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Ravell Call, Deseret News
Utah State Aggies head coach Tim Duryea instructs his team as they play the Colorado State Rams in the Mountain West Conference basketball tournament in Las Vegas on Wednesday, March 7, 2018.

SALT LAKE CITY — In January 2015, Stew Morrill had just announced he was soon stepping down as coach at Utah State after 17 winning seasons. He had time left on his contract. The Aggies were on their way to the best finish they’ve had in conference since joining the Mountain West in 2013.

Morrill didn’t give a specific reason for resigning, effective at the end of that year.

“It’s just time,” he said.

Maybe he saw the task. Joining the MWC was a great move for USU athletics, a chance at stability the program hadn’t seen in decades. But the leap was a long one.

Too long for Tim Duryea.

Utah State announced the firing of its basketball coach, Sunday afternoon, after three unsuccessful years in Logan. Duryea’s team went 16-15 in his first season, his only winning campaign. Even at that, they only went 7-11 in conference, which translated into eighth place. This season was the best of his three seasons in league play at 8-10.

There are fewer poor teams at the bottom and more good teams at the top in the MWC than in the Western Athletic Conference. Six MWC teams finished at least two games above .500 this season. Other than lowly San Jose State, no one was easy. Even the league’s next-to-last team, Colorado State, beat the Aggies once.

Duryea wasn’t the Aggies’ first choice. That’s not his fault. Sources with knowledge of the workings said at the time that Duryea was told early in the search process that he wasn’t a candidate to replace Morrill. Then he was.

One coach USU had its eye on was former UCLA coach Ben Howland, who landed the job at Mississippi State. Weber State coach Randy Rahe, an ex-assistant at USU, wasn’t interested. Small wonder. Rahe’s current salary, according to public records, is $391,337, while Duryea’s is listed at $227,516.

Every school has its issues, but recruiting high-level players to USU is daunting. It’s a fine university with a wonderful vibe, both on campus and in the arena. But recruiting against warm-weather UNLV and San Diego State on most years is a chore. New Mexico and Fresno State have strong basketball reputations. Boise State — thanks to its football program — is a bigger national brand.

This year SDSU and Nevada are going to the NCAA Tournament, BSU to the NIT.

USU is going looking for a coach.

There are reasons for Duryea’s firing, as with any other. Losing a top player like David Collette, who transferred to Utah, was a gut punch. Duryea was bitter about the transfer and wasn’t shy about admitting it. But Collette was resolute about a change. Upon leaving, he said he had issues with Duryea, including a claim that the coach did little when one teammate was sucker-punched by another teammate.

USU denied Collette’s transfer request, forcing him to pay for his own tuition.

Collette went on to earn All-Pac-12 second-team recognition.

Meanwhile, the Aggie program struggled, never winning more than this year’s eight conference games.

Before Duryea was hired, I asked a source closely connected with the Aggie program if USU might hire Rahe. His answer: “Oh, I think they want to go bigger than that.”

No doubt that was their goal. But like all schools, it’s a shifting terrain. Neither Ray Giacoletti nor Jim Boylen was Utah’s first choice. Sometimes availability and willingness to work for the right price takes precedence.

Morrill was a difficult act to follow. He went 402-156 in Logan, winning four conference championships and playing in the NCAAs eight times. Two of his teams won 30 games. But the program began slipping just as it entered the MWC. Big surprise. The Aggies tied for eighth in 2013-14 and rose to a tie for fourth the next season. But that’s when Morrill left. Duryea finished eighth twice and seventh this year.

A surprising run to the semifinals of the conference tournament, as a No. 7 seed, didn’t change anything.

Whether USU can do better than middle of the MWC is dubious. The Aggies say they’re conducting a national search. While they’re at it, they should conduct a search for their mojo. That went out the window once the competition went up.