ST. LOUIS - Rick Majerus got out of coaching three years ago because of health concerns. Now his biggest worry is putting Saint Louis on the basketball map.
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 was fired April 17.
Majerus, an ESPN analyst the last three years, agreed to a six-year contract Friday.
“I saw this as an opportunity,” the 59-year-old coach said at a news conference Monday. “I don’t think I forgot how to do it. I love practice and I love the kids and I like the game.”
Majerus led Utah to 10 NCAA appearances in 15 seasons. He also has coached at Ball State and Marquette, and was a Milwaukee Bucks assistant. He has a career record of 422-147 with 15 postseason appearances.
“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.”
Majerus feels ready to take on the challenge of leading a school that last made it to the NCAA tournament in 2000. Rotund and nearly bald, Majerus thought his appearance “eerily” similar to that of the school’s gnomelike Billiken mascot.
“I’m never going to wear a 42 regular,” he 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. It wouldn’t be fair to them.”
Father Lawrence Biondi, the school president, hired Majerus to elevate the school to top 50 status.
“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 inherits a team that finished in the middle of the pack in the Atlantic 10 and returns four starters.
“I just don’t know the guys well enough,” he 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, the players 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.”
Athletic director Cheryl Levick wanted to give Soderberg one more season but was overruled by Biondi, who envisioned the hiring 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.”
The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday — following a day-long lockdown and manhunt — sports returned to Boston over the weekend.
Majerus coached Utah to the NCAA tournament final in 1998, losing to Kentucky. He stepped down in January 2004 because of his health. He accepted the Southern California job in December 2004 only to change his mind three days later.
Last year, he turned down an offer to become a Denver Nuggets assistant. Nuggets coach George Karl, a close friend, said staying in the Midwest was a wise choice. Majerus has lived in Milwaukee, where his mother is, 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.”
Fans and students attending the 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.”
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