For the past five years, Rick Majerus has spearheaded Saint Louis’ transformation from Atlantic 10 also-ran to contender.
Now that he finally has a team capable of challenging for the league title, however, he will be unable to coach it.
Saint Louis announced Friday that Majerus is taking a leave of absence for at least the upcoming season as a result of health concerns. The 64-year-old former Utah and Ball State coach is undergoing evaluation and treatment for an ongoing heart condition at a California hospital.
Assistant coach Jim Crews, a former longtime head coach at Army and Evansville, will take over as interim coach. A decision has not been made for the 2013-14 season, meaning Majerus could still return if his health permits him.
“I appreciate what Rick has done to return SLU men’s basketball to national prominence,” said Rev. Lawrence Biondi, the school president. “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.”
The absence of Majerus comes amid preparations for a season that figures to be special for the Billikens. Every key player besides forward Brian Conklin returns from last year’s 24-win team, raising hopes that Saint Louis can outduel the likes of VCU, Butler and Temple for the Atlantic 10 title.
This is not the first time Majerus has taken a leave of absence as a result of heart issues. In his first season at Utah in 1989, he underwent coronary bypass surgery six games into the season. He later left the Utah program in 2004 after being hospitalized again for heart problems earlier in the year.
Majerus has taken blood thinner medication since then, but his late mother’s health was more of a concern to him than his own during much of his Saint Louis tenure. He made numerous late-night drives between St. Louis and Milwaukee to spend time with her before she passed away in August 2011.
With that tragedy behind him and with no major health problems of his own, Majerus seemed rejuvenated last season. He was in great spirits as the Billikens cracked the top 25 for the first time in the Majerus era, made the NCAA tournament and even thumped Memphis before falling in the Round of 32.
During one press conference in Anaheim after Saint Louis had just defeated Villanova in the semifinals of the 76 Classic, a jovial Majerus hammed it up with reporters as though he didn’t have a care in the world.
He bemoaned the lack of an authentic custard stand in Southern California. He told stories of his players white water rafting and cliff jumping in the Ottawa River. And he kidded that “there would have been the first tsunami ever in a river” if he had joined them.
At that point, it was easy to forget Majerus had battled health problems for two decades. Hopefully he can overcome this latest issue and return to the Saint Louis bench because college basketball wouldn’t be the same without his rollicking sense of humor.