It was hard to understand at the time. Why would a coach, coming off a 20-win season, resign and take a job in a less prestigious conference?
If those who questioned Stew Morrill’s motives could’ve only looked into the future.
Morrill carved his legacy at Utah State, winning seven conference titles, racking up 14 straight 21-win seasons and becoming the winningest coach in program history. He ushered a Big West program into successful years in the WAC.
Now, for the first time since he left Moby Arena and Colorado State behind 16 years ago, he’ll be back as an opponent, heading up his Utah State (14-9, 4-7) squad on Tuesday night.
“I’ve tried to avoid that all the years since I’ve been gone from both Montana and Colorado State,” Morrill said about playing his old program. “It’s not something you really want to do, but it’s going to be an annual deal at this point for sure.
“I’ve got a lot of memories,” he added.
Morrill still has three children living in Fort Collins, where he coached for seven years. His fondness is still strong for the area and its temperate climate.
It wasn’t bad for basketball either, if only a bit middle-of-the-road. He had a 121-86 record with the Rams, but never finished better than fourth in the conference and had two first-round losses in the NIT. His overall conference record was 61-57.
Of course, it’s hard to appreciate the league the WAC was then. The ’90s was a tough intersection of strong programs that made it difficult for an underdog to rise: Rick Majerus’ Utes, Roger Reid’s Cougars, Dave Bliss’ Lobos and Don Haskin’s Miners among others. From 1996 to 1998, the league had 16 teams — a time when Morrill went 58-30 as his program became more firmly established.
“It was a terrific, terrific league,” former assistant and current Weber State coach Randy Rahe remembered. “We were playing a lot of teams that had two future pros each. It was a tough job for the league we were in because other programs had advantages from a budgetary and facilities standpoint.”
Eventually, Morrill decided seven years was enough when Utah State came calling in 1998. He resigned for a chance to coach in his home state with a program he thought had good tradition.
His Colorado State days are not without high points: In his last season, he beat BYU twice, and also in-state rivals Colorado and Air Force. He was 3-0 in his career against Utah State, the program that would become his home.
But Rahe added that while Morrill was at Colorado State, he built the blueprint that would serve him so well in his tenure in Logan.
“He kind of figured out how he wanted to play,” Rahe said. “He was building a system at Colorado State, and that system kept getting stronger. He knew if he used that system at Utah State with the same kind of players we had in Fort Collins, it would be successful.”
Time has proved Morrill right. His system has worked for years. Getting back to that blueprint has helped Utah State end a losing slide with a pair of wins last week.
He and his Aggies hope it will be effective again Tuesday night.
“I think we’re excited to play, but we know it will be a big challenge playing them there,” he said of Colorado State. “They are very good defensively on the boards and plenty capable offensively. It’s pretty much what you get every night out.”
Utah State at Colorado State
P Moby Arena, Fort Collins, Colo.
Tipoff • 7:15 p.m.
TV • CBS Sports Network
Radio • 1280 AM The Zone
Records • USU (14-9, 4-7); CSU (14-10, 5-6)
Series history • USU leads 53-35
Last meeting • Jan. 15, 2014 at USU; USU 57, CSU 50
About the Aggies • Kyle Davis and Jarred Shaw are neck-and-neck among the conference’s statistical leaders, ranking No. 8 and No. 9 in rebounding, and No. 6 and No. 7 in blocks respectively. … The Aggies’ 41.6 percent mark from beyond the arc is the fourth-best percentage in the country. … Stew Morrill is 1-1 against Colorado State, his former team, but has not played the Rams at Moby Arena since becoming the Aggies’ coach.
About the Rams • Colorado State takes care of the ball, ranking No. 10 nationally in fewest turnovers and No. 5 nationally with only 9.3 per game. … The Rams lead the Mountain West in free-throw attempts and free throws made, and they’ve made 495 free throws this year. … Two of Larry Eustachy’s current assistants also served on his staff when he coached at Utah State: Steve Barnes and Leonard Perry.