SALT LAKE CITY — For Utah State coach Craig Smith, Saturday night must have been dreamy.
Living is easy when good news is guaranteed.
Stew Morrill seldom enjoyed such luxury.
On a spring afternoon in Las Vegas, USU outlasted San Diego State to earn the Mountain West Conference automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament. Such assurances were a rarity for Morrill. For most of his 17 years as head coach at Utah State, he slept with one eye shut, the other staring at the ceiling.
Sweating out Selection Sunday was as much a part of his game as man-to-man defense.
Some experts are expecting USU to get a No. 8 or 9 seed in the NCAA tourney. Regardless, the Aggies are in the show. That wasn’t a guarantee, despite being No. 30 in this week’s all-important NET rating. Mid-sized conferences, in particular, are at the mercy of the selection committee.
Losing to the Aztecs could have turned a great season into disbelief right before Smith’s own bloodshot eyes. That’s what happened to Morrill in 2004, the year the Aggies went 25-3 overall and 15-1 in the Big West Conference. They had been ranked for nine weeks during the year, but lost in the conference tournament. Still, school officials were so bullish about getting an invitation, they staged a public watch party on Selection Sunday.
It went over like a pimple at a prom.
Morrill claims his was the first ranked team in modern history to be overlooked.
“You want to see devastation, frustration,” Morrill said this week.
That year USU drew an opening-round bye in the NIT, then lost to Hawaii.
“We tried to get them ready,” Morrill said, “but those guys had no interest.”
They missed the bigger tournament, largely for living in the wrong neighborhood.
“It was an awful taste in our mouth,” Morrill said.
Morrill was a madly successful and popular figure in Logan from 1998 to 2015. He made the NCAA tournament eight times in one 12-year span, and played in the NIT the other four years. He has the highest win percentage in school history, not counting Smith, who is in his first season.
Making the Big Blue a fixture in the postseason took its toll. From October to late March, he answered to the name “Grumpy.” Beneath it, Morrill was a kind and generous man, who along with wife Vicki raised four children of his own and was foster parent for nearly 100.
Not counting hundreds of “kids” he coached.
He retired four seasons ago after compiling an all-time record of 402-156 at Utah State.
“It was a gigantic release of pressure that I’d had for years,” Morrill said.
Matters turned out both surprisingly good and shockingly bad for Morrill when it came to tournament bids. In 2004, they thought they were in, but weren’t. In 2006, their first season after moving to the WAC from the Big West, they won neither the regular season nor conference tournament, but got an at-large berth anyway.
Morrill admits now that he campaigned for the invitation, but didn’t expect one. After losing in overtime, he told media if his team didn’t get an at-large berth, it may as well have stayed in the Big West.
“I was trying to put some pressure on the committee,” he said.
Done and done.
In 2010, he received one of the bigger surprises of his career: a tipoff. After winning the regular season title but losing in the tournament championship game, he worried whether his 27-7 record was enough. When the Aggies got on the plane to come home, his athletic director gave him a “thumbs up,” indicating the team would be invited.
“He wasn’t supposed to know, and I wasn’t supposed to know, but we did,” Morrill said.Comment on this story
These days Morrill enjoys things even more. He lives in Colorado, only yards from his daughter and grandchildren.
“When I was about to retire, guys told me I’d go crazy,” he said. “That’s a bunch of crap. I get up every day and do what I want.”
What he wants on Sunday is what he’ll get: the chance to sit back and see who the Aggies will be playing this week. But he knows whether the Aggies are in or out in future years, he doesn’t have to sweat, as he lives the good life away from the circus.