Utah State coach in better place in WAC return

Former Colorado State athletic director Tom Jurich calls it one of CSU's greatest losses ever.

He is referring to Stew Morrill's departure for Utah State in 1998, one of the odder recent coaching moves. At least that's the way it was perceived out West.

Seven years later, Morrill is one of the most respected coaches in the region, a veteran who has led Utah State into four NCAA Tournaments and two NITs, building an impressive 167-54 record with the Aggies. At CSU, where he was 121-86, Morrill coached winning teams in his last six seasons (out of seven total) and still owns three of the seven winningest seasons in school history.

And what has happened to Colorado State? The Rams have floundered for the most part, with four winning seasons in the last seven and one NCAA Tournament berth, earned when they stunned the Mountain West Conference with a tournament title run in 2003. They have finished seventh the last two seasons.

Now, seven years after Morrill left for the Big West, he's returning to the WAC with Utah State as one of the premier coaches in the league. Meanwhile, CSU, which split off from the WAC with seven others in 1998 to form the MWC, is a program still searching for an identity.

"He was the perfect fit there," said Jurich, who left to take the AD job at Louisville before Morrill left for Utah State. "He outworked people, recruited solid kids. It was the greatest loss CSU ever had because they were on the verge. I'm not sure they would have done what Utah did, but it would have been a very good CSU [program]. Ask Rick Majerus when he was at Utah who was the toughest team to face -- he would tell you Stew Morrill's CSU. It was a great loss for the community."

Morrill, who started his head coaching career at Montana (compiling a 97-52 mark in five seasons), finished with 20 wins in each of his last two seasons with the Rams, although they earned only one NIT berth in that period. CSU replaced Morrill with Ritchie McKay, then from Portland State. McKay won 19 and 18 games, respectively, before moving on to Oregon State. He has since moved on to New Mexico. Dale Layer, an assistant under McKay, replaced him, and has been the coach the past five seasons, winning 19 games three seasons ago.

"At the time, it was disappointing for me," Tim Weiser, then CSU athletic director and now the AD at Kansas State, said of Morrill's decision to leave. "But sometimes you stay too long. Stew was never embraced by the community. We found out that it was tough to generate crowds there. I'm not sure basketball was ever supported there the way it should have been."

Weiser said Morrill's move to Utah State was centered around the ability to compete for a league championship every season. He's done that in Logan. Morrill also was familiar with the Utah landscape, having grown up in Provo (although he went to Gonzaga).

"Colorado State will always be one of the head scratchers of my career," Weiser said. "I couldn't crack the mystery of the fans. We couldn't get them to come out."

As Morrill said, you can't compare the homecourt advantage of Utah State to Colorado State. Utah State has a raucous homecourt, CSU doesn't.

Still, Morrill's full circle back to the WAC is one of the more interesting fallouts of this season's realignment.

"At the time I thought it was not lateral, but a perceived step down," said WAC commissioner Karl Benson, who is one of the holdovers from Morrill's time back in the WAC in the '90s. "I know it was justified for family reasons. But now it has elevated him to a position where he feels the pressure of expectations in the WAC. He got tremendous preseason recognition from the WAC by being picked No. 2. That's recognition of what Utah State has done.

"Stew Morrill today is a more recognized and respected coach than he was at Colorado State and that is due to what he did at Utah State in the Big West," Benson said. "He's got a chance to have an even higher profile."

Morrill said he was leaving a tough job in the WAC, MWC or wherever you place CSU.

"If you ask anyone in that league, they would tell you that it's a lower tier job in either conference (the old WAC or MWC)," Morrill said. "I had three years left on my contract but it was time, I felt like it was a good move and it turned out that way. The pay was similar although it's much better now [at Utah State for Morrill]."

Utah State has gone all out to keep Morrill, especially when he could have pushed hard for Utah and BYU when they became open.

Now, at 53, Morrill is energized to be in the WAC. He's got plenty of familiar Big West faces with Boise State, Idaho, Nevada and New Mexico State -- all schools that were in the Big West when he first went to that league -- now in the WAC. And he's reunited with his old friend Riley Wallace of Hawaii, the dean of WAC coaches who, along with Morrill, is one of the two anchors of this league.

"It's the same name, but it's a different league," Morrill said. "But there is a sense of déjà vu."

Morrill mostly rolled through the Big West, compiling an 84-20 record and fiercely battling Pacific for league supremacy. Now the Aggies should find a new rival in Nevada (and maybe next year New Mexico State, with Reggie Theus collecting transfers seemingly one a day). Utah State returns 6-2 sophomore Jaycee Carroll, who should be able to duplicate his nearly 15 points a game, along with three other starters, but the Aggies also have eight new players. They also start out with five of their first seven on the road and have an odd nonconference schedule.

Morrill, who has been criticized for soft nonconference scheduling in the past, said he couldn't get games so he has in-season home-and-home games against Oral Roberts and Middle Tennessee State. Utah State does play Utah (on the road this season), BYU (home) and Weber State (road) each year, to give it three locked-in nonconference games. But Utah State has traditionally struggled to get at least one high-profile opponent on the schedule. That's something Benson, a member of the NCAA Tournament selection committee, will continue to preach to Morrill.

"We've got to work on the scheduling philosophy because he's facing some scheduling requirements he hasn't had to face," Benson said. "We're eliminating non-Division I opponents next year in the WAC."

Utah State plays one this season: Lewis & Clark at home on Nov. 26.

"I've been on the committee and had to evaluate Utah State's nonconference schedule, and it hurt him in the past," Benson said.

One time was two years ago, when the Aggies were 25-3 and nationally ranked, but lost to Cal State-Northridge in the Big West tournament semifinals and didn't get an at-large bid to the NCAAs.

Despite that glitch, Morrill is much better off than CSU is after he left, an ironic twist as he returns to the conference in which he once coached and left because he wasn't feeling love and passion for his program. Now he's back in the WAC at a much higher level, at a program that loves its hoops and with a chance, every year, to contend for the title.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.