It took Mike Morrell 24 cups of coffee to traverse through approximately 1,473 miles over 23 hours in a rented SUV packed from floor to ceiling to get from Richmond, Va., to Austin on April 3.
He could have very easily just hopped on a plane and met Shaka Smart a few hours later to embark on their next professional journey together, where he’d eventually be named one of three assistant coaches on Smart’s staff at Texas. But there was work to do, and sitting on a plane for those few hours would have interfered with that.
The ultimate grinder [and we’re not talking coffee… necessarily], Morrell spent that entire drive on his cell phone talking with recruits and high school coaches from all over, particularly across the Lone Star State, about the changes happening at UT.
He also spent time reflecting on the path that led him to this point in his career, a journey that began in his hometown of Elizabethton, Tenn., which also included a two-year stint as a golf coach at King College in Bristol, Tenn.
The ride to Austin, both in that moment and in his 32 years of existence, had been long and unconventional, but Morrell wouldn’t have had it any other way.
If you need help tweaking your jump shot, Morrell’s your guy. But your golf swing? Well…
“I don’t know much about the golf swing,” he readily admits.
That can be a problem when you are a head golf coach, which Morrell was at King College from 2005-07 in addition to being an assistant on the basketball team. At that time at the NAIA level, in order to be full-time you had to do two things, be it oversee a dorm, head up intramurals or coach golf.
It was Morrell’s first job after graduating from fellow NAIA school Milligan College (Milligan College, Tenn.).
“I learned real quickly how to order drinks and how to order golf balls,” he laughed. “I made coolers for the guys. I like to feel like I was the best golf coach in the country at keeping the water cold, passing out snacks. I had two guys on my first team that were older than me. I drove the van better than any coach in the country. They were never thirsty, they were never hungry and we always got to the match on time. I had so much fun there.”
Always looking to make the best of any situation, Morrell was happy to grind at the NAIA level. It’s in his blood. And he knew in this profession, you have to earn your keep.
“I played at Milligan College where no one around here knows where that is,” he said. “You watch games on TV then you go to your game and there are 100 people in the stands. You dream about getting the chance to compete at that level one day. I wasn’t a good enough player to get that opportunity. So what’s the next best thing? The next best thing is to coach at that level. I’ve never really known anything else.”
Coincidentally enough, it was Morrell’s friendship with now-VCU head coach Will Wade that led to him crossing paths with Smart for the first time back when Smart was a second-year assistant under Oliver Purnell at Clemson during the 2007-08 season.
“Through [Wade], he put me in touch with Coach Smart when a graduate assistant spot came open,” Morrell said. “From there I interviewed for the job. Coach Purnell was the head coach at the time but Coach Smart was the one who really spearheaded that position. That’s when I first met him. He really hired me at Clemson.”
It didn’t take long for Morrell to realize how special a young coach Smart was.
“You could really tell from a very early time being around him that he was a little bit different. He was a special coach,” he said. “I hadn’t been around very many assistant coaches because I was just getting started. He was one of the first ones I was around and one of the best ones I’ve been around even to this day.”
The two worked together for that one season at Clemson before Smart left to take an assistant coaching job on Billy Donovan’s staff at Florida. Forever loyal, though, Smart still played a major roll in Morrell’s next bump up the coaching ranks.
“I got moved up to Director of Operations [at Clemson] and Coach Smart had a big roll in that to,” Morrell said. “Every position that I’ve ever got except for one, he hired me. I owe him a lot to say the least. He’s been very loyal to me and I’d like to think I’ve been very loyal to him. There’s just nobody else I’d rather work for. I’m really lucky to have the opportunity to work with him everyday.”
Those that know him well also use many of those same sentiments that Morrell uses to describe Smart.
Aside from Texas’ head coach, there isn’t anyone in the coaching industry that knows “Money Mike” like Charleston Southern head coach Barclay Radebaugh, who hired Morrell away from Clemson to give him his first Division I assistant coaching gig in 2010. He couldn’t speak more highly of his dear friend.
“Mike is a guy that you can trust,” Radebaugh said. “You are fortunate in this profession if you have five or six guys that you can totally trust. Mike is one of those guys for me. He’s a very loyal guy to the people that have helped him.”
Morrell is so loyal to his old boss that he tries to contact him at least once a week.
“After about a month working with him I knew he was going to be a high-leveled coach and be a Division I head coach,” Radebaugh said. “I quickly realized that Mike had those abilities to make a great head coach.”
One of the things that first drew Radebaugh to Morrell was his knack for recruiting, which had never really been a part of his coaching vocabulary prior to his stint at Charleston Southern.
“When we hired Mike he was coming from a Clemson situation where he wasn’t involved in recruiting,” Radebaugh said. “You can tell very quickly that from the minute he got here he just had a knack for recruiting. How did I know it? You just know it. It’s the “It’ factor. He took to it from the very first day.
