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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Bone chill when it comes to WSU days

He’s stoking coaching fires as Griz assistant

On the morning of Feb. 12, Ken Bone stepped outside his hotel room in Grand Forks, North Dakota, where the Montana Grizzlies would play that evening, and got slapped across the face by minus-13.

Degrees, that is.

“And I thought, “Man, I wish I would have won more games at Washington State,’ ” he said, remembering roadies to Los Angeles and Arizona instead of North Dakota.

Today, the Grizzlies play Big Sky Conference co-leader Eastern Washington in Cheney, and it should be warm enough that when Bone disembarks from the team bus he may leave his topcoat. Inside Reese Court, those in short sleeves may be overdressed, this being one of those nearly-March showdowns that bring the heat even to college basketball’s relative outposts and inflame the blood of players, fans and coaches like Ken Bone.

Nevertheless, he still wishes he’d won more games at Washington State.

And, yes, he’s aware all Cougars wish that, too.

This is no commentary on his current gig as an assistant coach at Montana, even if his landing in Missoula last June qualified as something of an upset. When he was pink-slipped at Wazzu three months earlier, Bone was owed the last two years of his original seven-year contract, and often in the college coaching game that kind of cushion is used to decompress, reinvent and generally get away from the bummer of being fired.

Indeed, on a Nike coaches’ trip last spring to the Bahamas, a number of Bone’s colleagues all but encouraged a sabbatical, and invited him to camp out at their practices for a day or a week to get his hoop fix without the pressure of a won-lost record.

“And on the trip home, I told my wife, ‘I think I’m going to do that,’ ” he said.

He envisioned a stay in Europe to build on relationships in-and-out recruiting trips hadn’t allowed him to grow. He’d pop in on programs he’d been trying to beat for five years.

But then Travis DeCuire, newly hired to replace Wayne Tinkle at Montana, called.

“And my true colors showed,” Bone said. “I want to be on the floor. I want to coach and be with kids.”

It’s worked out fine. The Grizzlies, picked anywhere from fifth to eighth in the Sky’s preseason eenie-meenies, are a half-game out of first – and would be in the driver’s seat to host the league tourney if not for some foul-shooting- themselves-in-the-foot, as in Thursday’s double-overtime loss at Idaho. Bone finds himself working for one of the game’s comers in DeCuire and at a school where four decades of mostly steady winning have established value.

“But I definitely miss being a head coach,” he admitted. “Most of us get into the business to lead a team and run the show, and I’m no different.”

It’s just that the show he ran at Wazzu eventually ran off the rails. The overall record (80-86) was uninspiring, and crested with an NIT run. In the Pac-12, Bone’s Cougs were 29-61, and the rows of empty seats at Friel Court were even more damning. There were too many injuries, not enough recruiting bonanzas, some disciplinary hiccups. And there was a new boss, Bill Moos, to please just a year into his contract.

And in time – like three of the six head coaches who preceded him – he was shown the door, even if a couple of those were charade resignations.

Bone seems more philosophical than haunted by failure.

“There’s a lot of things that did not go right during my last three years – and some things beyond just injuries,” he said. “But it’s still my responsibility to pull it together and win games, and I understand that. You also want to work for the guy who hired you, but it wasn’t Bill Moos’ fault. I didn’t get the job done in regards to winning and losing.”

But he also acknowledged that “deep down it felt like my days were numbered – and that’s hard to cope with.”

And yet that colors not at all his pleasure in seeing the program’s modest gains this year, and the nova-like growth of an unsung recruit like Josh Hawkinson – who probably could have been of more use last year.

“Ernie (Kent) and his staff have done a great job with him,” Bone said.

But he doesn’t miss the angst of the last few seasons, and even some of the struggle.

“I’m happy to be at a place – similar to my years at Seattle Pacific – where there’s been success and a lot of support for basketball,” he said. “I mean, they’ve been good for almost 50 years here, going back to Jud (Heathcote). Every day you walk in the building and you’re around success, and that’s a nice feeling.”

Even if you have to put on a heavy coat once in a while.