home. He really loves teaching, he loves being on the floor."
But St. Louis?
The Billikens are hardly a household name, let alone a hoops powerhouse. They have two 20-win seasons in the last 10 years, and have made only four trips to the NCAA tournament in the last 50 years, never getting beyond the second round. The A-10 is stuck somewhere between the power conferences and the mid-majors.
"No kid is putting his head on his pillow tonight dreaming of being a Billiken," Majerus said. "Most kids don't know what a Billiken is."
Look a little closer, though, and this job might just be the perfect fit. And not because Majerus and the Billiken bear a resemblance to each other.
St. Louis is a Midwestern, blue-collar city similar in size and personality to Milwaukee, where Majerus grew up and still calls home. And just like Marquette, where he learned his craft with the legendary Al McGuire, St. Louis is an urban school run by Jesuits.
It's also a quick trip to Milwaukee: five hours by car, a mere hour by plane. It's so close, Majerus will be home for Christmas.
"When I told them my mom was my biggest priority, they said, 'OK, great,"' he said. "She's a real sweetheart. She's a great mom."
Best of all, St. Louis gives Majerus the chance to do what he does best: Teach.
Though there's a touch of envy in his voice when he talks of schools where coaches have their pick of athletes, Majerus has built his career on taking second- and third-tier players and molding them into a first-class team. For every Keith Van Horn, Andre Miller or Andrew Bogut he's had, there were five Jordie McTavishs.
His teams may not be flashy, but they're fundamentally sound and tireless workers.
"He has an incredible ability to communicate his concepts," Vitale said. "He deals well with all kinds of athletes. He just really is a masterful communicator."
Don't expect a quick fix, though. The Billikens were picked to finish fifth in the A-10 this year. They return four starters from last year's squad that went 20-13, including leading scorer Tommie Liddell III and Kevin Lisch, a member of the conference's all-defensive team.
But they have only two seniors who saw significant playing time last year and have only one true center.
"I believe in great coaching, and he's one of the best coaches in the country. He has always been," Karl said. "I'm hoping his health hangs in there. If it does, he'll figure out how to win games."
Though Majerus raves about his staff, he's a self-described "micromanager." He sat in on one of Chicago Bulls coach Scott Skiles' training camps and left with reams of notes. The coffee table at his hotel he has a condo near campus, but is living in a hotel as he did in Salt Lake City because there are fewer distractions is covered with folders and notes and tablets filled with information.
He has two flat-screen TVs in the living room and is trying to figure out how to put up others so he can watch tape in any room. Go by the athletic center late at night, and odds are he and his staff will still be there. There's always more tape to watch, another recruit to consider.
"Right now," he said, "it's like there aren't enough hours in the day."
But he's already making an impression. When ads were scrawled in chalk across the campus earlier this week, inviting students to come meet the basketball team "and Coach Majerus," several hundred people showed up. Students call out, "Hi Coach!" when they see him, and fans wish him luck when he's out to dinner.
Next year, St. Louis opens up its $80.5 million jewel, the Chaifetz Arena. The on-campus arena will have 10,600 seats and 14 luxury suites, and St. Louis officials are counting on Majerus to fill all of them.
"We have a lot of potential," he said. "The most important thing in coaching or being in charge of people, leading people, is teach what you know. You've got to know who you are. You can't be somebody else."