I don’t remember exactly why Don Verlin was so pissed off in that moment.
I just remember his foot stamping the Orleans Arena floor so loudly, it reverberated all too clearly throughout the cavernous building.
It was probably just an out of bounds call which didn’t go his way. Whatever.
It was only the opening minutes of a quarterfinal conference tournament game against Missouri-Kansas City, a game Idaho came into with a losing record and with very little on the line.
Except, perhaps, his reputation.
Conference tournaments are hell for Donnie V. He went 0 for his first 5 in conference tourney games, despite sporting well-groomed, stand out mustaches each time.
Then, finally, we went down to Vegas and beat a team with a Kanagroo as a mascot. He did it!
So, I asked Donnie in the post-game presser … “Don, are you aware of what the fans are saying about your conference tournament record?”
Verlin leaned slightly toward the microphone, veering his eyes directly to me.
“A lot,” he said, then immediately pulling away the from the mic and looking away.
This is a post about whether or not Don Verlin should be fired. Why bullshit around the reason for writing this?
Here are the facts upsetting Idaho fans: Idaho has not qualified for the NCAA Tournament since 1990 and hasn’t won a regular season conference championship since 1993.
Don Verlin, entering his ninth season, has yet to take the Vandals to the collegiate ballroom dance invitational.
Donnie V is a man who respects your right to have an opinion. He probably won’t respect the opinion itself. I’d wager to think he doesn’t think you comprehend the reality of the challenge set before him when he took over at the University of Idaho.
At the end of the day, as an Idaho basketball fan, you just want wins.
Don Verlin has won. He also hasn’t won. You’re not sure if he can win a lot. But you also don’t know if we’ll win at all if he leaves. Right now he is safe. But is he the guy?
You don’t know what the hell we should do.
Any potential coaching change induces risk. Those potential risks are clear when looking at what Idaho basketball was before Don Verlin.
We won 16 games combined the three seasons before he arrived.
There’s also the fervent curiosity when looking at programs like Florida Gulf Coast and even our neighbors in Cheney what this could look like with an up-tempo coach and playing style with flare.
We don’t know. So before we get into these delusions of grandeur and hypotheticals, why don’t we give the current man a look.
Here’s what I know:
- Don Verlin exceeded expectations in the WAC with regular season performances and the consistency of the program.
- He has exceeded expectations in recruiting, continually finding excellent prep prospects and developing them into conference all-stars.
- He has navigated the program through a rigorous conference transition, shifting the identity of the program to continuity with prep recruits over pursuing transfers for instant impact.
Here’s the thesis: Donnie V might not be the guy to get Idaho to the tournament. But, he deserves your patience to see it out over the next two seasons. The Big Sky Conference has given Verlin an opportunity to show what this program should be.
In order to have informed and intelligent discourse, we need context. Context begins with the expectations you have of the program.
Strap on your leather pants. We’re going to the 80s.
Know Yo’ History
Much like your parents, you can’t get over the 80s. That’s where you want to go back to.
“We were ranked! We made the Sweet 16! We went back-to-back!”
Yes, all four of Idaho’s NCAA Tournament appearances came within a 10-year period from 1981 to 1990.
Then there’s this: From 1955 to 1980, the University of Idaho had five winning seasons. From 1952-1954 the Vandals had three consecutive second-place finishes in the Pacific Coast Conference North Division. In 1946, Idaho finished runner-up in the Pac-12’s predecessor conference. That occasion was the first time since 1923 Idaho was able to play for the PCC title.
This quickly covers an almost 60-year stretch in which Idaho largely reveled in mediocrity, and when the most lit thing happening at Mem Gym was a sport the NCAA stopped sponsoring in 1954.
Gus Johnson transferred to Idaho from some junior college in southern Idaho nobody has ever heard of. You don’t remember him for winning 20 games in 1963, though.
He’ll forever be in Vandal lore because of his vert.
The Nail. Gus Johnson’s Nail.
Johnson dipped from Moscow after one season, enjoying an 11-year NBA career with the nail the only reminder of one of Idaho’s few good seasons through decades of mediocrity.
Nobody came close to grazing the nail for 23 years until College of Southern Idaho’s Joey Johnson, little brother of former Seattle Supersonic Dennis Johnson, bent the nail. Herm Goetz nailed it back in a half-inch higher. The record stood until the bar was partly demolished and remodeled in 1991.
It got dope in 1978 when we hired a former Vandal point guard who “never started a damn game.”
