“It’s the toughest place to play. I’ve been to Duke. I’ve been to the Pit (in Albuquerque). I’ve been to Indiana, Minnesota, Purdue, Arizona and around the country. It’s not mean-spirited. It’s not like you’re going to get hit with a hot dog or anything. I went to Oakland Raider games. Utah State has an Oakland Raider mentality without the knives and guns.”
— Rick Majerus, 2011
The mentality the late Majerus spoke about was created and nurtured and broadened by a man who looks as if he should be doing your taxes rather than coaching college basketball, whose name is a fixture on those lists that rank the nation’s most underrated tacticians, who has in a small, isolated northern Utah town of fewer than 50,000 built a program that has won at least 21 games each of the past 14 seasons.
Stew Morrill is a coach known by few outside his profession’s fraternity and yet respected as much as anyone within it. He is a wonderful teacher and owns the robust resume to prove it, having won at Montana and Colorado State and now for years in a place that was discovered in 1859 by Mormon settlers sent by Brigham Young to survey the site of a fort near the banks of the Logan River.
Utah State visits the Thomas &Mack Center tonight and, despite the struggles UNLV has exhibited at home this season, it’s always best to play the Aggies anywhere but in the death trap that can be the Smith Spectrum in Logan.
Utah State has won at least 14 home games in each of the past five seasons, a consistency built by the winningest coach in school history. Morrill has won 596 career games, including 378 at Utah State since taking over the program 15 years ago.
He has won more than 75 percent of his games since 2001, this at a place on the state map that exists 90 minutes from the nearest major airport in Salt Lake City.
Logan isn’t to be confused with New York, and yet Morrill has succeeded in a way that would garner bright lights and splashy headlines in the largest of cities.
“There is a lot of pride in that community, and Utah State basketball is a big part of it,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said. “Coach Morrill is one of the best in America. It’s a lot like it was going up against Coach Majerus — you know they will have thoroughly scouted everything you do, and they will have a counter for everything you run. Coach Morrill is very detailed. His preparation is meticulous.”
Rice knows of what he speaks, having spent the 2004-05 season as an assistant on Morrill’s staff. It was during that year that Rice learned most about practice preparation, about having a daily plan and sticking to it, about how difficult it is for any opponent to depart Logan with a victory.
Utah State is competing for the first time in the Mountain West and already has discovered a truth about its new conference: As tough as it might be for others to beat the Aggies on their court, it’s going to be equally difficult for Morrill’s team to discover success away from home.
The Aggies are 2-3 in the league, having dropped all three MW road games — to Air Force, UNR and Boise State.
They haven’t even been to Albuquerque and San Diego, two of the toughest places to win.
“We are getting a true test of the challenges of the Mountain West,” Morrill said. “In a lot of leagues, there’s maybe not a lot of separation between teams. It’s a matter of a few more close wins than another team can make you anywhere from third to eighth or ninth. We’re an example of that right now. We’re 2-3 and could easily be 4-1. That’s disappointing.”
You figure they will get things sorted out.
Utah State dominated much of its time in the Western Athletic Conference, finishing atop the standings in four of eight seasons and winning 30 games in 2008 and 2010. Before that, Morrill’s teams finished no worse than third in six of seven Big West Conference seasons.
He is 61 and very much in a conversation with the likes of Rick Byrd of Belmont and Bob Williams of UC Santa Barbara, fantastic coaches who through the years have continued to produce winning teams and yet don’t receive the level of attention heaped on those from the six major conferences.
But those who compete against Morrill know.
“Every morning we came in, he would be there with a practice plan ready to go,” Rice said of his season in Logan. “His staff recruits to his system. He has obviously earned a tremendous amount of job security at a place that appreciates all he does. They have players that do things his way, and his way is to be fundamentally sound, execute in the halfcourt and be tough. His teams are always those three things.”
The Rebels receive a firsthand look tonight.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at email@example.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.