Bringing Back Tradition in Oregon
by Jed Tai
In the off-season, 43 Division I schools decided to make a coaching change. Whether the reason was retirement, resignation, or simply wanting to start afresh, these basketball programs felt it was time for someone new to take over. Some of the higher-profile changes at the top nationally include Lorenzo Romar at Washington, John Beilen at West Virginia, and Leonard Hamilton at Florida State.
Two of Oregon’s four Division I institutions will be moving in a new direction this season. While nationally ranked Oregon will continue to thrive with Ernie Kent at the helm and Portland is in year two of the rebuilding process under Michael Holton, both Portland State and Oregon State are going with new blood in 2002-03. Each school has turned to a former top-level assistant to fill their head coaching vacancy – Portland State with Heath Schroyer, and Oregon State with Jay John.
Both Schroyer and John have one goal in mind – get their programs on the road to success. Both face some similar situations and challenges in their new positions. But both will also have a different set of circumstances to work with in their inaugural seasons.
This past weekend, Schroyer and John took their respective teams into battle in the home openers for both teams, in their first-ever games as head coaches. As they say on NBC’s Law and Order, these are their stories.
Building Something Special
Portland State wants to be on the national basketball map.
The sixth-year Division I program wants to make their first ever NCAA Tournament.
The Vikings have made a name for themselves with many of their other athletic programs. Football has long been the school’s top sport, and the team was a Division II powerhouse during the 90’s and continues to currently thrive as a Division I-AA member. The wrestling team won consecutive Division II titles in 1989 and 1990. Women’s athletics have also been strong; PSU has won Division II women’s volleyball championships in 1984, 1985, 1988, and 1992 and the women’s hoops team was D-II tournament runner-up in 1995.
But men’s basketball has been a different story. The Vikings have an interesting hoops history. Since the first team was fielded for the 1946-47 season, PSU has seen some team and individual success over the years. Of particular note are the squads and players from the 70’s. In the early part of the decade the Vikings lit up the scoreboard behind the play of the Stoudamire brothers, Willie and Charlie (fathers of future Arizona stars Damon and Salim, respectively). And in the later half, the freewheeling, high-scoring antics of Williams (the NCAA’s 2nd all-time leading scorer with 3,249 points) dazzled packed houses at the Stott Center. However, after Williams moved onto the NBA, interest in the program and attendance dwindled. After the 1980-81 season, basketball was discontinued at the school to cut costs.
In 1996, the program was brought back in the hopes of building something special. And since its revival, PSU has turned to young, energetic, yet relatively unproven talent (at least in terms of head coaching experience) to lead the program. The school first started with then 31 year-old Ritchie McKay, who steered the ship for two seasons before moving onto Colorado State. His successor, then-assistant coach Joel Sobotka, took over the reins at the ripe age of 28. But after a promising start with the players McKay originally recruited, there were diminishing returns, and following consecutive losing seasons in 2000-01 and 2001-02, the coach and school mutually decided to part ways.
The school decided to get serious in their bid to field a competitive squad. Thanks to a multi-million dollar campaign drive, Portland State has renovated the home of the Vikings, the Peter W. Stott Center, by upgrading the entire building, including the main gym, locker rooms, and the creation of a computer lab, team room, and medical training facilities. The wooden bleachers where fans once watched Freeman Williams light up the sky have been replaced by individual seating with chair backs. Graphics adorn the walls celebrating some of PSU’s all-time great teams and individuals in men’s and women’s athletics. The facilities were upgraded; it was now time to find the man who the school hoped would lead the Vikings to their first ever NCAA Tournament bid.
In finding their man, PSU continued its tradition of tapping into youth when they hired 30 year-old Heath Schroyer as its 10th-ever head coach. With his moussed hair and handsome looks (he bears a facial resemblance to movie star Andy Garcia), one might think that Schroyer was a trendy choice. But there’s more to Schroyer than meets the eye; despite his youth he has an extensive hoops background and experience. Schroyer played prep basketball at famed DeMatha High under the legendary Morgan Wootten, and since then has shown great work ethic and desire while moving up the assistant coaching ranks. His first assistant job at the Division I level came at BYU, where he was part of a coaching staff that restored a proud program from a dismal 1-25 record in 1996-97 to a 24-9 record and an NCAA Tournament appearance in 2000-01. He then moved on to Wyoming as an assistant last year, where he helped design the defense that would propel the Cowboys to their first NCAA Tournament appearance in 14 seasons. Now in his first head coaching position at any level, he hopes to get Portland State to the tournament as well. And with his vast experience in building situations, it only made sense for PSU to bring him on board.
