Travis DeCuire and Blaine Taylor have differing versions of the story, but both remember well a summer league game in Seattle in 1990 when Taylor paid a recruiting visit to see the man who on Monday was introduced as Montana men’s basketball coach.
The Griz needed a point guard and Taylor was there on behalf of then Griz coach Stew Morrill.
“He had this breakaway and all of a sudden he pounds the ball on the floor, off the backboard and tries to go up and dunk it,” said Taylor, never at a loss for a good story. “I just shook my head and thought, ‘Boy, Stew is going to love this.’ ”
Did he make the dunk?
“Oh no, no,” Taylor said.
That’s where the disagreement arises.
“I made it,” DeCuire says flatly, leaving little room for doubt.
“When I turned 18 my body kind of changed a lot,” DeCuire recalls. “After graduating from high school I had a new-found athleticism that I kind of lost control of for a little while. It was a summer league, so there were some NBA players playing in it as well, guys who played overseas, guys who were Division I basketball players. There was quite a bit of dunking going on at that point in time. I just happened to find myself crossing halfcourt with no one around so I had a little fun with it. It was kind of the culture in that league.”
But for Taylor, the play offered insight into the player.
“You could see the exuberance,” Taylor said. “He loved the game, he loved the action, he loved the competition; you could just see that. It might have been an ill-advised play at the time. He didn’t try to do it in Division I, but it was entertaining to me. It showed he had personality.”
His passion for the game, the student-athletes and the coaches who teach the game led Montana Athletic Director Kent Haslam to introduce DeCuire as Wayne Tinkle’s replacement with the pronouncement: “We got our guy.”
For Griz fans who may only remember DeCuire as the player who set the school’s career record for assists in just three seasons, know this: The man has paid his dues in every which way short of being a head coach at the Division I level.
He was the head coach at Sammamish High School in Bellevue, Washington, guiding the team to two conference titles and an appearance in the state tournament.
As head coach at Green River Community College in Seattle, he took over a team that had finished in last place and in two years led it to a conference championship and its first 20-win season in 20 years, earning league Coach of the Year honors.
Then came five seasons as Taylor’s assistant at Old Dominion, followed by six years as an assistant and then associate head coach to former Griz mentor Mike Montgomery at Cal of the Pac-12.
Many believed DeCuire would take over at Cal after Montgomery retired following the 2014 season – Montgomery himself endorsed DeCuire for the job – but he was passed over in favor of Cuonzo Martin, who had head coaching experience at Tennessee.
When DeCuire was also passed over in favor at Tinkle at Oregon State, fate allowed Montana to stay in the Griz family tree for its next coach.
“It’s proven to be a pretty good blueprint. The one time they stepped outside it didn’t work out so well,” Montgomery said of Pat Kennedy’s two years as Griz coach. “The people that understand Missoula and have a passion for the University of Montana have been way more successful. They understand it. I always felt that a big part of our success was due to Montana kids because it was their university, and I think that’s important there.”
As steeped in Griz tradition as DeCuire is, it’s not surprising to hear him describe the attributes for which he hopes his teams will be known: “Tough and entertaining.”
“One, you recruit toughness,” DeCuire said. “You recruit kids that have been in winning situations, kids that have handled adversity and you create the environment in practice every day and in the locker room. You find different ways you can teach it. Healthy competition is very good for a program, when guys know they compete for playing time and roles. And even off the court, you compete in the classroom.
“If that’s what your makeup is 24 hours a day … your team develops that toughness. I think teams take on the personality of their coaching staff and as a group we will do our part to create that environment.”
And as for entertaining?
“Up tempo,” DeCuire said. “I think students like to see games scored in the 80s, 90s. We won’t change our identity from the blueprint that most coaches from the (Griz coaching) tree have coached their teams. We will still be a team of percentages. We’ll take good shots and play solid defense without too much gambling, but we’re going to speed it up a little bit. We’ll pay quicker. When you have a good athlete like (University of Washington transfer) Martin Breunig in the middle, you want to give him opportunities to dunk the ball and do things to get the crowd going.”
But don’t expect DeCuire to stray too far from what has become known as the “Griz system.”
“He knows the system,” Montgomery said. “It worked for me, it worked for Blaine. He knows what works in that particular system. He played it, he’s coached it; he knows all that stuff. Although basketball is changing, I still think there’s a place for that stuff.”
When DeCuire joined Taylor’s staff at Old Dominion, he’d been a high school and junior college head coach.
“When I got there I thought I knew everything about coaching because I had been a head coach,” DeCuire said.
