Sports Views: Majerus puts health ahead of coaching

Posted: Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Rick Majerus has had meals that lasted longer than his Southern California coaching stint.

''This is the shortest-lived head coaching job in the history of NCAA basketball,'' USC athletic director Mike Garrett said Monday after Majerus backed out of a ''dream job'' that would have paid him a reported $5 million over five years.

A man doesn't walk away from that kind of job and that kind of money without good reason. A man like Majerus, who loves coaching as much as he loves pizza, doesn't turn his back on a chance to return to the sidelines unless his life depends on it. In this case, it did.

''I wanted this job so bad that I was in denial about where my health is at,'' the 56-year-old Majerus said. ''Health in my case correlates to fitness.

''It all relates directly to my weight. I've got a problem. I know I need to do something. And I'm going to try hard to do something about it. ... I don't want to have a Rick Majerus memorial game.''

Majerus apologized ''for any inconvenience or embarrassment'' he caused USC by changing his mind about the coaching job a few days after accepting it.

''I made a mistake,'' said Majerus, who had insisted last week that his health wasn't an issue and that he had his doctors' approval to return to coaching less than a year after he retired as Utah's coach.

Majerus said he's well enough to carry on as a basketball analyst for ESPN but he's not strong enough to work the 18-hour days he often spent as a coach.

''I think my health is good for probably anything other than to be an astronaut or a coach,'' he said. ''The difference between being a coach and being a broadcaster is the difference between being a consultant and being a CEO.''

Majerus has clever lines for any occasion, plenty of them aimed at himself and his hearty appetite.

''I've had seven bypasses — one for every major food group ... two for the barbecue division,'' he said last week when he was introduced as USC's new basketball coach. ''En route to those seven bypasses, I enjoyed every Fuzzy Navel and pizza and Kahlua and cream.''

Majerus kidded about finding ''those salad places'' where Jennifer Aniston eats.

This time, Majerus couldn't wisecrack his way around the problem. No jokes could soften his quick and uneasy exit from USC.

The day before Majerus took the job, his ESPN colleague, Dick Vitale, happened to be in the coach's area outside the locker room in the Trojans' aging Sports Arena, shooting, of all things, a pizza commercial.

Majerus wasn't yet around or he might have gobbled up all the pizzas in sight.

Sitting there, Vitale noticed something sticking out from behind the couch — a framed photograph of recently fired coach Henry Bibby.

''I said, 'Oh, my God, how quick, they don't waste any time,'' Vitale said. ''I felt so bad for Henry.''

Majerus didn't hold the USC coaching job long enough to have his photograph framed.

After this episode, Majerus may never work as a coach again, which would be a loss for college basketball. He's one of the game's best, a natural teacher. He's been devoted to the sport to the detriment of the rest of his life, residing alone in a hotel when he was coaching in Utah.

At ESPN, where he's been welcomed back, he can stay involved in the game without all the wear and tear. Only he knows if that will be enough to satisfy him or whether he will lust after another coaching job someday. His weight has been dropping — he seems to have lost nearly 50 pounds in the last year — but he still looks way over 300 pounds, despite all his laps in the pool and trips to the salad bar.

Vitale spoke with Majerus last week just before the USC announcement, mainly to thank him for committing $50,000 to the V Foundation for cancer research. Vitale knew that Majerus was eager to get back to coaching.

''He was getting that thirst and that hunger to coach after he visited some gyms,'' Vitale said. ''You hear the basketball bouncing, the screeching sneakers, take in the smell of the gym.

''It takes a while before that feeling leaves because the high you get in coaching is so special after that big win that it becomes addictive. A lot of guys can't get that out of television, where it's a much more relaxed lifestyle.''

Vitale cautioned Majerus to be patient. After the announcement, Vitale called Majerus back and left him a message:

''I said, 'Rick, I'm talking to you as a friend now, not as a television partner or as a coaching buddy. Make sure you're concerned not only about winning basketball games and going 24-7, but about taking care of yourself.'''

Maybe Majerus thought about that message from his friend. Maybe he just looked at himself hard in the mirror.

Either way, he started thinking more seriously about how difficult it would be to cope with the late nights watching films or coming down from a close game, when the adrenaline is still pumping and you're sitting up, staring at the tube and snacking on whatever's in the hotel refrigerator. He thought about the energy it would take and the toll it would take on him.

He loved this job but he knew it could kill him.

Steve Wilstein is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at

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