We played the Who’s Who of College basketball. Then they want to get on me for not wining enough. Well, go play those people. It’s not easy. – Stew Morrill
LOGAN — There were the requisite jokes about retirement and hanging around the house too much. Stew Morrill also referenced “A League of their Own,” in which Tom Hanks tells the players there’s no crying in baseball.
“There shouldn’t be any crying in this, too,” he said.
But of course there was. Seventeen years as Utah State’s basketball coach, with 611 lifetime wins, will do that. Much like the murky drive up from Salt Lake, his farewell press conference alternated between clear and overcast.
“I should be a little nicer, but I probably won’t be,” he said, referencing his legandary grouchiness with players.
On a serious note, he tearfully added, “If I could impact anybody’s life, that’s a good thing.”
As grouchy as Morrill pretends to be, he could never completely pull it off. You don’t get called “Yogi” by fans if you’re constantly mad. This is the guy who with wife Vicki have been foster parents to over 90 children. They also raised four of their own. Some of the kids stayed just two weeks, waiting for adoption, others up to six months. They mostly ranged in age from newborn to 5.
Some of the oldest are now in college.
For a man whose life has included such jarring transitions as fluctuating family size, his professional life has had remarkable sameness. He coached five years at Montana and seven at Colorado State before returning to his home state. He never got fired and never came close, unless Friday's mid-season resignation qualifies. But Morrill says he talked for several weeks with athletics director Scott Barnes, who asked him a few days ago if he’d consider staying through next year, but Morrill declined.
Maybe Morrill would have been let go at the end of the season, though he had two more years on his contract. Does it really matter? He has more wins and a higher percentage than legendary USU coaches Larry Eustachy, Dutch Belnap and LaDell Andersen.
“It’s just time,” Morrill said.
“Nobody’s mad at anybody, and I don’t think they’re mad,” he chuckled, gesturing toward administrators.
The news came abruptly nonetheless. “Big Stew” is as ubiquitous in Logan as The Bluebird cafe. Though the Aggies are a so-so 9-6 overall, they struck an upbeat note Jan. 3 with an upset win at Boise State. That was followed by a loss at Fresno State. This isn’t Morrill’s best team. The Aggies have struggled since joining the Mountain West, with their traditional blend of overachievers and undersized players. They finished eighth last year and are picked to finish 10th this season.
So the scrutiny is still on, which can make for a different Morrill than the one who showed up on Friday. Catch him in the summers and he’s as pleasant as a concierge. Catch him after a loss and he can be bearish and testy. But it was the funnier side of Stew that came through on Friday. Saying he might stay “involved” in basketball, he added, “Maybe I could be one of those TV guys, ‘cause they sure know a lot.”
Despite a .725 winning percentage at USU, he always flew below the national radar. That part he loved. Desmond Penigar is the only player Morrill landed in the NBA, and that lasted 10 games.
The Aggies have won just one NCAA tournament game since 1970. Losses included games against Connecticut, UCLA, Kansas, Arizona, Marquette, Washington, Texas A&M and Kansas State.
“We played the Who’s Who of College basketball,” he said. “Then they want to get on me for not wining enough. Well, go play those people. It’s not easy.”
Morrill only got one NCAA win in eight trips, in 2001 against Ohio State.That didn’t matter to fans that packed the Spectrum, game after game, for years. There are no complaints from Morrill, who marveled at his luck to stay in one place 17 seasons.
“I never once missed you guys,” he said, when asked about the lack of media attention in Missoula, Fort Collins and Logan. “I like you guys, but I don’t need to talk to you every second.”
Even the media laughed at that.
Minutes later he was fighting tears, a sentimental father with a soft spot for kids of all kinds. Asked after the press conference about disciplining the foster kids, he said, "We don't discipline them, we just spoil them."
One of his own sons began a career in coaching, but has since switched to vice principal.
“He got smart,” Morrill said.
Seems the coach in him wants every one of his kids to succeed, in or out of basketball.
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