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It's a Feel-Good Story

Majerus says his health is fine as he signs a five-year, $5-million deal to take over as Trojan coach April 1.

December 16, 2004|Paul Gutierrez | Times Staff Writer

Rick Majerus was slightly confused when a USC employee threw him the two-raised-finger "Fight on" salute.

"I thought it was a peace sign," he said as he blushed.

And Majerus mistakenly combined the football-rich traditions of USC and Florida State when he volunteered to "go out on the horse and throw the spear."

But two things the former Utah coach and ESPN analyst was positive about Wednesday afternoon were his new job title -- men's basketball coach at USC, less than a year after resigning from Utah -- and his health.

"I've never had a heart attack," he told a packed Varsity Lounge full of school officials and media after it was announced he would take over from interim Coach Jim Saia on April 1, 2005. "I've had seven bypasses, one for each major food group.

"Could I have a heart attack? Sure. I could also get cancer ... I think my health is good or I wouldn't do this.

"I would not have left ESPN for any job other than this."

Majerus, 56, had to buy his way out of his ESPN contract before coming to USC and after years of living in hotels, Majerus plans on buying a house in Santa Monica and hiring a full-time cook to manage his weight, a lifelong problem. He said he swims a mile a day for exercise.

As Majerus ambled into Heritage Hall, it was Saia who first crossed his path.

Saia held open the door for Majerus. And it was Saia who eagerly cleared a path for Majerus to climb the stairs to Athletic Director Mike Garrett's office to put the finishing touches on a five-year, $5-million contract. Saia, who was installed when Henry Bibby was fired Dec. 6, will run the program the remainder of the season.

But in an interesting twist, and in finding a way to allow Majerus to recruit for next season, Majerus was hired immediately as an assistant to Saia, though his contact with the interim regime will be held to a minimum.

"I might be a $1-a-month guy until April 1," Majerus said.

Still, Majerus met briefly with the Trojans during practice at the Sports Arena and he plans on meeting individually with coaches this week. Majerus said he has not thought yet about forming his staff.

"He has a great presence in the locker room," Saia said. "He's a Hall of Fame coach with intelligence and has a lot to say. So how could you not listen to him?"

Majerus acknowledged it would be hard to stay away from the team until April, given his love for the game.

"But it's the right thing to do," he said. "I want them to have a good year. I want them to win the league, especially for those six seniors."

Majerus' goals for next year, though, are modest at best -- a .500 finish.

With USC slated to return only four players and no post players among them, Majerus anticipates hitting the junior college circuit hard.

Majerus compared Lodrick Stewart to Ricky Pierce -- "I'd set a pick for him, he can really shoot it," Majerus said -- and he likened Gabe Pruitt to Andre Miller. "He's unselfish," Majerus said. "He might be unselfish to a fault."

Next year should be the Trojans' final season in the Sports Arena; the Galen Center is scheduled to open in 2006.

"I would come here even if there wasn't a new arena," Majerus said. "It's just a plus.

"I never liked the nice locker room. You don't want them in the locker room. You either want them coming out of the locker room to go to the classroom or to the gym. It's just a real plus, no question about it."

Majerus was full of one-liners and said all the right things.

Inevitably, though, the questions came back to his health and how and why his name was always linked to openings around the country, such as previous vacancies at UCLA, St. John's, Nevada Las Vegas, Arizona State, Notre Dame, Minnesota, Texas, Wisconsin, San Diego State and the NBA's Golden State Warriors.

These things happen for a coach who has a career winning percentage of .742 (422-147) with stops at Marquette, Ball State and Utah.

"I hope I die here," said Majerus, who doesn't measure his girth by weight, rather, by his pant-waist size. He said he wore a 52 at Utah, is currently wearing a 47 and his goal is a 42.

"I hope I coach here the rest of my life. I have no aspirations to coach pro ball.... If I die on the court, where else would I want to die?

"I like it, I love it. It's the only thing I've ever been good at."

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Rocky Mountain High

A look at Rick Majerus' record at Utah, with standing in conference and postseason bids, and USC's record during the same period:

*--* UTAH USC Season W-L Conf. Post. W-L Conf Post. 1989-90 4-2 -- -- 12-16 7th -- 1990-91 30-4 1st NCAA 19-10 3rd NCAA 1991-92 24-11 4th NIT 24-6 2nd NCAA 1992-93 24-7 1st NCAA 18-12 5th NIT 1993-94 14-14 5th -- 16-12 7th NIT 1994-95 28-6 1st NCAA 9-19 10th -- 1995-96 27-7 1st NCAA 15-13 7th -- 1996-97 29-4 1st NCAA 17-11 2nd NCAA 1997-98 30-4 1st NCAA 9-19 8th -- 1998-99 28-5 1st NCAA 15-13 7th NIT 1999-00 23-9 1st NCAA 16-14 6th -- 2000-01 1-0 -- -- 24-10 4th NCAA 2001-02 21-9 2nd NCAA 22-10 2nd NCAA 2002-03 25-8 1st NCAA 13-17 6th -- 2003-04 15-5 -- -- 13-15 6th --

*--*

Note: Majerus missed 24 games of the 1989-90 season due to heart surgery, 30 games of the 2000-01 season while on a leave of absence, and stepped down after 20 games of the 2003-04 for health reasons.

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