August 31, 2012There was startling news from Saint Louis University (SLU) a few weeks ago. It was announced that Rick Majerus, head coach of the Billikens' men's basketball team, would take a year off from his duties while addressing a serious heart condition.
The 64-year-old Majerus has a history of heart problems dating back to 1989. A stent was inserted into his heart a year ago, plus he is on blood thinner medication. In reference to the latter, he missed a few games last season after gashing his leg while colliding with players chasing a loose ball off the court.
Who knows what the future holds for Majerus and Billikens' basketball at this stage? The nationally renowned coach was coaxed here by SLU's president, the Rev. Lawrence Biondi, in 2007 to take on the task of rebuilding the moribund program. After some fits and starts, including a season when the Billikens lost three starting players for a year because of serious off-court problems, the team surged last season to a 24-8 record.
That showing propelled them into the NCAA playoffs for the first time since 2000. They even defeated the vaunted University of Memphis in the first round before succumbing to top regional seed Michigan State in the next round. Still, their victory over Memphis was the Billikens' first in the NCAA tournament since 1998, and the future looked rosy.
Now, a familiar nemesis has struck Majerus. The university has been cryptic about the situation, saying that Majerus has taken a leave of absence for at least one year. He has been hospitalized in California, undergoing evaluation and treatment for an ongoing heart condition.
It all sounds somewhat mysterious. Underscoring the severity, perhaps, was a column by sports columnist Bernie Miklasz in the Aug. 27 St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Miklasz sounded uncharacteristically dark when expressing his concern for the head coach, who shares with the columnist an affinity for hearty food despite his history of medical issues.
Complicating the scenario is the fact that this is Majerus' final season of his current contract. While he has undeniably resurrected the Billikens' basketball team to the national sports radar screen, it's also true that he isn't the least expensive head coach that SLU could hire for its 2013-14 season and beyond. Father Biondi has a reputation for saving money in some areas (see the recent public scuffle concerning SLU's Law School) to put it toward other applications.
Majerus has a career record of 517-216, making him one of the most successful active coaches in the NCAA. He also brought instant name recognition with him when he agreed to coach the Billikens. Majerus' reputation and impressive achievements could be tough to follow when compared to the mediocre ledger of 354-348 compiled by his assistant coach, Jim Crews, in Crews' 24 years of head coaching experience at Army and Evansville.
Crews also was a member of the last undefeated NCAA champion (Indiana, 1976) and was an assistant to legendary coach Bobby Knight at Indiana for eight seasons. However, he's been unable to accumulate victories at the same pace as Majerus did at Utah, Marquette and Ball State from 1983 through 2004 before coming out of retirement to lead the Billikens in 2005.
Once again, the Billikens' men's basketball team stands at a crossroads. Will it quietly retreat into relative obscurity, or will Crews be able to mold his Majerus-recruited squad into another fearsome contender?
What, too, about Majerus? Will he be able to rebound from this latest medical issue and return once again to work his magic in basketball strategy as well as shape his athletes into community leaders off the court? Or will this latest problem sideline him permanently? Even if he does come back, will he be coaching at SLU next year, or be forced to look elsewhere?
The season has yet to start, but the challenges for Rick Majerus and the Saint Louis University Billikens are very real and very immediate.
Evan Makovsky is host of the E-MAK SHOW, broadcast weekdays 6 to 9 a.m., on KXFN 1380 AM St. Louis.
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