“A couple of things you realized about Mike really quickly: His capacity to take on large loads of work. He can juggle a lot of things at the same time and that’s very important as a recruiter. Second was his intelligence. He is very, very smart. Third was his ability to quickly build relationships. He has the ability to make everyone around him comfortable. Not everybody can do that. Fourth was just his work ethic off the charts.”
Morrell, to this day, says that year spent with Radebaugh was the year he grew the most as a coach.
“He gave me my first chance to coach at the D-I level,” Morrell said. “I’ll forever be indebted to him for what he did for me. I just tried to be a sponge. I tried to learn and made a lot of mistakes, which was good because I learned from them. I tried to be a good staff member.”
Morrell’s time at Charleston Southern lasted less than a year, though, as Smart hired him away to be VCU’s Director of Operations. It was the only job Morrell would have taken at the time.
“I went back to work operations at VCU because I knew I wanted to work for Coach Smart,” he said.
What Morrell was able to help Smart achieve at VCU placed the Rams on a national stage while simultaneously making Smart one of the most sought-after coaches in the country.
They went 108-35 in Morrell’s four years on the staff, which included going 51-17 in conference play. VCU made it to at least the second round of the NCAA Tournament every year, twice making it to the third round.
That success also made it that much harder on them to leave.
“You love those guys at VCU. They went to war for you,” Morrell said. “It’s not easy to up-and-leave. They were the guys grabbing rebounds, scoring buckets. Because you win you get opportunities, and that’s what Coach Smart did. That was a tough deal looking those guys in the eyes. I’m sure it was even tougher for him because he had to stand up there in front of the whole team and do it. I was able to do it individually and give them a hug.”
Former VCU walk-on David Hinton, for one, can’t blame Morrell and others on the staff for leaving.
“When they left I was sad that they were leaving but I was happy that they were moving up in their careers,” he said. “Everybody has to make tough decisions. I made one leaving my job at Nike to the Department of Homeland Security job I have here in D.C. It was rough but I understand that he had to do it. It’s a business. I’m glad it happened for him. He’s in a great position now.”
Morrell, Smart, and the rest of Texas’ staff value relationships above all else, which is why it shouldn’t come as a surprise to know that Hinton and fellow former Rams hooper Darius Theus traveled down to Austin a few weeks ago to check in on their old coaches.
“He will keep it honest with you,” Hinton said of Morrell. “He’ll work with you after practice, before practice. He’ll come in and watch film. He’s not married so he doesn’t have the excuse of ‘I need to get home to see my wife and kids’ or anything like that. He is there for you.”
By the time Smart took the job at UT and assembled his staff, recruiting was nearing its 25th hour for 2015 recruits. There was a ton of work to do and not much time to do it, hence the reason for Morrell driving and not flying. Every minute counted.
“We were lucky to get those two weeks in April to go see some kids so we’ve had time to develop those relationships with some kids in the state and across the country,” Morrell said.
“We feel like we’ve already had some wins,” Morrell said.
Now the task is going to keep those wins coming on the hardwood once the season starts. And that starts with making sure everyone is on the same page.
“The main thing since we’ve been here is developing the relationship with the current players and spend as much time as we can around them,” Morrell said. “While this 2016 class is really, really important for us the most important recruits are the ones already here on campus. That’s been the focal point for Coach Smart and our staff.”
|Year||School||Position||Overall W-L||Conf. W-L||Postseason|
|2005-06||King College||Assistant Coach||13-18||9-11|
|2006-07||King College||Assistant Coach||23-11||13-5||NAIA First Round|
|2007-08||Clemson||Graduate Assistant||24-10||10-6||NCAA First Round|
|2008-09||Clemson||Dir. Basketball Operations||23-9||9-7||NCAA First Round|
|2009-10||Clemson||Dir. Basketball Operations||21-11||9-7||NCAA First Round|
|2010-11||Charleston Southern||Assistant Coach||16-16||9-9|
|2011-12||VCU||Dir. Basketball Operations||29-7||15-3||NCAA Third Round|
|2012-13||VCU||Dir. Basketball Operations||27-9||12-4||NCAA Third Round|
|2013-14||VCU||Assistant Coach||26-9||12-4||NCAA Second Round|
|2014-15||VCU||Assistant Coach||26-10||12-6||NCAA Second Round|
|Totals||10 seasons||228-110 (.675)||110-62 (.640)||7 NCAA, 1 NAIA|
Not a member of HornsDigest?
Get the best UT recruiting and team coverage for just $4.17 per month!
1. Select the "Annual Pass" option right here.
2. Enjoy HD’s attack-free message board community and unparalleled insider information in HD Only on Wednesday nights!
*****2017 four-star QB Sam Ehlinger “Under The Lights” Highlights
Get 10% off Longhorns tickets, tickets to other sporting events as well as concerts by joining HornsDigest.com. Click here to get discounted tickets!
Get your Longhorns fan gear Right here!