John Hartwell’s joyous walk toward the locker room after Utah State’s upset of Boise State in the Mountain West quarterfinals hardly suggested the biggest move of his tenure as the Aggies’ athletic director would come less than 72 hours later.
USU’s victory over the MW’s No. 2 team logically might have secured coach Tim Duryea’s job, but his firing came Sunday. Beating the Broncos, as it turned out, was as much indictment as vindication for Duryea, whose three-year run seemingly was doomed from the start.
The convergence of too many inexplicable losses and too few fans in the Spectrum makes me approve Hartwell’s move, but I’ll say this: Launching his first major coaching search at USU, Hartwell won’t find a better person than Duryea. He had better land a better basketball coach, to follow through with this firing.
In Hartwell’s mind, the disappointment of losing to the conference’s worst three teams (San Jose State, Colorado State and Air Force) obviously overrode the thrill of knocking off Boise State in Logan and Las Vegas. That’s not an unreasonable line of thinking.
Either of those breakthroughs vs. Boise State could be viewed as Duryea’s best moment as USU’s coach. New Mexico’s 19-0 run in the first half of Friday’s semifinals was his closing argument — and not a good one, as he concluded a 17-17 season.
Afterward, Duryea said, “When it started going their way, I thought mentally as much as physically we did not handle that very well.”
Unfortunately for Duryea, that reflects coaching.
The next coach’s job is to maximize the remaining two seasons of guards Koby McEwen and Sam Merrill. That’s not to say Duryea failed to do so, just a recognition that those guys deserve to play in a winning program. The Aggies were not the MW’s most underachieving team in 2017-18. That distinction belongs to UNLV, which lost twice to USU and tied the Aggies for seventh place in the 11-team league with an 8-10 record.
Even so, Duryea never was embraced as the head coach in a campus culture that identifies with basketball. Aside from that February game vs. Boise State, his teams couldn’t produce anything resembling Spectrum Magic.
Maybe whoever replaced legendary coach Stew Morrill in Logan was bound to fail. The current century of sports in Utah is dotted with coaches who just couldn’t live up to their predecessors’ work. Duryea joins a club that includes Gary Crowton (BYU football), Ray Giacoletti (Utah basketball), Tyrone Corbin (the Jazz) and Jeff Cassar (Real Salt Lake).
The irony is that USU never would have promoted Duryea from Morrill’s staff, if not for Morrill’s doing maybe the best coaching job of his career in 2015, when USU went 11-7 in conference play. That level of success proved impossible for Duryea to match. He went 47-49 overall, 22-32 in the MW.
Former USU athletic director Scott Barnes took 80 days to hire Duryea in March 2015, having known since early January that Morrill was retiring. The duration of Barnes’ “thorough national search” was a giveaway that Duryea was a fallback selection; otherwise, his 14 years as Morrill’s assistant would have made him the obvious, immediate choice.
And then star player David Collette left the program, two days before Duryea’s first game; he later transferred to Utah. Collette’s departure ruined Duryea’s first season. For all they’ve done, McEwen and Merrill haven’t succeeded in elevating the program.
After the loss to New Mexico, Merrill said, “I think our whole season has been big for us, with all the adversity, with all the injuries we had early and the losses that we shouldn’t have had and how we’ve grown. I think they were all big steps for us. Obviously, this is disappointing, and this isn’t our goal and we want to get better.”
Merrill spoke of wishing to play “at 3 o’clock,” tipoff time for the MW championship game. That will be USU’s goal next March — once the new coach matches Duryea’s achievement of playing on Friday night. Not even Morrill did that, in two tries.