The hiring of Schroyer has made an immediate impact on the program. Under Sobotka’s regime, there was internal conflict on the team that led to player defections. So Schroyer’s first order of business to trying to save what he could. While he wasn’t able to keep the likes of Aaron Fitzgerald (Washington State) and Brian Feeney (New Mexico) in town, he convinced former Big Sky All-Freshman team member Seamus Boxley to return. Schroyer was also able to keep on board freshman signee Marshal Hartman, Oregon’s high school player of the year in 2001-02. And, in what may have been his most impactful move, he signed highly regarded junior college standout Seth Scott, a 6-10 post player, as his first PSU recruit. Add in returning senior guard Jeb Ivey and Schroyer had some players to build around his first season.
But starting afresh certainly doesn’t guarantee an easy start. The Vikings would find that out early on in their season opener against visiting Cal State Northridge on Friday. 927 fans showed up at the Stott Center to catch their first glimpse at the new Vikings, only to see their home team fall behind early. The Vikings would get the opening tip, but an immediate missed dunk by Seth Scott would be an indication of things to come for the team in the first half. Six more missed shots, eight turnovers, and 16 consecutive points by Northridge later, PSU finally scratched on the scoreboard on a Scott dunk with 13:24 left in the half. The Vikings would battle the rest of the period, but would find themselves trailing 41-23 at halftime.
After an intense talk from Schroyer at halftime, the Vikings came out ready to make a comeback and it would show early in the second half. PSU started effectively moving the ball inside and out, finding open shooters in the Northridge zone that had frustrated them in the first period. The Vikings got hot from three-point range – hitting four treys in the first five minutes of the period – and slowly chipped away at the Matador lead. But Northridge would continue to hang on – even surviving PSU’s first lead in the contest with 9:59 remaining after a Kevin Briggs fastbreak layup. Two free throws by Matador forward Ian Boylan with 2:10 remaining would give Northridge a 65-62 margin.
But the Vikings’ effort and determination in fighting back would wear down Northridge, as those would be the Matadors’ final points of the game. A three-pointer by Troy DeVries with 1:21 left tied up the score, and a subsequent fast break layup by DeVries with 52 seconds remaining gave PSU the lead for good. Final score: PSU 69, Cal State Northridge 65. Jeb Ivey led the way for the Vikings with a gutsy 18 points, while Seth Scott chipped in 16 in his Division I debut.
Schroyer has a defensive mindset in the way he approaches the game, and clearly thought the way the team performed defensively and on the glass in the second half was how the team was able to come back and win.
“If we’re going to win, we need to defend and rebound consistently,” said Schroyer. “We didn’t in the first half, and it got us in a hole. We did in the second half, and consequently we were lucky enough to pull out a W.”
“As long as you continue to defend and rebound, you’ve always got a chance to pull it out,” said Schroyer.
And because of the way the team pulled it out, it made his – and PSU’s – debut this season that much more memorable. Certainly not a bad way to start the building process.
“It’s really special for my first win, and it will be one that I will always remember,” said Schroyer. “Obviously you always remember your first one. But the way that A through Z stepped up – I think it means a lot to our team.”
“But I definitely don’t want to be down 16-0 again.”
Bringing Back the Glory Days
While Portland State is looking to build a tradition, 80 miles southwest in Corvallis, Oregon State is trying to restore a lost one.
Because of their struggles in recent years, many aren’t familiar with the fact that Oregon State is historically one of the top programs in NCAA history. OSU ranks 12th overall in all-time wins entering this season, and their coaching alumni features two Hall of Famers in Amory “Slats” Gill (for whom Gill Coliseum is named) and Ralph Miller. The Beavers have two Final Fours to their credit (1949 and 1963) and under Miller, were a powerhouse in the 1980s, winning four Pac-10 titles, and participating in the NCAA Tournament seven times. The 1980-81 team finished the regular season as the #2 team in the country and the 1981-82 squad reached the Elite Eight. Individually, All-Americans such as Steve Johnson, Lester Conner, and A.C. Green helped establish OSU as one of the top programs in the nation.
But ever since Gary Payton graduated after the 1989-90 season, it’s been a completely different story for Oregon State. Although NBA-level talents such as Scott Haskin, Brent Barry, and Corey Benjamin would pass through Corvallis during the 90’s, the Beavers could not match the success that Miller guided the team through previously. In fact, by the time Y2K rolled around, OSU had suffered through ten straight losing seasons and had not finished any higher than tied for fifth in the Pac-10 conference standings in any year during that time period. And with the new success of the football team under Dennis Erickson, the school that was best known as a basketball school was quickly losing fans to the gridiron.
It was thought that Ritchie McKay would be the man to lead Oregon State back to respectability, much less national prominence. He was young, energetic, and had seen success at previous head coaching jobs. However, after two losing seasons (10-20 in 2000-01, 12-17 in 2001-02) filled with player injuries, internal strife, and general disappointment, McKay rolled out of town just as fast as he had come in, taking the vacant head coaching job at New Mexico not long after the buzzer sounded. OSU was back at square one.
