Claps of thunder sounded when Stew Morrill was introduced as Utah State’s new basketball coach back in August 1998. Most of the Aggie fans on hand saw no need for any introduction. They already knew the man, already were sure what the man would do for them: win.
Morrill was sure, too, but not that sure.
“I hope you’re still clapping like that in five years,” he said.
They were. And they will be applauding again on Saturday night, when attendant with USU’s game against Boise State, the school’s home court at the Spectrum will be named after the longtime coach, the one whose teams won 402 games and lost just 156 in Logan. He’s the all-time winningest hoops coach at USU, and posted 12 of the school’s 13 best seasons in terms of total victories during his 17-year run there.
“For a long period of time, he was Utah State basketball,” said former Aggie star Nate Harris, who played for Morrill.
Perfection in any realm is tough to come by, but Morrill was a perfect fit for Utah State. He was and is a big, burly dude, gruff on the outside but a sweetheart three layers down. This had nothing to do with coaching success — but, on second thought, maybe it had everything to do with it: Morrill and his wife, Vicki, wrote out generosity in capital letters by way of the fact that they were the foster parents of some 90 babies, tending and taking care of them for up to six months, until proper adoptive parents could be found for the little ones.
“Vicki loves doing it,” he said all those years ago. “She cries when we have to let them go. But I hold them and rock them, too. It’s good. As a coach, you need things like that to snap you back to reality, to know that basketball isn’t that important.”
Back to the present, Morrill said on Wednesday, as he traveled from his home in Fort Collins to the celebrations coming at Utah State, “That was more important to Vicki than basketball was to me.”
Basketball and babies were both important to the coach.
Morrill, known for his intensity and meticulous game prep, attending to every detail and worrying about the details he missed, coached basketball as though it were as significant as breathing. His teams played like it was beyond important, often seeming to come together to surpass what might be expected of them. He had some stars along the way, but his teams were better recognized for their balanced teamwork. There wasn’t much compromise about that because Morrill aggressively insisted on such an approach, and made no secret of it. As Vicki said it, “Stew goes through some kind of personality transplant when he coaches.”
Morrill was no media darling, but … so what? The main criticism lobbed at him through his time in Logan was his habit of not scheduling tough non-conference opponents on the road. Some college basketball observers thought an emerging program like USU’s, playing in a lesser league, would be better served in gaining more national recognition by playing whoever, whenever, wherever. But Morrill, with a belch and a snarl, figured during the regular season he’d travel to play marquee teams if they’d, in turn, travel to the Spectrum to get a taste of that crowd. Many did not want to do that.
The connection between the big bear of a man who cuddled babies to sleep at night and the stone-fired and often stubborn coach who growled out orders to his players on the floor? He cared about the kids he had stewardship over. He was college basketball’s version of a Care Bear.
“Coach Morrill was a father figure for me and a person I really looked up to and respected,” said Tai Wesley, another former Aggie player. “… There are not enough words to explain everything that he’s done for me and everybody in that community.”
Speaking of bears, when the 6-foot-8 Morrill was the head coach at Colorado State, before he arrived at Utah State, on the occasions when the Rams faced off against the Aggies in Logan, USU students started calling him, “Yogi,” on account of his size and, well, his shape. Adding to that characterization was his assistant, Randy Rahe, the basketball savant who later went on to coach at Weber State, most famously during the Damian Lillard years. Rahe was 5-foot-5, so he, for his part, was dubbed by the student section … yeah, “Boo-Boo.” Students in the stands can be brutally forthright.
And that’s what Morrill was and is, as well. When I once asked Vicki what her husband’s best attribute was as a coach, she said the “best and worst” of him was his blunt honesty. He shucked it for not one second, saying: “One thing about me is, you don’t have to worry about wondering what I’m thinking. You will know.”
A factoid about Morrill that should have revealed, and that did reveal, what players, fans, opponents, would discover about him is that John Wayne, by his way of thinking, was the greatest Hollywood star of all time. “I love him,” the coach once said. He did more than that. He patterned himself after the famous actor. In fact, Morrill’s nickname was borrowed directly from Wayne. People called him, “The Duke.”
I’ll tell ya what I’m gonna do, pilgrim. I’m gonna rustle up vittles and win me some basketball games.
And so, he did — for nearly two decades in Cache Valley, where he topped off his coaching career, after other stops in places like Gonzaga, Montana and CSU. Before that he played at the school in Idaho formerly known as Ricks College. Following that, before getting into coaching, the Provo native played professionally for a year in France.
Now, all these years later, he sees Logan as his home — “That place has a special feel to it,” he said — even though he resides in Colorado, near three of his grown kids and most of his grandchildren. He retired eight years ago, at the age of 63. He spends his time presently with family and friends, doing “whatever I want.” Being “lazy,” he said, suits him, after a career that required so much of him.
“With coaching, you’re either in or you’re out,” he said. “… It’s a life of survival. I feel fortunate that I was able to walk away on my own terms. We were lucky.”
No, he was good.
Morrill may have stepped away from the game, but he still watches it, mostly on TV. And because it has changed to what it is now, particularly with NIL being such a huge part of it, he’s glad he coached when he did. “I don’t think a coach like me could coach anymore,” he said.
Either way, he will not be forgotten, not with his name on the Spectrum court. When he was first informed of that coming honor, he said, “I was surprised and humbled.”
Only a humble man would say that.
“It means a lot,” he said. “When someone says, ‘You did OK,’ it feels good, you know?”
Yeah, he did OK.
And that’s what will be underscored and highlighted on Saturday night, when the floor the Aggies play on, the one Morrill used to prowl and stomp around and symbolically own, will do more than bear the big bear’s name, it will be officially presented as his to keep. And the people in the stands will applaud a coach they have considered and still consider their own. Claps of thunder will sound not five years, but 25 years after the clapping started long ago.