Utah State University men's basketball has enjoyed a storied history. Since the first men's games were played in 1903, Aggie basketball teams have been among the best in the Intermountain region, if not most of the West. Occasionally the Aggies have even splashed onto the national scene, mostly as the result of the efforts of some fabulous players, such as Cornell Green, Wayne Estes, Shaler Halimon, or Marvin Roberts. Whatever the reason, Aggie fans have come to enjoy and expect exciting play on winter nights in the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum.
During this long history, a number of outstanding coaches have guided the fortunes of Aggie basketball. Dick Romney, Cec Baker, LaDell Andersen, Dutch Belnap, Rod Tueller and Larry Eustachy all guided successful programs during their tenures, and led their teams to post season play on many occasions. But, with the exception of Andersen's teams of the late 1960's and early `70's, Aggie fans have never truly felt that their basketball program was on the verge of anything more than fleeting greatness.
That has all changed, however, in the last five and-a-half years.
While Larry Eustachy should be recognized for his efforts to put the Aggie program back on the road to year-in, year-out success, I believe the real march toward national recognition began in earnest on August 7, 1998. That was the day when then USU Athletic Director Bruce Van De Velde announced that Stew Morrill had been lured away from Colorado State University to take the helm of the Aggie basketball program. The hire was seen as something of a ‘coming-of-age' for the Aggie program, which had languished in the shadows of the larger and, over the previous decade, generally more successful programs at in-state rivals Utah and BYU.
Since that August morning, all Morrill has done is win 133 games, post four straight 20-win seasons and advanced to four straight postseason tournaments, including three NCAA Tournament appearances in the last four years. No Utah State coach has ever posted four straight 20-win seasons, or gone to four straight postseason tournaments prior to Morrill's current run with USU. Not Eustachy, Tueller, Belnap, Baker, nor the patron saint of Aggie basketball, Andersen!
But to understand Morrill, all 6-9 and 250-plus pounds of him, you must understand his story. Born in Provo, he starred at Provo High School and was named an All-American at Ricks Junior College, then a two-time all-Big Sky selection at Gonzaga University. After a short pro basketball career in Europe he returned to the states, where his coaching career began in earnest as an assistant coach at Gonzaga from 1975-78, before heading to the University of Montana in 1979. An assistant for the Grizzlies until 1986, Morrill worked along side highly successful coaches Mike Montgomery, Jim Brandenburg and Jud Heathcote, who all went on to later coaching success and acclaim with nationally recognized programs at other universities.
With training as an assistant under his belt, Morrill took over the Montana program in 1987, forging a 97- 52 record over five years, before moving on to Colorado State and the Western Athletic Conference in 1992. There, Morrill guided CSU to two of its six all-time 20-win seasons, winning at least 17 games five times in seven years. In fact, Morrill-led teams won 121 games, and own three of the top seven winning seasons in school history, while ranking second in CSU victories and winning percentage.
But after achieving success at CSU, things just were not working out for Morrill and his staff, including current assistants Randy Rahe and Don Verlin. CSU fans appeared restless with Morrill's methodical offense, preferring the more up-tempo game advocated by Morrill's predecessor and CSU legend, Jim Williams. Fans were also put off by his seeming unwillingness to make public appearances, and promote himself and the program. Morrill, perhaps disturbed by the unappreciative attitude of Rams fans, decided it might be time for a change.
All of this came about just shortly after Eustachy announced he was leaving USU for the Iowa State Cyclones, and Van De Velde started his search for a new Aggie coach. Morrill was attracted to the USU coaching job for several reasons. The first reason was family ties, with several family members only hours away on the Wasatch Front.
But secondly, Morrill recalled that he felt there was an opportunity to build a tradition at USU, not only for basketball, but also for himself. "I am very familiar with the tradition of Utah State basketball and can name the greats as well as any alumni could," Morrill said the day he was hired.
"It is a good basketball situation and the premier job in the Big West Conference," he said. "My family will love the quality of the community of Logan. It is a great place to live and that is very important to me and my family."
"It just made sense to us."
But overcoming the ghosts of great basketball past at USU would be no small task. Aggie fans had an excellent knowledge of basketball and pined for the great teams of the past. Baker's teams of the 1950's had produced talents such as Max Perry and Bert Cook, while Andersen's squads of the 60's and early `70's had evolved into regional powers, getting as far as the Elite Eight in the NCAA Tournament, and a final 16th ranking in AP poll in 1970. Andersen had also proven to have an eye for talent, developing such Aggie all-time greats as Green, Estes, Halimon and Roberts, to name just a few.
1976 saw USU athletics squads leave the shrinking ranks of the collegiate independents, and join the Pacific Coast Athletic Conference, now known as the Big West. While there was immediate success under the programs of Dutch Belnap and Rod Tueller, Aggie teams languished into mediocrity under the reins of former Logan High School star and Indiana assistant Kohn Smith, becoming just one of many programs struggling to right themselves under tightening budgets and government mandates, such as Title IX. Aggie basketball fell to its lowest ebb since the late 1940's.
