BILLINGS – Mick Durham has logged a lot of coaching miles.
The Three Forks native is one of very few able to play for a collegiate program (Montana State), then become that school’s head coach. And, oh by the way, enjoy a mountain of success.
After playing basketball for the Bobcats between 1974-79 (he’s still fourth in MSU history with 362 assists and a free-throw percentage of 81.6), Durham spent eight seasons as an assistant before landing the head position.
He was named the Big Sky Conference Coach of the Year in 1996, 2002 and 2005, leading the Cats to conference titles in 1996 and 2002. His ’96 team threw a scare into NCAA powerhouse Syracuse and Jim Boeheim at the NCAA Tournament. The Bobcats, featuring a roster highlighted with homegrown players, only trailed the Orangemen by four at half. Syracuse would eventually advance to that year’s championship game, falling to Kentucky.
Since leaving MSU, Durham has spent three years as an assistant at New Mexico, and seven as head coach at Alaska Fairbanks, before circling back to Montana (MSU Billings) a year ago this month where he produced the program’s first winning season in six years. And, oh by the way, qualified for the conference tournament.
Durham recently visited with MTN Sports on a range of topics from leading his alma mater, to NCAA Tournament swag, to recently living in campus housing.
MTN Sports: It was nearly a year ago to the day that you were named head coach up here at MSU-Billings, what do you remember about it?
Durham: Well yeah, I can remember getting the phone call from Krista, I remember it was, it would take a couple of weeks for the protocol and all that type of thing. It was exciting, you know I was looking for a change and obviously to come back to Montana after being gone 10 years was pretty cool but its hard to believe, it’s kind of been a whirlwind, I’m kind of waiting for it to slow down a little bit, kinda been a whirlwind the whole year.
MTN Sports: How about after 7 years in Alaska, how much joy is there to be back in Montana?
Durham: Well it’s good, you know we were just in Fairbanks and Anchorage, we just played there and Donna went back with me to see some friends and it was fun to be back and it was really fun to win both games and get ourselves out of there but we enjoyed it, we were at New Mexico State for 3 years down in Southern New Mexico, we were in Fairbanks for 7 and I don’t know, as a coach you got to embrace where you’re at you know and so we did that and what’s weird about the move is we’re in the same league, usually when you switch jobs, you switch leagues, so we’re in the same league, facing the same battles and those types of things but we were ready to come back and so it’s been fun, it’s been great to be back in Montana.
MTN Sports: How about the irony of going up there knowing that you need probably a win or two to clinch your trip to the GNAC tournament?
Durham: Well and going into Anchorage a place that I never won at when I was at Fairbanks and to go in there and get that win Thursday really set up the game for Saturday.
MTN Sports: As a welcome present for you to the fans, you do, you come here in your first season and you make the GNAC tournament, your thoughts on this season? Below expectations, above expectations?
Durham: Well you know you always, I would have loved to have finished in the Top 4, I had two simple goals the first season, other than to kind of establish what we’re all about as coaches you know, Bobby and I and how we want the program run the right way, was to make the GNAC tourney and have a winning season, haven’t had a winning season here in 5 years and so to be able to pull that off the last weekend, I think gives us a little momentum going into the next season so I would, I think it was a good first step, I don’t think it was anything great but I mean I do think we were close to pulling off a really good season, I mean we lost some tough games, some close games too.
MTN Sports: Talked about Bobby, you brought him on board up in Alaska, what was the selling point for him?
Durham: Well his brother, he has a chance to coach Brendan and you know he could have stayed and been the coach at Alaska Fairbanks, that’s a tough call, you know he’s young, head GNAC job, but he was antsy to get back to Montana too and he was really excited to be part of MSUB and be back in Billings and then with us able to get Brendan here also, also was a big lure and he missed his dad coach in Great Falls, those games and so it was a lot of positives for him to come back.
MTN Sports: Man, you went down (with MSUB in November) and almost beat UNLV. Thrilling? Gut wrenching? Sum that one up for me?
Durham: Well the reason we got the game is coach Menzies is who I coached with at New Mexico State so he was able to set the game up, we played them the year before, my Fairbanks team went down and played them, so we had a tough night against Grand Canyon, you know a couple of nights before so the expectations weren’t really high and then we just kind of hung around and the way we lost it was kind of summed up some of our games, we just had a tough time late in games you know doing the right things and that didn’t really matter, it’s a practice game, you’re trying to get both teams better but it’s pretty fun playing those games, we’ll try hard to get one or two each year on our schedule, it’s pretty good experience for our guys to be able to play Division 1’s and so we’ll try to continue to do that if we can.
MTN Sports: We’re in the middle of March Madness here back up at this point in your career and in your season and just let yourself enjoy it. Do you watch some of the games and look at what you would have done in certain situations or you just decompress and get out of it?
Durham: Oh no, it’s hard, March Madness is what we coach for and I was fortunate to take a Montana State team to the NCAA and then I was fortunate enough at New Mexico State, we got in the NCAA and played Michigan State in Spokane not too long ago and so it’s a pretty cool deal. You know it’s a pretty big time thing and to be able to play against schools like that, Syracuse with Boeheim, who is still there when we were at Montana State.
