BOZEMAN — From the fall of 1975 until the spring of 2006, Mick Durham was a guiding force of the Montana State men’s basketball program for all but two seasons, when he coached at Shepherd High School from 1980-82.
After two years in the private sector he was an assistant coach at New Mexico State (2008-11), head coach at Alaska Fairbanks (2011-18), and is now the head coach at Montana State Billings.
He was part of Montana State’s most recent four Big Sky Championships — tournament titles in 1986 and 1996 and regular-season crowns in 1987 and 1996. When he left the Bobcats he was the winningest coach in Big Sky Conference history.
Durham recently talked with Montana State’s sports information office for a Q&A. Following is a look at the conversation:
Q: How has the transition back to Montana been?
A: “It’s been good. We were gone 10 years, three at New Mexico State and seven up in Alaska. We were just thinking it was time to come back and then the MSUB opening came about. It got us back to Montana, and I was familiar with the league, so it’s been all good. We’re trying to get things going here a little bit and put our stamp on (the program). I know how good the league is, so that’s not going to be easy, but it’s been fun to be back home.”
Q: You experienced different levels of basketball and very different climates in your 10 years away.
A: “We actually had a good time, it was fun. Us Montanans don’t think there’s much outside of Montana, but there actually is. We tried to take advantage of being in southern New Mexico and being up in Alaska, we tried to get out and see things and take advantage of where we were living. It was kind of fun except for the distance, Fairbanks is just so far from home, but it was fun to venture out.”
Q: Have you managed to stay in touch with a lot of former Bobcat players?
A: “Well, I’ve been pretty busy still coaching, which is good, so it was harder when I was gone out of state for those 10 years. Obviously the ’96 team is one of those teams, with Scott Hatler, Adam Leachman, Danny Sullivan right here in Billings, I’ve been able to do some things with them. Danny Faaborg from Bozeman High, he’s a doctor here. I’ve got Aaron Rich in here working, so that’s fun, when you can actually run into them and have a conversation in person. That’s been good.
“That whole ’96 team, Quadre Lollis, Mike Elliott — Elliott is coaching now — that was such a great group. The 1985-86 team, I missed (the Hall of Fame induction), but I was pretty close to that bunch, Tony Hampton and that group. I felt bad missing that weekend, I was up in Alaska so I couldn’t have been any farther away, but I heard it was a fun weekend.”
Q: You were part of a borderline top 25 program at New Mexico State. What observations do you have about going from that program to leading two good Division II programs?
A: “New Mexico State was pretty cool. Being one seat over, being an assistant, was awesome. It’s a big difference leading a normal life, being able to sleep at night, I really enjoyed it. We had Nevada, Utah State, Boise (State), Hawaii, Louisiana Tech, so I caught the tail end of the WAC before they split. Going to those different arenas, obviously it was a little bit bigger budget so you could do it the right way, you took a lot of people.
“We played Kansas, we played UCLA, so playing some big schools like that and playing in a great league those three years was fun, and we went to the NCAA (tournament) the second year I was there. Then we took the leap of faith to Fairbanks and went the D-II route. I knew the league was good, with all the Seattle and Northwest schools, because I’d always seen those coaches out recruiting, although I’d never seen a game. I equate it to the lower end of the Big Sky, I think (the Great Northwest Athletic Conference, to which both Alaska Fairbanks and MSU Billings belong) is that good.
“Trying to figure out the scholarships (is a challenge). We don’t have (head count) scholarships, we can split scholarships, so trying to figure that out took a couple years, and figuring out the league, too. But I’ve been in the GNAC nine years now, and it’s a heck of a league. I kind of like the GNAC travel, going into the Northwest we get out of the cold a little bit, and because of where we’re located we fly on every trip. It’s been good, but it was an adjustment. In recruiting you have to be patient and wait to see what players fall through the crack from DI schools.”
Q: Your roster looks a little like your old MSU rosters, with a good core of Montana kids and several from California and some from the Midwest. Is that your plan?
A: “I think it is similar. Going out of state to get high school kids is difficult. We were pretty fortunate to get Brendan Howard, with Bobby (Howard, former Bobcat forward) as my assistant. They had a couple Montana kids in the program, and we were able to get Chrishon Dixon out of Billings Central last year, keeping a Billings kid to stay in town, so I think Montana kids will always be our base, but it’s tough.
