The big man is on campus

Tuesday, May 1, 2007
Rick Majerus, left, held up a Saint Louis University jersey with school president Lawrence Biondi during a news conference Monday in St. Louis. Majerus was introduced as the men's basketball coach. (JEFF ROBERSON ~ Associated Press)

ST. LOUIS -- Rick Majerus got out of coaching three years ago because of health concerns. Now his biggest worry is how long it'll take to put Saint Louis back on the basketball map.

Still rotund and nearly bald, the 59-year-old Majerus was introduced at a news conference Monday and thought his appearance "eerily" similar to the school's gnome-like Billiken mascot. He joked that his last name means "sausage eater," and said there was no chance of squeezing into the jersey that's standard for such ceremonies.

"It was nice to get the jersey," he said, "even if it doesn't fit."

Majerus said he feels fit and is ready to take on the challenge of leading a school that last made it to the NCAA tournament in 2000.

"I'm never going to wear a 42 regular," Majerus said. "But I swim one mile every day, and on a good day a mile-and-a-half. I think my health is good, or I wouldn't do this."

Majerus, who agreed to a six-year contract Friday, has a career record of 422-147 with 15 postseason appearances. He had been an analyst with ESPN the last three years.

"I saw this as an opportunity," Majerus said. "I don't think I forgot how to do it. I love practice and I love the kids and I like the game."

Preaching patience

The Rev. Lawrence Biondi, the university president, hired Majerus to elevate the school to top 50 status. Neither Biondi nor Majerus believed there was a fast track to success.

"Rick, I am sure, will tell you it won't happen overnight," Biondi said. "But it will happen. This is a truly exciting day for men's basketball."

Majerus got a sneak peek at his team, which has four returning starters, by conducting a pair of brief weekend practices.

"I just don't know the guys well enough," Majerus said. "You don't want to panic in these situations. It's not about this year, it's about laying the groundwork for the program."

If he doesn't know his roster yet, they know all about him.

"I think he's going to move the program in the right direction," forward Luke Meyer said. "He's a big name, and his reputation precedes him."

Majerus replaces Brad Soderberg, who won 20 games in the last of his five seasons but failed to generate even an NIT bid his last three years. Soderberg, fired earlier this month, was 80-74 overall.

Billikens AD overruled

Athletic director Cheryl Levick wanted to give Soderberg one more season but was overruled by Biondi, who envisioned the high-profile hire of Majerus as a complement to the school's new $85 million on-campus arena due to open in November 2008.

"I'm a big supporter of Brad, but that has nothing to do with Rick," Levick said. "He'll take this program to the next level as we open this new arena. It's the perfect combination."

Majerus coached Utah to the NCAA tournament final in 1998, losing to Kentucky, and stepped down in January 2004 due to health reasons. He accepted the Southern California position in December 2004 only to change his mind three days later.

Last year, he turned down an offer to become an assistant coach with the Denver Nuggets.

Nuggets coach George Karl, a close friend of Majerus, said staying in the Midwest was a much wiser choice. Majerus has lived in Milwaukee, where his mother lives, while working for ESPN.

"I don't think it had anything to do with money," Karl said. "I think he picked a position where he thinks he can have success and also get healthy and stay healthy.

"I don't think going to L.A. would have been the right choice, and I think he knew that -- the press, the stress, talk radio."

So far, so good. Fans and students attending Monday's news conference cheered wildly when Majerus entered the room.

"Today a new chapter in Billiken basketball begins with the hiring of one of the most successful coaches of all time," Biondi said. "Rick is a coach who lives and breaths basketball and who sees the future of what we have at SLU."

Majerus led Utah to 10 NCAA appearances in 15 seasons. He also has coached at Ball State and Marquette, and with the Milwaukee Bucks as an assistant.

"The coaching profession is a much better place today because Rick Majerus is back in it," Marquette coach Tom Crean said. "Rick has proven time and time again what it takes to win."

The Billikens have four returning starters, losing only senior center Ian Vouyoukas, and he'll build around junior forward Tommie Liddell and junior guard Kevin Lisch. Saint Louis finished in the middle of the pack in the Atlantic 10.

The introductory news conference was delayed through the weekend to allow the school better media exposure, avoiding the NFL draft and a Cardinals-Cubs series marred by the fatal auto accident of St. Louis pitcher Josh Hancock.

"In the juxtaposition of life, I feel so bad for the young man and his family," Majerus said. "I mean that sincerely."

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