Majerus following own advice

Originally Published: January 29, 2004
By Pat Forde | Special to ESPN.com

I called Rick Majerus Tuesday morning to talk about Rick Pitino. A man with a history of heart problems and a track record as the greatest talker in college basketball was the ideal source for insight into having your coaching career jeopardized by health concerns.

I wound up talking to Rick about Rick, all right. But I didn't know until a day later that the Rick on his mind was really himself.

Wednesday afternoon, when the jarring news of Majerus' renewed heart problems, his immediate leave from the Utah team, and his retirement at the end of the season came across the Associated Press wire, it suddenly all made sense.

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In the grand scheme of things, what's one more victory? There's no extra points given for coaching under duress. ... your health is more important. And everything medically is best when it's sooner-the-better. There's no question (Pitino's) doing the right thing."
Rick Majerus, when asked Tuesday about Rick Pitino's medical leave at Louisville

Over and over in the course of an introspective, 30-minute conversation, Majerus kept saying of Pitino's sudden departure from the Louisville program, "He's doing the right thing." It was almost as if Majerus needed Pitino's medical leave to make him confront his own physical reality: his body was betraying him again, and he needed to step away from the game.

"You get to a point where unidentified pain is the toughest thing to deal with," Majerus said from Denver, where he was waiting to take a flight back to Salt Lake City following the Utes' loss to Air Force on Monday night. "The physical pain leads to mental anguish. Then pretty soon you're in a world of self-doubt.

"You think you're so important, but it's the toy department of the university. Almost everything else that goes on at a university is more important than the basketball program. But people don't cheer cancer breakthroughs or genetic discoveries. They cheer a win.

"In the grand scheme of things, what's one more victory? ... There's no extra points given for coaching under duress. It won't help your seed in the tourney. So he (Pitino) could win another national championship this year. I think that's important, but your health is more important. And everything medically is best when it's sooner-the-better. There's no question he's doing the right thing."

In retrospect the conversation was eerie. At the time, Pitino's health situation seemed potentially grave, and there was no hint of new problems with Majerus. By the next afternoon Pitino was issuing a release saying he planned to be back at work by the end of the week, while Majerus was announcing the end of his fabulously successful run at Utah. Quite the turnabout.

At the time we talked, Majerus must have sensed that his own health wasn't strong enough to withstand another six weeks (minimum) of travel, stress and the heat of competition. Who knows how long he'd been denying the signs to himself, trying to work through it?

That night, Majerus told friends that he began feeling chest pains and numbness in his arm while eating dinner. He flew on friend and Utah booster Jon Huntsman's private jet to Santa Barbara (Calif.) Cottage Hospital.

Coincidence or not, Majerus brought up a doctor he knew in Santa Barbara. He wanted to recommend the doctor to Pitino, and asked for Pitino's phone number.

"He hasn't looked well for a long time," Bob Henderson, a close friend of Majerus', told the Salt Lake Deseret News. "His color hasn't been good and he's been getting bigger."

Stresses have been piling up for Majerus over the last year. One of his best players quit last year, shortly after being named to the all-Mountain West Conference team, highlighting the Utes' high turnover rate for players and assistant coaches. His program was placed on probation for NCAA rules violations last summer. A discrimation charge from a former player who claims he was abused and insulted because of a partial hearing loss by Majerus was recently dismissed. And the Utes were coming off a two-loss road trip that dropped their record to 15-5.

Majerus

Combine that with a famously fragile body, and you have a problem.

"The mental anxiety of being sick can really get to you," Majerus said Tuesday. "Stress exacerbates all problems. To coach demands great focus, but to get well also demands great focus.

"I think you have to take a holistic approach -- and by that I don't mean sitting on a mountain and eating granola. You have to heal with your mind, and stress is a great deterrent to healing."

So Majerus has chosen healing over stress, turning over care of the Utes to assistant Kerry Rupp. Now he has to practice what he preached Tuesday to Pitino, when it appeared that Louisville assistant Kevin Willard might be taking charge of the Cardinals for an extended period of time.

"The best advice I can give him is to shake the assistant coach's hand, tell him God bless you, and do whatever you think it takes to win," Majerus said. "If he needs to put in the Princeton offense, so be it. You can't coach from a distance. It's not fair to the other guys.

"I think the kids will respond with a real positive energy to this. Psychologically, there will be an adrenaline rush because of this. There will be a sadness, but they'll want to do better."

Turns out those are the emotions of the Utes on Thursday, not the Cardinals. Pitino returns to practice. Majerus is away from basketball.

"Until you're sick, you can't appreciate it," Majerus said. "Until it's you, it's hard to be fully empathetic."

At the time, I had no idea how empathetic Rick Majerus was. The next day, I knew.

Pat Forde of the Louisville Courier-Journal is a regular contributor to ESPN.com

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