The Story of the Morrill: CHD sits down with Utah State coach Stew Morrill

Utah State got off to a hot start this season, going 10-2 in non-conference play with wins over USC and Mississippi State.  The Aggies are only 2-3 in MWC action so far this month but hope to turn things around on Wednesday when they travel to UNLV.  Senior center Jarred Shaw only played twice in December, but has been huge in January with a double-double in a win over Colorado State and a season-high 24 points in a loss to Boise State.  Coach Stew Morrill is in his first year as a MWC coach but his 28th year in D-1 after previous stops in Montana and Colorado State.  Coach Morrill is only a few wins away from joining the 600-win club, and with a few more after that he might be able to make his 10th trip to the NCAA tourney in March.  Jon Teitel got to sit down with the coach to chat about the importance of having a home-court advantage. 

stew

You were an All-American at Ricks College and a two-time All-Big Sky selection at Gonzaga.  How good a player were you back then, and how far did you think you could go as a player? I was a good solid player. I joke with my players that I averaged 10 rebounds per game as a senior…but I have never had a player do that for me yet!

After graduation you played professionally in Europe.  What did you learn from the experience, and how did it compare to college basketball? It was fun but I probably made a smart decision to eventually get into coaching. I knew that I could play a long time in Europe, but it would have been quite a different career path because it is hard to go somewhere where you do not know the language. It was a great experience but very different than college basketball: we traveled a lot and only played one game per week. I think that the quality of pro ball overseas has gotten a lot better since I played, but some clubs are organized and some are not.

You later became an assistant coach at Montana under Coach Mike Montgomery, what was it like to work for Montgomery, and what made him such a great coach? I got my first full-time gig at age 23 and then became Mike’s only assistant at age 25. It was his first head coaching job and we were just a couple of young coaches just trying to find our way. I will always consider him a mentor. He had a great feel for the game and for how to run a program: we are still close personal friends.

In the 2001 NCAA tourney as head coach at Utah State, Tony Brown made a fade-away jumper with two seconds left in regulation en route to a nine point overtime upset win over Ohio State for the school’s first tourney win in over three decades.  Where does Brown’s shot rank among the most clutch you have ever seen, and where does that win rank among the best of your career? I always call that a “city league” shot: he pump-faked about four times and then threw up a high-arcing shot. We were a #12-seed so it was just a wonderful win. I do not rank all my wins but I guess it would be in the top 3-4. We have not won a tourney game since then, but it is hard to win when you keep getting a low seed.

Jason Kapono scored 19 points in a win by UCLA: were the Bruins just a more talented team, or did your team just run out of gas, or other? It was a little bit of everything. We ended up playing five games in eight days. We were still in the game after missing about 17 shots in a row, but they were really talented so we kind of ran into a buzz-saw.

What are your memories of the 2003 NCAA tourney (Desmond Penigar and Cardell Butler each missed three point shots in the final 15 seconds of a three-point loss to eventual national runner-up Kansas)? We gave ourselves several chances to take the lead but every time we tied it the Jayhawks would make a shot. We controlled the tempo very well.

What are your memories of the 2009 NCAA tourney (Gary Wilkinson missed a shot in the final 15 seconds of a one point loss to Marquette)? That one was tough: maybe the hardest loss I ever had. We started slow but were up by a few points in the final minutes. They had a freak play with a near-air ball that grazed the rim, but it fell right into one of their player’s hands who he made the put-back.

What are your memories of the 2011 NCAA tourney (Jacob Pullen scored 22 points in a five-point win by Kansas State)? We knew the Wildcats were good going into the game, as they had been ranked high at the start of the season. We got a #12-seed despite having a top-15 RPI. They took us out of a lot of things on offense with their pressure but we fought back to get within striking distance at the end.

Your teams have occasionally been among the best in the nation at both assist/turnover ratio and three point shooting shooting.  What is the single most important stat that you think makes a team great, and what role does outside shooting play in your offensive philosophy? We take less three point shots than most teams but I think that is why we make such a high percentage of them. We have led the country in several statistical categories in the past. We believe in establishing ourselves inside with our big men, which means that we end up shooting a lot more free throws than our opponents, which then gives us better looks from behind the arc. We get a lot of credit on offense but we have led the WAC in defense several times as well.

You have an incredible home record of 234-23 at the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum.  How big of a home-court advantage do you have, and has it reached the point where the fans expect you to win every single home game? One of our recent senior classes went 67-1 at home during their career, so our home court is as good as it gets! We average 10,000 people and have lots of sellouts. Many opposing coaches have told me that the atmosphere compares very favorably to that at Duke. Our gym is a special place to play at but the downside is the high expectations that come with winning. When you win four straight WAC titles it cannot help but raise expectations, but it also makes scheduling a nightmare because few teams want to come play us on the road. Someone recently asked me to describe our program and I said, “healthy”.

Your team is one of only a few in D-1 (along with Duke, Gonzaga, Kansas, and Syracuse) to have won 21+ games for 14 straight seasons.  How have you been able to remain so successful over such a long period of time, and do you think your program deserves more respect for all that it has accomplished? I have had a lot of good players: you cannot win without them.  I have also had great assistants and a number of them have gone on to become head coaches. As far as respect, even though we are not in a BCS conference it does not change the fact that basketball is a big deal in Logan, UT. If we do not get enough respect around the country, I am okay with that.

JonTeitel