(Side story: I met Don Monson when I was stringing a game at Gonzaga in 2014. He was wearing a Vandal jacket and walked up to press row to chat with Jim Meehan, who spent a great deal of his career covering Idaho. “Hey, Idaho! I’m a 2014 grad,” I said to the man, not knowing who he was. Monson got a greeaaaaaat deal of amusement out of that, smirking and saying “1955.” Meehan was kind of dumbfounded at that point I didn’t know who he was. I was red with embarrassment when I realized. Anyways, keep reading.)
Monson took over a program which won 16 combined games in three years, creatively infused talent into the squad with unheralded Pacific Northwest kids (Hopson, Kellerman) and transfers (Owens, Smith), then won a bunch of basketball games.
Monson took Idaho on a three year stretch where it beat Pac-10 schools seven times, Gonzaga twice as well as Nebraska, Iowa State and then Lute Olson’s Iowa in the NCAA Tournament. He took Idaho to back-to-back NCAA Tournaments, a Sweet 16 and at one point had a top ten national ranking.
These are your unicorns.
Five coaches haven’t been enough to bring them galloping back.
Kermit Davis brought back the magic with back-to-back Big Sky tournament titles, while the Big Sky had settled into its low-seeded one-and-done persona. Larry Eustachy won a regular season conference title, he didn’t coach in the NCAA Tournament here.
All left for better opportunities. The program wasn’t the same.
It became hilariously awful during the Big West days, especially while football was in the Sun Belt. This school from Idaho playing a bunch of beach town, non-football playing schools with actual basketball facilities and prep talent all over the place.
Then the WAC happened. The WAC was a bad fit too. We lost a lot.
On March 21, 2008, Rob Spear made his third basketball hire. This time praying for stability, he turned to the pragmatism of the Stew Morrill coaching tree.
Donald Gene Verlin, born June 15, 1965, in Roseville, Calif., Verlin played a lot of basketball growing up. He wasn’t particularly good at it, but he knew a lot about it.
“Why not coaching?” he probably thought. So he got a bachelor’s at Cal State Stanislaus, coached a little high school and community college ball and then pursued a masters at Colorado State, where he was on staff as a grad assistant.
His brother Ron, who looks just like Don except without the mustache or whatever, simultaneously pursued a college coaching career elsewhere.
Verlin found his godfather in Stew Morrill, learning from the legend at Colorado State before following him to Utah State.
Donnie V coached in five NCAA Tournaments as an assistant, soaking up Morrill’s low-tempo, high-efficiency, pragmatic and fundamentally-driven system.
The Resume so far
Verlin’s first season at Idaho was an unequivocal success. He matched the school’s win total from the three previous seasons combined, swept Boise State and earned a post-season appearance in the CollegeInsiders.com Tournament while finishing third in the WAC. The schools KenPom rating jumped 130 spots from the previous season to 160th in the nation.
He finished top three in the WAC two more times. He beat Nevada in Reno and downed Utah State at home two years in a row. He beat Oregon on the road one season then beat Oregon State in Corvallis the next.
Idaho was competitive. Highly competitive. We were beating schools with more resources than Idaho had.
We finished 146th, 145th and 155th in the nation in KenPom over the next four seasons.
Alas, March would come. March fuckin’ sucked.
Verlin’s Vandals fell flat five years in a row in the opening rounds of the WAC Tournament. La. Tech, Nevada, San Jose State, Hawaii and New Mexico each disposed of Idaho.
The Hawaii loss in 2012 particularly was the worst. The sixth-seeded Rainbow Warriors entered the game without their leading scorer and downed the only squad Verlin had with an outside shot at actually winning the conference tournament.
Idaho’s most well-rounded team. Landon Tatum at point guard, Connor Hill off the bench to launch 3s, Kyle Barone in the paint, a young Stephen Madison on the wing, Djim Bandoumel enforcing the boards and Deremy Geiger scoring in bunches.
Verlin has yet to assemble a roster as talented as his 2011-12 squad was. (Yet …)
This is probably why many of you want Don Verlin to be dismissed. It’s been a decade, you say. If his best teams couldn’t do it then Donnie is not the guy.
Yes, these were failures. Yes, criticisms are deserved. His choice of facial hair being one of those criticisms.
But, here’s the thing:
To have expected Idaho to win the Western Athletic Conference and make the NCAA Tournament was unrealistic.
The (W)orst (A)thletic (C)onference for Idaho
For this exercise, here are the Western Athletic Conference schools when Don Verlin took the Idaho job, their budgets in 2008 and their budgets in the seasons they ceased to be Idaho’s conference mates.
