John Blanchette: Coaching great Stew Morrill happy to have shared loyalties as Gonzaga, Oregon State keep marching on in NCAA Tournament
March 27, 2021 Updated Sat., March 27, 2021 at 10:20 p.m.
INDIANAPOLIS – Funny how things work out.
Stew Morrill switched on his TV on Saturday afternoon and, lo and behold, there was his old zone defense tying Loyola Chicago in knots and sending Sister Jean home to polish her endearing shtick for another year.
On Sunday, he’ll settle in front of the tube again and watch his alma mater continue its quest to become the unbeaten national champions, a circumstance he can barely fathom now – never mind when he was the school’s high-scoring post man and “finishing fourth in the Big Sky was pretty darned good.”
Having a rooting interest makes March Madness even more fun. Stew Morrill can allow himself two.
His old protégé, Wayne Tinkle, and his old school, Gonzaga.
A few years ago, Morrill took his 620 victories as head coach at Montana, Colorado State and Utah State and retired to a suburb of Fort Collins, Colorado, with his wife Vicki, near three of their four children and nine of their grandchildren. He brought a USU team to an NCAA Tournament in Spokane a decade ago but still hasn’t seen a game at McCarthey Athletic Center, so that could be on the bucket list sometime after COVID-19 restrictions ebb.
In the meantime, there are NCAA Tournament games on the flat screen – still engaging, still producing upsets into the second weekend. Like Oregon State’s takedown of the Fighting Sister Jeans, which landed Tinkle – the Ferris High grad who played for Morrill at Montana – and his Beavers in Monday’s Elite Eight.
That’s the 12th-seeded, picked-for-last-in-the-Pac-12 Beavers. In the Elite Eight.
“I started texting him during the Pac-12 Tournament – ‘Congrats, great job,’ ” Morrill said. “Today it was, ‘I’ll keep texting, you just keep winning.’ It’s been incredible for them.”
In the postgame review, Tinkle was grilled about his defense that befuddled the Ramblers, and he was gracious to name-check his old coach (“though he’s tweaked it some,” Morrill allowed). He also insisted his players “really believe it’s their time,” and by now it’s pointless to argue.
A few seasons back, Tinkle got OSU back in the bracket for the first time in 26 years. This is the Beavers’ first regional final in 39, and even that one was stripped because players sold comp tickets and received improper loans.
“History shows it’s a hard job,” Morrill said.
That doesn’t necessarily require a hard guy.
“We had a roast at Montana a few years ago,” Morrill recalled. “Travis DeCuire had the old coaches come back and when Wayne was speaking he said, ‘Stew, they said we were too nice to ever succeed in coaching.’ I didn’t think I was ever all that nice, but I knew what he was saying. Sometimes big guys are viewed as softhearted. Tinks is demanding, and yet he does it in a good way.”
Now Morrill can toggle his attention over to Gonzaga, where he played in the mid-1970s and later that decade was runner-up to Dan Fitzgerald when the head coaching position came open.
At neither juncture – nor any time later – did he envision the Zags as NCAA Tournament favorites.
“When I was coaching at Colorado State, Fitz brought them down to our December tournament and we beat them in the finals,” he recalled. “Knowing their staff so well, we did what you did with Fitz – we closed down the hospitality room and then some. We’re hanging out in the wee hours and I remember the assistants – Dan Monson and Mark (Few) and Billy Grier – and they were talking about if they got a chance to do it, they thought they could take it to the national level.
“I remember looking at those guys and thinking, ‘They’re nuts – what can they be thinking?’ By gosh, they did it – and more.”
Between Tinkle living the long shot’s best life and the Zags doing their indomitable thing to this point, there is still a chance – slim though it may be – of a meeting at the end of the bracket.
Which brought to mind a previous meeting at which Morrill prevailed.
Tinkle’s late father, Wayne Sr., was dean of students at Gonzaga late in Morrill’s time, and that connection to the family was important after he’d moved on to Montana and began recruiting Tinkle there.
“It was before a lot of kids were signing in the fall and Tinks had kind of told Gonzaga that he wouldn’t sign in the fall,” Morrill said. “But I convinced him to sign (a letter of intent) and just put it up on the fridge and see how it felt in the morning. I called him the next day and he said he thought it felt pretty good. So I said, ‘Put that baby in the mail and let’s call it good.’ And he did.”
If Tinkle keeps living the long shot’s best life and the Zags keep doing their indomitable thing, that history that would add intrigue to an unlikely meeting.
Nobody would enjoy it more than Stew Morrill.
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