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Rick’s run ends

U. announces that Majerus is stepping down

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Nobody saw this coming, not right now in the middle of the season.

Least of all the Utah basketball players.

While many folks figured Rick Majerus' long successful run at the University of Utah might be nearing an end, his players had no idea he wouldn't be with them through the end of this season.

Nick Jacobson, one of two Ute seniors on the team, was very emotional when told the news by his wife, Amy, who works in the U. athletic department.

"I was shocked — it was hard to swallow," he said. "I'd be lying if I said I didn't get emotional about it. I felt like an orphan in practice today."

For Byrant Markson, a sophomore forward, the news hit especially hard since he had just returned from California where he attended his uncle's funeral.

"My head was spinning — I didn't know what to think," he said. "I just kind of sunk down in my seat. I'm going to miss him."

The news of Majerus' decision to leave his job immediately and not to coach beyond this season because of health reasons came via a press release issued by the U. Wednesday morning. He wasn't available for comment and was reportedly under observation at the Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital.

Majerus, who compiled a 323-95 record in 15 seasons at Utah, took the Utes to the pinnacle of college basketball, the 1998 NCAA Championship Game in San Antonio. He also led the Utes to 10 regular-season conference titles and 10 trips to the NCAA tournament, where the Utes only lost once in the first round.

While Utah athletic director Chris Hill said "every year is a stressful year for coaches," this seemed to be an especially stressful one for Majerus.

After Monday night's 62-49 loss to Air Force, Majerus had flown back from Denver Tuesday afternoon on the same plane as a Deseret Morning News reporter and seemed to be OK at that time. Apparently at dinner that night, he had some chest pains and numbness in his arm.

Bob Henderson, a longtime friend who's also the coach's legal counsel, said he was at dinner with Majerus when the coach had pain radiating down his arm. They were going to call Kent Jones, Majerus' heart surgeon in Salt Lake, but he was out of town. So they called his cardiologist in Santa Barbara, who Henderson preferred not to name, and he told Majerus to come down there that night. Obviously it wasn't life-threatening or else he wouldn't have made the flight, according to Henderson, but it was necessary because of Majerus' health.

"He hasn't looked well for a long time," said Henderson. "His color hasn't been good and he's been getting bigger."

Majerus' longtime friend Jon Huntsman also saw Majerus Tuesday night and encouraged him to see his doctor. He also provided his jet to transport Majerus to California.

"He's been undergoing tremendous emotional and physical turmoil recently," said Huntsman. "I encouraged him last year because of his health to consider resigning at that time, but he couldn't because of his love and affection for his team."

Huntsman said he "hugged" Majerus when he left.

Associated Press reported Wednesday evening that Majerus had been released from the hospital.

While several factors besides the health issue, have piled up this year and may have led to Majerus' decision to call it quits, Hill said, "I'm not going to speculate about all that stuff. It's not fair to anybody."

Majerus lost one of his top returning players in Marc Jackson, who abruptly quit the team in April soon after he was named to the all-Mountain West Conference second team. Majerus was criticized by fans and the media for his handling of Jackson and other players who left the program.

Then in July, the NCAA announced its sanctions against the university for violations committed mostly in the basketball program. Many called it a slap on the hand for violations ranging from free meals for players to excessive practice time, but still it brought a degree of embarrassment to the U. athletic program for being put on three years' probation.

Next up were two separate newspaper stories in early January about former player Lance Allred, who criticized Majerus for his verbal abuse.

Allred, who is partially deaf, said he was called "a disgrace to cripples," and that he had recurring nightmares because of his treatment.

Majerus denied the allegations and was cleared of discrimination by a university agency.

The 2003-04 season had started slowly with the Utes, getting blown out in a couple of games in the NIT at Madison Square Garden. Majerus acted frustrated and continually grumbled about his young and inexperienced team that features four sophomores and four freshmen.

However, the Utes regrouped after a loss at LSU in mid-December and reeled off nine straight victories to improve to 15-3. Then last Saturday afternoon, Utah was beaten handily at New Mexico and on Monday night were knocked off by Air Force.

After that game, Majerus said, "We're not that good of a team. I've said that from the start." He also said, "We have a lot of work to do," but didn't give any indication that he wouldn't coach any more.

Assistant Kerry Rupp, who was named interim coach, said Majerus was upbeat in a coaches' meeting after the game and he had no idea anything was coming.

"My No. 1 concern is that he's doing OK," said Rupp. "I was devastated when I heard the news. After I made sure he was all right, my next focus was the players. We want to make sure we move forward as a team."

The next question is, who will replace Majerus?

Hill has a reputation for finding successful coaches, beginning with Majerus and Ron McBride back in 1989 to Rich Manning in women's soccer two years ago to Urban Meyer, the U's highly successful football coach, who was hired last year. However, Hill didn't want to address the issue on Wednesday.

"I haven't even thought about a replacement," he said. "It honestly is not on my mind. We'll start formulating the process in the next few weeks."

Hill also thinks the Ute team, which faces BYU in a big game Saturday afternoon, will do fine the rest of the season.

"They're resilient young men," said Hill, who met with the players Wednesday morning. "They've got to make the most of it. You just hope they do well."

"We'll be fine," said Ute sophomore Tim Drisdom. "We just want coach to get better."

E-mail: sor@desnews.com