2008 – $25,578,051; 2010 – $36,932,392
Arena – Yes
2008 – $27,530,567; 2012 – $30,724,143
Arena – Yes
2008 – $13,496,893; 2012 – $21,061,242; 2015 – $30,333,172
Arena – Yes
San Jose State
2008 – $18,816,240; 2012 – $23,918,785; 2015 – $28,589,341
Arena – Yes
2008 – $24,383,923; 2012 – $21, 531,926
Arena – Yes
New Mexico State
2008 – $25,379,586; 2014 – $29,287,917
Arena – Yes
2008 – $14,656,982; 2013 – $18,734,197
Arena – Yes
2008 – $37,427,263; 2012 – $37,897,740
Arena – Yes
2008 – $15,208,208; 2012 – $18,584,216
Arena – No
The only school Idaho had on the budget front is Utah State. By the time Verlin left Morrill’s side to come to Idaho, Morrill had five NCAA Tournament appearances and three NIT appearances with regular season conference championships. Utah State was a machine. And they’re doing alright on the hoops facilities front.
Here are the 2014 numbers on the Big Sky Conference. We even have friends who play basketball in their football stadiums, too! What up, Idaho State and Northern Arizona!
And here’s the WAC as it looked in Idaho’s final season, when the Vandals made a run to the WAC Tournament final.
And, here’s the conference Idaho thinks it belongs in:
The point of this exercise is to illustrate we need to be in a conference with comparable peers if we want to compete for NCAA Tournament bids.
I mean, It’s all the same NCAA Tournament. This isn’t the bowl game vs. FCS Playoffs argument. A bid from the WAC is the same as a bid from the Mountain West is the same as a bid from the Big Sky. The only difference is one conference makes it far more realistic for Idaho than another one does.
Most of Verlin’s teams in the WAC were clearly exceeding expectations, despite the lack of NCAA Tournament appearances.
Right now we’re 28-22 in Big Sky games since making the transition, 20-12 since 2016. We’ll likely finish top five in the conference for the second straight year.
Since the Sky was announced, Idaho’s KenPom ratings have been 254 (last season in the WAC), 231, 214 (lost in conference semis), and currently sitting at 224. The lower ratings in KenPom’s system are mostly due to a lack of big-name wins and a lower strength of schedule.
This also illustrates the shift in the way Verlin has built his teams since the conference switch, relying less on quick-fix transfers and more on program sustainability.
The Big Sky has allowed Verlin to focus his program more on high school talent and less on quick-fix junior college and NCAA transfers.
Needing to win immediately, Donnie V brought in mercenaries, NCAA and JuCo transfers. A lot of them. He had at least seven transfers on the roster each of his first four seasons.
Number of transfer players each season
2008 – 8 of 11; 2009 – 10 of 13; 2010 – 7 of 12; 2011 – 7 of 13; 2012 – 6 of 13; 2013 – 4 of 11; 2014 (first Big Sky) – 4 of 12; 2015 – 3 of 12 ; 2016 – 2 of 14.
This season’s roster has a Verlin-low two transfers. The two have combined for nine starts in Idaho’s 24 games. Last year’s had five, although Skyler White and Paulin Mpawe weren’t regular contributors off the bench. Aside from Chris Sarbaugh, a graduate transfer, it was high school recruits paving the way for a 13-7 conference record.
The best players Verlin has had were unheralded high school recruits he developed throughout four years, culminating in all-conference senior seasons.
Kyle Barone (WAC Player of the Year), Stephen Madison (First team all-WAC), and Connor Hill (second team all-Big Sky, shot 45 percent from 3 as a senior) were all recruited out of high school and developed into mid-major stars by Verlin.
And now Victor Sanders, currently a junior, is the fourth player recruited by Verlin to eclipse 1,000 points, the fourth Verlin recruit to jump into the top 15 of all-time scorers in Idaho history.
Junior college recruits such as Mike Scott, Landon Tatum, Djim Bandoumel and Deremy Geiger earned some sort of conference recognition by the end of their college careers. Chris Sarbaugh was a success as a graduate transfer. Guys like Mike McChristian and Bira Seck were above average contributors as JC guys.
Verlin’s ability to creatively dig deep in his scouting finding talent to cultivate has largely been a success.
THE PACIFIC CONNECTION
I’ll talk about legitimate reasons to not like Don Verlin, now. Steffan Johnson is one of those reasons.
Johnson was expelled from Pacific for an alleged sexual assault incident. Pacific is where Don Verlin’s brother was an assistant for over a decade and then the head coach.
Even two years after the fact, Idaho defended the decision to admit Johnson because of “due diligence.”
A “Pacific judicial review board found the players guilty,” the Spokesman-Review reported.
I don’t have intimate knowledge of what that due diligence might have been, and whether or not that was just interviewing Johnson or whether it meant trying to reach out to the victim’s family. The latter would be immensely difficult because of laws protecting students private information, and there was no police investigation.
I’m in the camp of sports fans who believe athletic programs need to take a zero-tolerance stance on alleged sexual assault. My opinion of Don Verlin will shift markedly if this situation were to happen again.
