Majerus' health main focus for Billikens
ST. LOUIS – This is bigger than basketball. That’s the important thing to remember when grasping the news Friday that Rick Majerus – the face of Saint Louis’ program – will take a leave of absence next season because of a heart issue. This goes far beyond the court, and the coach made the right choice to stay off the sideline.
This is about preservation. This is about being smart. This is about placing long-term concerns over shortsighted, frivolous worries like how the Billikens will build on their 26-8 year and an appearance in the Round of 32 last March.
There will be time for such talk in the winter, of course. But that moment must wait. It must wait because Majerus, 64, must do what’s best to make the most of his future without worrying it will end too soon.
Reading SLU’s release Friday was jarring. Sadly, health issues are nothing new for the veteran coach. He led only six games in his first year at Utah in 1989 before undergoing coronary bypass surgery. He was hospitalized in January 2004 for heart concerns and resigned from his position with the Utes shortly after. He had seven heart bypasses before SLU hired him in April 2007. He had a stent installed in the summer of 2011.
Still, that history doesn’t make the latest announcement any less scary. You should never gloss over the following comments when considering a man who holds a leadership role in one of the most grueling areas of American sports.
“Any time you’re dealing with these type of issues, it’s always serious,” SLU athletic director Chris May told FOXSportsMidwest.com. “Our thoughts and prayers are with Rick right now as he deals with his health issues. We’ll continue to support our student-athletes.”
“I appreciate what Rick has done to return SLU men’s basketball to national prominence,” SLU president Lawrence Biondi, S.J. said in a statement. “I know that he would like to be here with his players and coaches this season, and all of us at SLU will keep Rick in our thoughts and prayers during this difficult time.”
So it’s best that Majerus keep away for a while. It’s unclear if he’ll be able to return if healthy after this season – SLU is calling the move a “leave of absence” – but that should not be a concern now. Majerus must get well. If that means leaving a program that he has grown over the past five seasons in someone else’s hands, then so be it. It must be done.
It has to hurt him though. In February, I sat at Chaifetz Arena during the Billikens’ emotional victory over rival Xavier. The atmosphere was electric, one of the most charged settings I had witnessed throughout the region all season. A frothing crowd pushed SLU to an 11-point victory that helped make the program’s first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2000 possible. They made a memory.
Afterward, Majerus spoke with pride about his seniors, forward Brian Conklin and guard Kyle Cassity. He was touched. You could tell it in his voice. You could tell it on his face. That same affection was on display more than two weeks later in Columbus, Ohio, where he broke down behind a microphone talking about his team following a season-ending loss to Michigan State. Those moments were real.
That, more than anything, is what the Billikens will miss next season. Jim Crews has been named interim coach. Starting now, his job will be hard for a number of reasons.
Yes, the 24-year head-coaching veteran joined SLU’s staff last fall, so there’s some relationship with the current talent. Still, it’s impossible to replace the prestige and national relevancy that Majerus gave the Billikens with his presence. It’s impossible to replace the credibility that came with a leader who had coached in a Final Four. It’s impossible to replace a man who, despite efforts to deflect attention elsewhere, became the image of SLU’s resurgent season.
As a result, Crews’ challenge will be psychological as well as competitive. The Billikens lose Conklin, but many expected them to be among the best in a new-look Atlantic 10 Conference that will include first-year members Butler and VCU. Now there are many unknowns.
Frankly, it’s inappropriate at this time to predict how Majerus’ absence will affect the Billikens’ chances of making a repeat trip to the NCAA Tournament. The news is serious. The news is startling. It’s best that everyone around SLU’s program hopes for a positive update soon.
Until then, it’s best to place Majerus’ condition in perspective. Some things are bigger than the game.
This is an unfortunate example.
You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at email@example.com.