While Eustachy provided life-giving resuscitation to the program upon his arrival in 1993, winning twenty games in three out of five seasons at the Aggie helm, there was a feeling among many Aggie fans that it could all slip away again with the whip in the hands of the wrong person. But Morrill proved upon his arrival that he had the right stuff.
In 1999, the Aggies started out a glossy 5-0, including an upset of undefeated and nationally ranked Utah, despite protests from the coach that his team didn't deserve the record. Morrill's protests proved to be accurate, however, as the Aggies struggled to finish at 15-13, good for just fourth place in the Big West and first-round elimination in the conference tournament.
Morrill had found the post-Eustachy era cupboard somewhat bare, with the graduation of all-American guard Marcus Saxon and injuries dotting the present lineup. Playing with an undersized front line and inexperienced guard line, some considered it a miracle when the team finished above .500 at all, and hope was renewed that Morrill could make a move in the Big West once his own recruits were in place.
While previous coaches had used the longer-term, high school recruiting approach to restock their rosters, the 2000 season saw an influx of 8 junior college recruits into the Aggie program. While juco players had always been a part of past Aggie teams in a limited way, many fans wondered aloud how long it would take for this kind of a team to ‘come together.' The answer was a resounding, ‘not very long!'
After an unspectacular 9-5 preseason, which included an unlikely victory over PAC-10 contender USC in the Maui Classic, the Aggies went on a 16-0 tear through the conference to take the Big West regular season crown. Then, in conference tournament play, the Aggies went 3-0 and advanced to the NCAA tournament, before succumbing to defending national champion, Connecticut. With a glossy all-time high 28-6 record to show for the second season, Aggie fans had seen enough. The promised messiah for the basketball program had truly arrived.
Since that unlikely 2000 season, all the Aggies have done under Morrill's guidance is go 28-6 again in 2001— which included a first-round upset of Big Ten champion Ohio State in the NCAA Tournament; 23-8 with a first round NIT loss in 2002, and 24-9 last year, including a near upset of second-ranked Kansas in the first round of the NCAA tourney. Through it all Morrill's teams have been unspectacularly spectacular.
Since taking over the Aggie reins, all Stew Morrill has done is create a standard of excellence never before seen at Utah State. Translated into terms fans understand, this means winning, and winning a lot. Since coming to USU in the summer of 1998, Morrill has guided the Aggies to an incredible 133-43 record at present, including an amazing 77-23 mark in the Big West Conference. What's more, prior to this season Morrill had led USU to an unbelievable 103-29 record, giving USU the seventh-most wins in the country over that time period.
At home, the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum has been the place where opponent winning streaks have come to die. In Morrill's five and-a-half years, USU is an amazing 79-7 (.929) at home, including a glossy 10-0 this year, with a 41-4 (.911) (through Jan 28, 2004) record in league play. Aggie fans have to wonder how it can get any better than that?
In addition to the winning records, Morrill has brought in "good guys" and real students to play for the Aggies. Where some of Eustachy's recruits, for example, had somewhat "colorful" backgrounds, Morrill's players have been, for the most part, stalwart citizens. In his first five years, 15 of 18 seniors received degrees from Utah State, and three of his players were named academic all-conference during the 2002-03 season. Several more are on track to graduate this year.
Favorite players brought to USU by Morrill during his tenure have included guard Bernard Rock, forward Shawn Daniels, forward Desmond Penigar, guard Tony Brown, and forward Curtis Bobb. Of course the list also would not be complete without current fan favorites Spencer Nelson, Cardell Butler, Mark Brown, and Nate Harris.
Where do the Morrill-led Aggies stack up against the great USU teams from the past? While his teams do not have the pure shooters, such as a Estes, Halimon, Roberts or Nate Williams from days gone by, Morrill's balanced offenses and stingy defenses have carved out a place among USU's best. The 2000 team of Daniels, Rock, Dmitri Jorssen, and Brown owned far and away the best seasonal record of any Aggie team, at 28-6, which was duplicated a year later by the 2001 team. Another hallmark of Morrill's teams has been the ability to hold opponents under 60 points, while out-rebounding them by an average of seven caroms per game. If offense brings in the fans but defense wins championships, then Aggie fans should be able to count on many more championships to reside in Logan in the future.
With its most recent success, Aggie basketball is regarded as being the class of the Big West, and solidly ranked among the top 50 programs in the country, due in large part to the successful coaching tenure of Provo's Stew Morrill. As the USU basketball program prepares for even greater opportunities as a member of the Western Athletic Conference, fans will come to look back on August 7, 1998, and remember it as the greatest day in Aggie basketball history.
Information for this article was taken from the current and previous years USU basketball media guides, from AP wire and USAToday online stories, and from my own personal records and recollections. I give thanks and attribution to any and all who may have contributed in any way.
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