Verlin then hired Travis Ford as an assistant, who was ousted from Pacific after having an inappropriate relationship with a student-athlete, also allegedly coercing her after she wanted to end it.
Ford resigned without coaching a game. Ron Verlin eventually left Pacific following an investigation into academic misconduct. Verlin told me during a press conference he didn’t know the extent of the situation because of FERPA regulations.
Ford resigning his position was the right thing to do. He had no place at Idaho, and I’ll give Don the benefit of the doubt for rectifying the situation when he had all of the information.
STYLE OF PLAY
A good friend of mine came to his realization about Verlin after watching this team play defense. Not while the team was particularly great at it, it was noticing how particularly unathletic the roster is compared to most rosters in the Pacific Northwest.
“This team defends like crazy,” he said.
And that’s it. That’s Verlin’s challenge. To maximize resources. Maximize his recruiting facilities. Construct a team and a program that can compete for NCAA Tournament appearances with a portion of the firepower his competitors have.
He will hardly ever have the most athletic team on the floor. That’s why a system is important.
Don Verlin is boring. He knows it. He laughs at you when you say it. He doesn’t give a fuck. Don Verlin is all about the fundamentals. If you miss a dunk, you will be benched. That’s why you hardly see dunks. Just lay that shit in.
Don Verlin wants stingy half-court defense and methodical half-court offense. His base is a pack-line zone defense, which relies on the fundamentals of a traditional zone but has flexibility with switches and man-to-man defense.
Sometimes he’ll mix it up. He’ll run and play the transition game if the particular contest calls for it.
But Don largely has an identity he rarely deviates from.
Don Verlin’s AdjustedTempo national ranks during his tenure are listed as such: 290, 196, 246, 269, 291, 136, 37 (losing record), 286, 272.
The purpose of being methodical is developing efficiency on one, or both, ends of the floor. Only four times has a Verlin team been top three in the conference in either AdjO or AdjD. Two of those instances occurred in the same season, in 2010-11.
One of those instances was last season, when Idaho was the second-best defensive team in the Big Sky. This season Idaho is 6th offensively and 5th defensively. The defensive rating will increase substantially when Idaho stops letting teams shoot so many free throws.
Often has this system allowed Idaho to become one of the better rebounding teams and one of the better teams in controlling looks inside the paint.
Ready for the bad part? We always suck at forcing turnovers. We are hardly ever able to break out in transition and let the athletes we do have score at will.
This season it is particularly bad. We are 281st in the country in steal percentage, 274th in Adjusted Tempo and 208th in the country in defense. We’re also very offensively challenged when Victor Sanders isn’t going off.
We’ve gone full-court defensive tempo twice … both Eastern Washington games because we had to furiously rally from large deficits. We lost both games, but it helped jump start the offense. Perhaps something to watch for in Reno. Don is willing to adapt if he has to.
The short-term prognosis
Okay, winning soon will matter. Very soon.
Next year is Don Verlin’s show me season.
It will be his fourth season in the Big Sky, and will have a roster full of players who have played in the Big Sky their entire careers with the exception of Perrion Callandret’s freshman season.
He’ll have senior Victor Sanders, who should be a favorite for league player of the year. He should join Kyle Barone as Verlin players to be first-team all conference two years in a row. He’ll have Perrion Callandret coming off a medical redshirt, perhaps creating the Big Sky’s most athletic and offensively potent back court.
Every one of these guys save Ty Egbert and Pat Ingram are (as far as I know) returning next season.
Natural progression of current talent means we’ll have a strong front court with Nate Sherwood, Mkrtychyan and Blake.
Whether or not we’re an NCAA Tournament contender will be the supporting cast. Now that Verlin has a roster flush with prep talent, how quickly can he develop those players to be impact rotation guys?
Can Nick Blair foster his athleticism into offensive production as a junior?
Are Myles Franklin, Tyler Brimhall or Jake Straughan Division-I players? So far breaking through has been a struggle for the trio of guards after their redshirt seasons.
And Trevon Allen, the star recruit of this latest class who spurned Eastern Washington stay close to home. The sophomore-to be started games early in the season before Sanders was moved to point guard to boost the offense. He could likely be called as the first guard off the bench in the rotation next season.
Personally, I believe having the patience to allow him to build this program as a Big Sky program will be worth it.
If he turns out not to be that guy, what have we lost? This program was irrelevant and atrocious for 15 years before Don Verlin arrived.
This will be your program, Don. The program this move into the Big Sky has allowed you to build. Finally, a program with players you’ve scouted, developed and coached for two, three, four seasons. Continuity. Stability. Realistic competition.
Take us dancing, coach.