BILLINGS — When Montana State alum Danny Sprinkle took over as head men’s basketball coach in Bozeman in April of 2019, Mick Durham, who spent nearly 30 years as a Bobcat and is now coach of the program at Montana State Billings, had some advice for his former pupil.
“I told Danny, I said there’s nothing better than to be able to coach at your alma mater,” Durham told MTN Sports. “It’s a pretty cool opportunity.
“For someone that played there, and then to be an assistant there for eight years and head coach for 16 … I raised my family there; I was there for 29 total years. That just doesn’t happen, especially not in a place where you basically grew up.”
Durham is a lifelong basketball junkie. He won a high school state championship 30 miles away from Bozeman in Three Forks in 1974, went on to become a standout three-year starter at point guard for the Bobcats, then matriculated back to MSU as an assistant coach in 1982.
He was named head coach in 1990 and spent 16 seasons guiding the Bobcats, winning a pair of Big Sky Conference regular season titles and earning a trip to the NCAA tournament in 1996.
Now the MSU hall of famer will coach again in Bozeman in an “official” capacity for the first time on Oct. 30 when Division II MSU Billings faces Sprinkle’s Bobcats in an exhibition game at Worthington Arena.
Durham, who was coach of the year in the Big Sky three times, doesn’t come off as being overly nostalgic about the matchup. It has, after all, been 16 years since he paced MSU’s sideline. Durham has since made stops at New Mexico as an assistant and was head coach at Alaska for eight seasons before his hiring at MSUB in 2018.
But he at least appreciates the overall sentimentality.
“It'll be cool,” said Durham, who is assisted by Whitefish native Luke Fennelly, also a former coach at Montana State. “I mean, it's been a long time, so a lot of people, especially younger people, they don't even know that I coached there.
“Danny … obviously we’re close. And I appreciate him doing this as I'm winding down. And so it’ll be good either way. Whatever happens, it's going to be a good day.”
The game will pit Durham against Sprinkle, who just went into the MSU hall of fame himself, for the first time. The duo certainly made magic during their time together in Bozeman. Among the highlights was Sprinkle winning MVP of the 1996 Big Sky postseason tournament as a sharp-shooting freshman guard under Durham’s tutelage and the Bobcats advancing to the NCAA tourney.
MSU hadn’t returned to the Big Dance until last season, when Sprinkle guided the program there with a 27-8 overall record, a 16-4 mark in league play and a blowout win over Northern Colorado in the Big Sky title game.
Durham and Sprinkle have remained tight knit since the latter’s playing days. Durham traveled to San Diego to watch MSU’s first-round NCAA tourney matchup against Texas Tech.
That closeness is something Sprinkle noted when the matchup was announced last week.
“It was important for me to get Mick Durham back to Bozeman,” Sprinkle stated in an MSU press release. “He's such an integral part of this program and he's a big part of me being at Montana State. I wouldn't be here without him.”
The game will mark the first real, live meeting between the Bobcats and Yellowjackets since 1994. And you might ask … why?
It seems like a natural matchup, especially geographically, and one that should be played far more often than once every 28 years. In the 1990s and 2000s there were calls for exactly that. Durham certainly heard them.
“I know from when I was sitting in that seat over there, you’ve got to be careful with D-IIs,” Durham said. “You have nothing to gain by beating a D-II or an NAIA because you’re supposed to. When I was (at MSU), that was when Craig Carse had (the Yellowjackets) rolling pretty good. As a D-I you just have to be really careful.
“But it’s neat. Danny invited us over, and he’s got that program rolling and he’s got a good team coming back. I hope we can help him by being competitive, and obviously it’s going to help us.”
After a dream season, Sprinkle’s Bobcats should again be in the Big Sky mix, especially with the return of reigning Big Sky player of the year Jubrile Belo, a 6-foot-9, 240-pound frontcourt menace.
This season will be Durham’s fifth at MSUB. The Yellowjackets were picked last in the 10-team Great Northwest Athletic Conference prior to last year and they placed fourth, exceeding all expectations.
Guard Carrington Wiggins returns in 2022-23 as one of the top players in the GNAC, as well as a handful of transfers that could have an impact.
The storyline of Durham squaring off against Sprinkle will be the least of the elder coach’s worries, especially in an exhibition game. But Durham’s head coaching career will, in a way, come full circle.
“We’re going to let the players play and have them decide the outcome,” he said. “It’s going to be neat to shake Danny’s hand before the game and after the game, but I can’t get too caught up in that matchup. It’s not like we’re playing for the Big Sky championship.
“It’s going to help us. I know on the day of the game you might say, ‘Why did we do this?’ Because we can get our butts kicked.”
Durham added with a laugh, “Hopefully we don’t do that.”