In Don Verlin’s first press conference as coach of the Idaho Vandals, back in March 2008, he had but one request.
“We need you to care,” he said.
At the time, it seemed to be a plaintive cry for attention by one of the nation’s most inept basketball programs.
Now, after Verlin engineered the biggest single-season turnaround in Idaho history (we looked it up), giving the Vandals their best season of the century with just seven scholarship players, that same plea looms large when it comes to answering the key question for the future of Vandal hoops:
Can we keep Merlin Verlin?
With a year under his belt, Verlin’s deeper, more experienced 2009-10 squad is poised to get the Vandals back into the NCAA Tournament after a 20-year absence. He probably has the best Vandal team since the Don Monson glory days of the early 1980s. There’s a reason we’ve nicknamed him “Merlin” around here — what he’s done in such a short time is really nothing short of magic.
Stability had been lacking in Moscow, to say the least — the Vandals are on their fourth coach of the century and the previous three were all fired. David Farrar was out the door after going 6-21 in 2000-01, Leonard Perry got the boot five years later after a 4-25 season and George Pfeifer only lasted two years before an 8-21 campaign got him canned.
Verlin was hired after a 15-year stint as Stew Morrill’s assistant coach, first at Colorado State and, for the last 11 years, at Utah State. That sort of longevity with one program, let alone one coach, suggests he isn’t interested in climbing the career ladder for its own sake.
Morrill has had spectacular success building a quality mid-major program at a small-market school. The Aggies are a consistent threat to win the Western Athletic Conference, his players litter All-WAC teams annually and the 10,000-seat Dee Glen Smith Spectrum is, by any measure, the toughest home court in the conference.
What Vandal fans are hoping is that Verlin can do the same in Moscow. There’s no reason Idaho can’t become a mid-major hoops juggernaut under Verlin’s leadership.
No, we can’t chain Don to his chair if his true dream is to make his name and then bolt for the big-time and big-checkbook power conferences. If that’s his wish, then so be it.
But if he’s inclined to stay, if he wants to build a reputation as the Stew Morrill of the Palouse, there’s one thing Vandal fans can do right now to see that it happens: Pack the Cowan Spectrum this season. Sell it out. Force Rob Spear to add more bleachers. Make them start planning for a stand-alone hoops arena.
Last season, attendance slowly built as the season progressed — but even by the end of the season, most games were subpar. We’re talking a couple thousand people in a 7,000-seat arena. OK, so everyone was unsure what would happen — the Vandals were, after all, a consensus preseason pick for last in the WAC. Understandable, if still disappointing. Maybe we needed Verlin to show us why we should care.
This year, there’s no excuse. None. This is the best Vandal team in 25 years — a potential WAC champion and national player. Every game should be a sellout. Our home-court advantage should be unstoppable. Our opponents should quake at the very mention of the Cowan Spectrum.
Those readers who were at the Boise State game — where Mac Hopson led the Vandals to beat the Broncos for the first time in a decade — remember how electric the atmosphere was, how loud the Dome got, how awesome it felt to storm the court. That was with just 4,700 people in attendance — not quite two-thirds full.
That’s how it should feel every night the Vandals are playing.
If the 2009-10 Vandals come out and play in front of a vast, echoing emptiness in the Spectrum, it will be a sorry statement indeed — and it will send an unmistakable signal to players, coaches and potential recruits. It says “Oh, we have the best basketball team to play on this court in a quarter-century? Meh. We don’t care.” Merlin Verlin’s going to wonder why he should build a program in a place that pays his efforts no heed.