MTN Sports: Let’s talk about that, that was a 4 point game at halftime?
Durham: Well then he went to a zone and I heard him speak in the spring that year and he had mentioned about playing a Montana State team who shot 40% from the 3 or whatever, anyway he said we have to suck up our ego, get back to our traditional zone second half and I think it’s the last time he’s ever played man to man, seriously and they went to that zone and I mean it is so long, so big and long, can’t even get a shot off so that made the difference the second half.
MTN Sports: You got there with alot of Montana kids, Hatler and Danny Sullivan I think was a freshman.
Durham: …And Leachman, all three of them live here in Billings so that’s pretty cool.
MTN Sports: For people who have not been to that NCAA Tourney, but that are big college basketball fans, can you talk about how crazy it is at that tournament? Behind the scenes, like the itinerary that is set up for you guys, just paint a little bit of a picture?
Durham: Well it’s all set up for you one and whatever you are, Nike, Adidas, whatever type school you are, at New Mexico State we were Adidas and literally we get in the tournament on Saturday night and Monday afternoon we have new gear, shoes, cause they’re promoting their brand, charter, they pick you up on a charter on time, you have a police escort into town, Spokane to your hotel, and you got your practice times and it should be, it’s a big thing across the country but they take pretty good care of the teams.
MTN Sports: Social Media? How are you at social media?
Durham: Well I got people helping me, Bobby’s pretty good at it and so I’m definitely on it and follow it, I’m not necessarily to involved but we do have and our people here, I mean Charlie and Evan our SID people and Bobby they do a good job with our website and that type of thing to but I don’t know I’m old school a little bit. I kind of like to keep my business, my business a little bit instead of putting it out there, but it’s important, it’s important for your program.
MTN Sports: Can you talk about how much it’s changed since you broke into coaching at Montana State and that’s how you connect with kids anymore?
Durham: Well it is and we were restricted on phone calls, one phone call a week and that type of thing and now of days they just as soon correspond to text, so you know give a little text and I still think you have to be careful not to overload it with them but you can find out a lot about a kid too with the facebook and the twitter and you know we get to kind of monitor that a little bit too but definitely and the same thing with highlight tapes, you can pretty much have them get on a prospect or you can learn about somebody. You can pretty much get game clips and film right away rather than wait three days in the mail so that type of thing, yeah.
MTN Sports: 24 years at Montana State, eight as an assistant, what do you remember about your first head coaching win?
Durham: Well, it was against Simon Fraser, which is ironic that they’re in the GNAC here and I don’t rememeber much, I actually used to have a picture of my first game, Dean Alexander our long time voice of the Bobcats took the program picture and put it in a frame and so my hair, I had a little more hair, a little skinnier but being able to grow up in the Gallatin Valley and I won a state championship in the fieldhouse and to be able to coach there, Yeah Three Forks, and then to be able to coach there as an assistant, play there and then be able to coach there, it was pretty awesome. Not many coaches get to coach at their alma mater, I’m still a Bobcat obviously, but I’m like now three schools removed from Montana State. I moved a little bit since then so.
MTN Sports: So much one and done now in college basketball teams, what’s your appreciation for coaching at a level like this, Montana State, Fairbanks, MSU Billings you can have guys for 3-4 years and build that relationships?
Durham: You know I don’t know what it would be like having guys for one. You know it’s, it’s somewhat maybe like coaching junior college guys for one or two, it seems like just when you make progress with a junior college kid they graduate so to have the one and done for one year, it’s a whole new team each year and in a lot of respects all of us, with everyone transferring now of days and changing schools it’s almost a year by year because each team is so new. We’re trying to obviously do it a little bit different with our young guys, you know we have freshman Brendan Howard, sophomores Zharon Richmond and so we’re still trying to stay in the transfer market but also get some high school kids too and kind of have a combo between the two, oh to have a kid for 3-4 years is awesome, that’s what’s so tough about your first years, there’s no base, there’s no, you don’t have anybody teaching anybody because we’re all in for the first year together so I think heading into the second year is kind of exciting. Now we’ll have quite a few guys back.
MTN Sports: Zion Williamson, we know the deal, he goes down with the NIKE shoe blowout, you’re going to be a number one pick in the NBA do you come back and play and help your team in the NCAA tournament or do you sit back and say no I got too much at stake, if you’re him, his perspective, not the coaches perspective and you were a former player so you know at the college level?
Durham: Oh I think the loyalty you have to what Duke’s done for him, and he’s a player you can get hurt walking across the street or you can sprain an ankle, I think you play, he’s young, if he gets injured he’s going to bounce back, I obviously never had millions of dollars hanging over my head but Duke’s done a lot for him, every game’s on TV, and so.
MTN Sports: Final question, I know when you moved here in that whirlwind first week you were living in campus housing, are you still there?
Durham: Laughs, No we’re settled you know we are looking forward to enjoying a spring and summer in Billings, that was a tough move too. That took a while, get everything out of Fairbanks and so no we’re here and settled and now just trying to hit it hard. I mean we’re excited to get ready for next season and see if we can’t get some solid new players to come in with what we have back.