Monson: Time for Morrill's Aggies to gain national prominence
Stew Morrill could go the rest of his life without spending a dime in Cache Valley. Buy his own meal at any restaurant in Logan? Puh-lease. Pay for a round of golf? Pay for a pair of shoes? Pay for his own car? Whaddaya think they are up there, a bunch of clueless ingrates?
Winners win more than just games. They win appreciation.
And Morrill is appreciated up in God's country.
Have you been to a game at the Spectrum? Have you heard the noise? Have you seen the insanity? Have you felt the gratitude?
It's there -- by the bucketful.
In his 12 years at Utah State, Morrill's teams have won 294 games and lost just 98. He's taken the Aggies to seven NCAA Tournaments. He's won at least 23 games in 11 straight seasons, and he's among the top five coaches in the country with the highest winning percentages. He's 27-7 this season and will play Texas A&M in the tournament's first round today.
Anybody with a record like that, in a town like Logan, at a school like USU, has no need to pick up the check.
And look at the way the coach does it. He makes something big out of nothing big. He takes dented sheet metal and spare parts from hoop junkyards and builds himself a basketball Bugatti.
Give this year's team a gander: The Ags have eight players from the state of Utah. And four of them are starters. That's more local kids than the Utes and the Cougars have. It's more than Salt Lake Community College has.
He's got guys from Salt Lake, Payson, Riverton, Springville, Kaysville, Perry and Provo.
He found his two best players, both from Utah and both all-conference guys, when others didn't want them: Tai Wesley had been rejected by BYU and Jared Quayle was ignored enough to have to wander through stops at the College of Eastern Utah and Western Wyoming.
Morrill's fond of the fact that this season's iteration of the Aggies features what so many coaches only wish their teams could: a collective effort.
"We're just so balanced," he says.
Whether the Aggies, a 12 seed, are balanced enough to beat fifth-seeded A&M, which finished second in the Big 12 this season, is yet a spinning ball in the air.
"They went 11-5 in the toughest RPI conference in the country," Morrill says. "They're a good, physical team."
Still, some have designated Utah State as a surprise pick in the first round. CBS analyst Seth Davis has the Aggies making it to the Sweet Sixteen, despite their being one of the last teams to make the field.
"Utah State, based of its record and ability, should not have been the last team in," Davis says. "But ... they don't take their show on the road."
It is a longstanding criticism of Morrill -- his refusal to play teams from big conferences on the road in their buildings without getting a trip in return.
"I know some people disagree with me on that," he says.
Davis is one of them.
"I can sympathize with his position because no one likes to go out on the road and play teams that won't come to your gym," he says. "But if you're Utah State and you want your program to take the next step, then that's what you have to do. Mark Few has provided that template at Gonzaga.
"Once you establish that national reputation, coaches are more willing to play at your arena because fans and the public understand that's not a bad loss."
Davis asks: "Do you want to become a national program?"
Morrill has at least edged in that direction. He tried to schedule Wake Forest in a one-for-two, but that deal fell through when Wake backed out.
If teams of such quality ever agree to come to the Spectrum in that kind of arrangement, they're likely going to lose. Just the way USU is likely to lose away from home.
But the trade off is sound because not only would the Aggies gain respect for an occasional win, and maybe a resultant higher seed in the tournament, they would also give themselves a better chance to win in the dance, preparing better en route.
On the other hand, if name teams are only willing to schedule USU in their own gyms, with no return trip, you can see why Morrill is reluctant to simply add more losses to his team's annual record.
"We've tried to explore lots of things," he says. "I'm not near as close-minded as some people want to think, or as stubborn."
Home or away, USU might gain more admiration in defeat against big names than it gets in victory against some current opponents. And a win or two would be huge.
It's worth the risk. It's time to step up.
With the strong foundation he's built in Logan, Morrill and his Aggies aren't that far away from becoming a team with a profile almost as prominent outside of God's country as right there in it.