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'Hopefully I made a difference': After 41 years, Mick Durham at peace heading into retirement

Mick Durham at Desk.png
Posted at 7:09 PM, Apr 18, 2023
and last updated 2023-04-18 21:09:26-04

BILLINGS — The last high school game in which Mick Durham played was at Alterowitz Gymnasium at what is now Montana State Billings, when he helped Three Forks win the third-place game at the 1975 Class B state tournament.

It's been thoroughly documented what Durham, a basketball lifer, went on to do in the decades that followed as a coach. But even Durham — who wasn't denied a state title at Three Forks (see: 1974) — seemed charmed by the unplanned, orbital path he ended up taking.

In some ways Durham's adult life took root at Alterowitz, and that's also where his 41-year coaching career is ending.

"It's kind of ironic," the 66-year-old Durham told MTN Sports from his MSUB office adjacent to the Alterowitz court on Tuesday, 20 days after he announced his retirement as the Yellowjackets' head men's basketball coach. "I had the chance to come home, so I came full circle."

Following a standout playing career at Montana State, Durham coached for two seasons at Shepherd High School then came back to his alma mater as an assistant coach for eight seasons beginning in 1982. In 1990 he was elevated to head coach of the Bobcats, where he spent 16 seasons and won 246 games.

After stepping down from MSU, he later spent three years as as assistant at New Mexico State before jumping back into head coaching at Division II Alaska of the Great Northwest Athletic Conference. He eventually returned to the Treasure State in the GNAC as MSUB's head coach beginning in the 2018-19 season.

In his final year on the sideline, Durham guided the Jackets to 20 wins for the first time in 17 years and a berth in the NCAA Division II West Regional for the first time since 2012. He knew entering the 2022-23 campaign that it would be his last, though he kept it close to the vest.

It turned out to be the perfect coda.

"You see so many coaches and players go out on not the highest notes, and so to be able to go out on a good season, to be able to get 20 wins and get to the regional tournament — I hadn't been able to do that in D-II — that was neat. Let's end it there," Durham said.

"You're thinking, 'Can it get any better than this?' Am I stupid enough to come back one more year and try to do it again and then it doesn't happen? So to go out on a high note, I think it fell into place pretty good at the end."

Durham always knew he wanted to be a college head coach, and he worked his way up to the lead assistant job at MSU toward the end of the 1980s. And when coach Stu Starner left to take the head job at Texas San Antonio in 1990, Durham was the natural choice to succeed him.

That began a 30-year head-coaching odyssey, and Durham's career speaks for itself: 397 wins, three Big Sky Conference coach of the year awards, an NCAA tournament berth with MSU in 1996, a Bobcat hall of fame induction in 2006, top GNAC coaching honors at both Alaska and MSUB, and the completed task of reviving the Yellowjacket program back to regional prominence.

"It went fast," Durham said. "You have to have a great family and I've got a great family. They allow you to do your job. It's weekends, it's holidays, and then you throw in recruiting. But it went really fast. It's time for somebody else to take over. I don't think we're going to look back too much. I've always been somebody who looks ahead."

That won't make the adjustment easy. After more than four decades, Durham expects the transition to be less than seamless. But he won't detach himself from basketball. He's just going to approach the game differently — as a fan.

No more film, no more analysis, no more looking for the slightest coaching edge anywhere it can be found.

"I don't have to watch the game that way now," Durham said. "So between MSUB, the Frontier (Conference), the Bobcats ... maybe I can find some place warm to watch some basketball."

Durham spent the past couple seasons mentoring and advocating for MSUB assistant Luke Fennelly, who was named Durham's predecessor as the Yellowjackets' next coach on April 6. Durham said Fennelly, previously an assistant at MSU under Durham protégé Danny Sprinkle, "has earned the opportunity."

Now that he's hung up his whistle, Durham says he'll remember certain teams more than individual games — he'll always hold his 1996 Montana State squad close. He'll recall the good wins much more readily than the bad losses. Basketball, Durham said, has taken him all of the world, a fact for which he is grateful.

Legacy-wise, Durham has just one wish.

"I hope I made a difference coaching in this state," he said. "I think that we tried to do it the right way and if I made a difference in my home state, I think that would be the best thing to be remembered by."