“Montana, Montana State with Danny (Sprinkle) back, he’s keeping his eye on kids in the state, and then the Frontier Conference, it’s not a given that they’re coming to Montana State Billings. Being a Division II program helps, and the way we travel is good. We started three kids from Montana: Zharon Richmond from Billings Skyview, Brendan Howard from Great Falls and Chrishon Dixon from Billings Central, and we have all three of them back. Then we supplement that with some experienced junior college guys and we’re trying for four-year transfers, which is tough. So it’s kind of the same format.”
Q: Has it been fun to recruit Montana again?
A: “It’s been fun. Brendan Howard is obviously one of our key players and I never saw Brendan play because I was out of state for 10 years. Getting back into watching the tournaments was fun, I caught a couple of the divisionals and parts of a couple of the state tournaments here and there, those are big recruiting weekends everywhere, not just in Montana.
“I saw Three Forks play in divisionals this year against Lodge Grass here in Billings. There’s been turnover in the high school coaches in the state since I was here, but you still have some veteran coaches that are still coaching. I got to the high school coaches’ clinic in Great Falls in August. I think that’s what I missed the most is the connection with the coaches in Montana, that’s pretty cool. That’s been fun, and having Danny back in Bozeman is good, too.”
Q: When did you have a feeling that Danny Sprinkle would become a coach, and would be successful?
A: “I don’t know if I ever completely knew for sure if that was the road he wanted to take. When he finished he still had a year to finish his schooling. He took a year to figure out what he wanted, then it started when Coach (Bobby) Braswell at Northridge reached out to see if he wanted to be a grad assistant.
“He never looked back from that point on, once he got his nose in it, for 20 years until he came back. I think he’s going to do a great job. He’s always had a great feel for things, he saw things, he’s got a great recruiting base to draw on from his years in California. You’ve got to give him a little time to put his stamp on the program, but he did a lot of that in his first year.”
Q: How much has your philosophy and system changed since you began as the head coach at MSU?
A: “I think my system has changed a little bit, yeah. Just being able to go to New Mexico State and get a different perspective on things. When you do it for 16 straight years, then even as an assistant with Stu (Starner), you tend to keep things the same year in and year out. But I think that’s really changed in the game the last 10 or 15 years.
“Spreading the court, playing so many guards, pick-and-roll, has kind of taken the low post out of it. I think it was good to see all that stuff. It’s funny because I golfed with Hatler and Leachman and Sullivan the other day and they talk about it all the time. We were pretty simple. We ran motion and we didn’t have very many set plays. They chuckle that the couple we had were for Quadre, and I said, ‘You would have a couple plays for Quadre, too.’ But I told them, I kind of wish I could go back to those days.
“I’m a little bit more controlling offensively, although I still like to play fast, our style is still up and down. We scored around 80 points a game this year, so I still like to take advantage and push the ball and that sort of thing. I’d like to get to the point where we could play that way again, but things have changed so we use a little bit more set plays and controlling at times when you need to be controlling, getting into situations or mismatches that you can take advantage of. But it was good to sit back and see those three years (at NMSU) and start fresh at Fairbanks with a different approach.”
Q: How much of your philosophy came from the coaches you played for at MSU: Rich Juarez and Bruce Haroldson, and Stu Starner, who was the head coach when you were a Bobcat assistant?
A: “I think I had a good base from Bruce Haroldson, who was a motion guy. That’s what I understood, that’s how we played in the PE Complex all the time, four-out one-in motion, so I think that’s still my base. If you have a post inside you can play through the post. But I think it’s all the experiences.
“My high school coaches were really good, they were pretty simple with their approach, then coach Haroldson with the motion, then with Stu. That was kind of the trend back then. I think you’ve got to adapt a little bit, the pick-and-roll’s big now days, but I’m still a believer in being balanced, you’ve got to get the ball inside and try to get some easy baskets if you can. I still believe in those basic concepts.”
Q: What one big change has affected adjustments in your style of play?
A: “I think you fit your style to your personnel more now, while back when I was at Montana State you kind of played the same style all the time. Now you’re adjusting a little bit to your personnel.”