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Kragthorpe: A Morrill dilemma for Utah State basketball

Published March 31, 2014 6:02 pm

USU coach faces formidable rebuilding project after first-year struggles in the MW.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated.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.

Later this spring, when Utah State's basketball operation moves into the new Wayne Estes Center, coach Stew Morrill will enjoy the vista of Cache Valley that unfolds below 800 East in Logan.

Morrill at last will have an office window, just when the Aggies' Mountain West membership has given him a much different view of the world. Kyle Whittingham is not the only famous alumnus of Provo High School whose job description changed radically after joining a more powerful conference.

An eventual effect of Utah's move was USU's invitation from the MW, resulting in a huge jump for Morrill's program. Not unlike Whittingham and Utah's football reality check in the Pac-12, the Mountain West's level of basketball competition in 2013-14 "kind of slapped me in the face," Morrill said.

Those opponents exposed the Aggies' gradual drop-off in recruiting, following the departure of longtime assistant coach Don Verlin — and Randy Rahe, a few years before him.

Morrill now faces a major rebuilding challenge, bringing him to an unexpected crossroads at age 61. Lifting the Aggie program to the top tier of this conference will require the best effort of his career, after he's already spent 28 years as a head coach at three schools.

The Aggies' initial MW season produced a 7-11 conference record (18-14 overall), as USU tied for eighth place among 11 teams and matched the school's worst league mark in 31 years. Morrill's job will only get tougher. USU's roster included five seniors. Three other players have left the program since the season ended, creating vacancies that will force Morrill and his staff to do high-volume recruiting.

It all makes for a fascinating study of a college basketball program, and how a successful coach responds to a different dynamic. How long will USU's building project take? How long will Morrill be willing to work at it? And can his old-school style succeed in this era?

Morrill has outlasted two presidents, three athletic directors and four football coaches in his 16 years at USU. He's an institution on a campus that, appropriately enough, was founded by the Morrill Act, creating land grant schools.

He should be enjoying the final phase of his career (his contract runs through 2016-17), with the completion of the $9.5 million Estes Center for basketball practice and volleyball competition. Instead, moving to the Mountain West has clouded his view. In his 15 seasons in the Big West and the Western Athletic Conference, Morrill won 76 percent of league games, with one future NBA player on his roster — Desmond Penigar, who played a total of 89 minutes in the league.

By finding overlooked players who fit his system, getting the most out of them and outcoaching his rivals in those conferences, Morrill thrived. It's different now.

"The venues, the talent level, I mean, it's a huge jump," Morrill said after the Aggies' season ended with a loss to San Diego State in the MW tournament quarterfinals. That 34-point defeat washed away the thrill of an epic, last-minute comeback against Colorado State the previous day.

And now there's some angst in Logan, for emotional and practical reasons, with the recent departures. Danny Berger had returned to the court after nearly dying of a heart attack. Jordan Stone is from Cache Valley. Kyle Davis is another in-state product, and would have been the team's top returning scorer.

Morrill's demanding nature is embraced as long as he's winning, but apparently can wear on his players during tough times. It's also true that players transfer from Division I schools all the time, via some combination of personal and coaching decisions. Utah's Larry Krystkowiak couldn't have gone from 3-15 to 9-9 in Pac-12 play in two years without turning over his roster.

USU's program can make an upward move in the MW and create a satisfying conclusion to Morrill's career. But what's ahead of him is a much tougher job than he ever imagined having to do, at this stage of his life.

kkragthorpe@sltrib.com

Twitter: @tribkurt —

Tough step up for Stew

Stew Morrill's conference records as Utah State's basketball coach:

Years Conference Record Pct.

1998-2005 Big West 92-28 .767

2005-13 WAC 83-27 .754

2013-14 Mountain West 7-11 .389

Totals 182-66 .734