For the next coach, then-Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart (who is now at Kentucky) decided to go a different route. Instead of looking at another young up-and-comer, why not consider something different? Enter Jay John. John might not necessarily have been the typical young whipper-snapper candidate (although at 43 years of age, he is certainly nowhere near retirement), but he had plenty of experience. Despite never being a head coach, John had definitely been around, a seasoned assistant for the past fifteen years at different programs, including Arizona the past four seasons. In fact, it was his last stint as Lute Olson’s head recruiter in Tucson that caught the eye of Barnhart and OSU’s search committee. On April 9, 2002, John was hired as the program’s 19th head coach in its history.
Having served two separate assistant coaching stints at Oregon, John is well aware of OSU’s legacy and tradition. To get the Beavers back on track, John will look to make his imprint immediately, and eventually will want to get his own recruits in the program. But his first recruiting task was to get the existing players to come back to the team. Guard Jimmie Haywood and forward Brian Jackson had both clashed with former coach McKay, but after speaking with John, both felt much better about their roles on the team and decided to return for their senior seasons. Leading scorer and rebounder Philip Ricci – a candidate for All-Pac 10 honors this season – would also be back for his senior year. John also got a late addition in Lamar Hurd, a talented point guard recruit he was able to lure to Corvallis all the way from Texas. And to help in the transition, John got a chance to instill some of his system prior to the start of this season. The Beavers had the opportunity to take an Australian tour, where the team went 4-2 against various Australian pro teams, while the players learned the new offenses and defenses John will employ this year.
The goal this first year is to get fan interest back into the program, to get Gill Coliseum filled and rocking with students and fans. To further try and remind everyone of the golden years, the Beavers have even gone back to their traditional uniform look with the simple “OSU” above the uniform number. But not everything starts with a huge bang, so it was not a surprise that the season’s opener against Idaho wasn’t quite a full house. But despite having to share the day with the famous Oregon-Oregon State “Civil War” gridiron contest, 4,167 fans did saunter in to Gill after the football game to kick off the 2002-03 season.
Things would start off good for the Beavers. Jimmie Haywood would sink an three-pointer off the opening tip, and OSU would take early control of the contest. Running when the opportunity presented itself, the Beavers would play off of Idaho turnovers, building as much as an eleven point lead in the period. While the team in general did not shoot well, the Beavers were able to ride the hot hand of Brian Jackson and his 18 points to end the half with a 36-31 lead.
The second half would be a different story for Oregon State. Perhaps recognizing that OSU was struggling with their shooting, Idaho sunk back into a 2-3 zone and concentrated on stopping Jackson and Ricci inside and it would work beautifully to their advantage. While OSU continued to shoot blanks from the outside, Idaho started to get their offense into gear. Behind the play of Portland native Jon Tinnon inside and the hot shooting of Dwayne Williams outside, the Vandals took control of the ballgame for much of the second stanza. A three-pointer by Williams with 7:57 remaining gave Idaho its largest lead at 57-50.
But there was no quit in the Beavers as they would scrap their way back into the ballgame. OSU stepped up their defense and would hold Idaho to only six more points the rest of the way in regulation, while slowly coming back behind some solid free throw shooting. Two free throws by Ricci with 2:00 remaining would knot up the score at 63. However, those would be the last points scored in regulation, as both teams squandered several chances, and a Ricci shot attempt at the buzzer went awry to sent the game into overtime.
OSU would start OT by taking their first lead since 12:11 in the second half on a pair of Jackson free throws. But it would be the last lead the Beavers would see. After a bizarre sequence where a technical foul was called on OSU sophomore guard J.S. Nash, the Vandals took over and held a seven point lead at 75-68 with 31 seconds left. But OSU wouldn’t go away quietly as they took advantage of Idaho’s inability to convert from the line. Ricci would hit a quick three-pointer. After a made Idaho free throw, Hurd would score on a leaner with 14 seconds remaining to cut the lead to 76-73. Two more missed free throws by Idaho led to one final chance for the Beavers with four seconds on the clock. The Beavers drew up a play for Haywood to shoot a three at the top of the key, and executed it almost to perfection as Haywood easily sprung free for an open look. But Haywood would fumble the catch, throwing off his rhythm, and his shot attempt would fall short.
OSU’s inside duo of Jackson and Ricci led the way for the Beavers with 27 and 20 points respectively. Freshman Lamar Hurd had a solid overall floor game in his first contest, with nine points, six assists, four rebounds, and three steals against only three turnovers.
In the end, the disappointing loss by OSU could be pinned down to their inability to make shots when they had them.
“We had shots, we just didn’t make them,” said Hurd. “Bottom line, we got the shots that we wanted. Those are shots that go in in practice; they just didn’t go in tonight.”
Despite OSU’s shooting woes – which head coach Jay John admitted may haunt them during the season – John was pleased with the way the team battled back from deficits in the second half and overtime. Although the loss was disappointing, it was only the first game of the season. And John knows that there is time.
“We’re a work in progress, I think that’s obvious,” said John.
“But we won’t quit.”