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Utah State basketball: Eustachy left big impression in Logan

Published January 15, 2014 10:04 am

Colorado State coach Larry Eustachy, who was 98-53 in five seasons at Utah State, makes his first visit to Logan since leaving the Aggies in 1998.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

In 1994, only the third game of Larry Eustachy's second season at Utah State, he came up against a highly touted BYU team that few thought would have trouble winning in Logan.

Eustachy led the Aggies to an 83-59 upset, one of the most dominating wins at that point in his coaching career.

Afterward, booster Jim Laub went searching for Eustachy, wanting to congratulate him on beating Utah State's chief rival. He found him alone in a supply closet, attempting to soften the peals of excitement in his chest.

"I've never seen a coach so elated," Laub said. "I knew early on we had someone special."

Two decades later, Utah State fans who go back to Eustachy's days at Utah State still harbor some of that lingering affection. They remember a coach who was intense, who demanded effort, and who helped turn the Aggies into a winning program. Many consider him the table-setter for Stew Morrill, the winningest coach in school history.

For the first time since his departure in 1998, Eustachy will bring a team to Logan as a visiting opponent. His Colorado State Rams (11-6, 2-2) are just as eager for a Mountain West victory as Morrill's Aggies (11-4, 1-2).

Still, Eustachy said, preparing to face his old team has stirred up some fond memories of his time at Utah State. Of his 439 wins as a head coach, 98 came with the Aggies.

"I really haven't given much thought to it until now, but I think it will be a good experience to go back," he said. "Utah State was very, very good to me. And they were struggling when I was hired, so I thought our staff was very good to Utah State. We're proud of what we did there."

In 1993, then-athletic director Chuck Bell hired the young former Utes assistant out of Idaho, bringing in a coach he thought would add intensity and fire to the program. Among those who recommended him to Bell was a former Montana coach who had faced the Eustachy-coached Vandals several times: Morrill. Eustachy had his first meeting with his new team, and he didn't get a good reading on the locker room's attitude.

"In the middle of it, one guy asked when we would be done, and I said, 'You're done now, get out,'" Eustachy said. "I remember getting out and calling the Idaho AD to ask for my old job back — really, I did. It just seemed like such a motley crew in there."

What Eustachy would come to find out was that locker room contained some of the best and toughest players he would ever coach: Eric Franson, Nate Wickizer, Jon Wickizer, Roddie Anderson. The Aggies he inherited surprised him with their talent and willingness to listen.

Utah State's roster and a new coach turned out to be a good pairing: The Aggies turned around from a 10-win season to finish second in the Big West. The next season, they finished first.

They did it with a combination of good rebounding and gritty defense. The Aggies were the top-rebounding team in the Big West four consecutive years under Eustachy. The team got to the NIT in 1995 and the NCAA Tournament in 1998.

Bell never once regretted the hire.

"His attention to detail, both in practice and games, was just no-nonsense," Bell remembered. "Nothing got by him."

He was hard on his players. Any mistake at all — dribbling off your foot, for example — could often get a player benched.

But he also drew the best out of them. Silas Mills, who went on to have a 14-year career overseas, said Eustachy's expectation of error-free basketball prepared him for the next level. Even sometimes now, in his head, he hears Eustachy's voice telling him, "Keep giving it to him. You're not tired."

Off the court, there was no one more caring. Once during his career, Mills was involved in an auto collision on a game day. The first person he recalled seeing as he woke up in a hospital was Eustachy.

"Every good coach can't necessarily be a player's best friend on the court," Mills said. "Larry was demanding. He wasn't the kind of coach a player would like offhand, but he's the kind of coach you love for the rest of your life."

Eustachy ended up having five winning seasons at Utah State — after the program had slogged through four losing seasons in the previous five — the crowning year a 25-8 campaign that eventually led to a job opening at Iowa State. With the Cyclones, Eustachy went to the Elite Eight and was named national coach of the year. But he also was embroiled in a scandal and eventually lost his job after photos came out of him drinking with coeds at a college party.

The roughly 10 years since then have seen Eustachy quietly rebuild his reputation as an authoritative coach and a responsible man. He's come back to the West, to Fort Collins, which he finds has many of the same charms as Logan.

He's kept artifacts of his time at Utah State: He still has the net from the program's first-ever win over UNLV. He also maintains friendships, visiting with the Laubs now and then. He and Bell are still very close, and whenever his teams travel to the Phoenix area, Bell's grandsons are ballboys.

Those who knew him in his time at Utah State never had a question that he'd find his way in the coaching ranks again. The man who fought so hard on the court wouldn't be kept down by a bump in the road.

"The longer we live, the more we realize that everybody has hardships in life, and it's how you handle them that counts," Bell said. "You're only a failure if you allow it to continue. He fought back, and had perseverance, the kind of perseverance that built Utah State from last place to first place."

kgoon@sltrib.com

Colorado State at Utah State

O At the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum, Logan

Records • USU 11-4, 1-2; CSU 11-6, 2-2

Series history • USU leads, 52-35

Last meeting • CSU 64, USU 61 (Dec. 5, 1998)

About the Aggies • Utah State is coming off a loss to Nevada, but is attempting to stay unbeaten at home in Mountain West play.

About the Rams • Junior forward J.J. Avila surpassed the 1,000-point threshold last week. —

Larry Eustachy's résumé

Age • 58

Overall record • 402-258

1990-93 • Idaho, 61-33

1993-98 • Utah State, 98-53, NIT berth, NCAA berth

1998-2003 • Iowa State, 101-59, two NCAA berths, including an Elite Eight appearance

2004-12 • Southern Miss, 142-113, NCAA berth, CIT berth

2012-present • Colorado State, 37-15, NCAA berth