“I wanted to press every possession because I did it in junior college and high school,” DeCuire said. “I wanted to gamble and play high risk. You look back at the success of everyone, everyone who has learned the blueprint that’s been successful, it’s percentages. The biggest thing I learned is that it’s a game of percentages on both sides of the ball. You shoot at a high percentage and defend at a low percentage. Whatever way you tweak the program to fit your personality, you can’t lose sight of that.
“If you look at each individual coach, they each had a different personality and their team took on that personality. If you look at Larry Krystkowiak’s teams, they were tough and that was his reputation as a player. When you look at Blaine Taylor’s teams, they were probably the most intelligent teams, they would make adjustments during the game. He’s about as pure a tactician as you’re going to find. You get a feel for who you are as a person and as a player and then as a coach and that’s what you have to expect out of your team because that’s what you’re going to get.”
DeCuire inherits a Griz program that has enjoyed unprecedented success over the last decade, earning berths in the NCAA tournament in five of the past 10 seasons.
Krystkowiak and Tinkle were able to recruit and develop some players who had maybe fallen through the cracks, guys like Kevin Criswell, Virgil Matthews, Anthony Johnson, Will Cherry and Kareem Jamar, to name a few.
“He’ll be a really active recruiter,” Montgomery said. “Obviously it’s not the Pac-12 and you have to find your niche, but I think he’ll do a real good job that way, finding kids. ... Travis is not a guy who wants to fail.”
Tinkle had great success recruiting the state of Washington, although recent forays into California netted the likes of Cherry, Jamar and sophomore-to-be Mario Dunn.
“I’m not necessarily going to claim a territory,” DeCuire said of recruiting. “Home base is always important to a program, so we’re going to need to do a very good job in the state of Montana to establish ourselves. The crowd is always going to want to be able to identify with the product that’s on the floor, so it’s going to be important for us to figure out early who the best players are in the state and do a good job with their recruitment and have as many of them on our roster as possible.
“Outside of Montana, my roots are going to be Seattle and Tacoma, Washington. For me I think we’ll have a good shot at kids at our level, maybe some kids who have the potential to play at a higher level, hoping that we can steal a kid or two that will give us a chance to advance. My staff will be well-versed in terms of the West Coast. We’ll be able to get down into Northern California, Southern California, Washington and you can’t ignore Idaho and Utah. I have an ex-teammate down in Dallas and he’s been a high school coach down there for a while and he’s connected me with some people. There’s potential for that as well.”
In his Griz playing days as a redshirt sophomore, DeCuire saw the success the 1991-92 Griz teams – both of which made the NCAA tournament – had with unheralded recruits. Pac-12-quality players are still going to opt for Pac-12 schools, at least nine times out of 10, so recruiting to Montana and the Big Sky Conference requires a little different approach.
“I’m still looking at the same type of kid, he might be just an inch or two shorter, his vertical might be 3-4 inches lower,” DeCuire explained. “Every kid needs some sort of development, some sort of growth. What you end up doing is looking at a kid whose body is not quite developed or maybe a skill that’s missing that’s keeping him from being a Pac-12 or high-end Mountain West kid, but has the potential to become that in a year or two with player development and physical maturation. Those are the kids who separate programs.
“When I played at Montana in 1991, that entire starting five could have played at a higher level. I honestly believe that entire starting five could have played in the Pac-10. But you’re talking three junior college kids, and one never played basketball until he got to junior college. Another, Delvon Anderson, you can’t measure heart. Undersized at 6-3 for a small forward, not the fastest, not the best shooter, but he overcame that with heart. Those are things that slip through the cracks and we have to try to figure that out. Roger Fasting, coming out of Glendive, I’m sure nobody knew who he was outside of Montana. Guys like that, you have to figure out who they are and make sure you do your job once you get them and that’s when your program takes another step.
“I don’t think I have to change my thought process in terms of my approach to kids and the kids I’m looking at, I just think we may have to do a better job of projecting as opposed to finding the finished product.”
And Taylor believes DeCuire will have no problem motivating athletes once they’re wearing a Griz uniform. DeCuire was on a Griz team that played the University of Washington in Seattle, DeCuire’s hometown.
“The thing that sticks out in my mind is that we beat the University of Washington – and he’s a Seattle kid who was by-passed by the Huskies – I think four years in a row,” Taylor said, adding that DeCuire looked forward to those games. “By the time Trav got done with the kids in the locker room, I didn’t even have to give a pre-game talk. He had the guys so geared up.”
DeCuire has also had some training in what makes kids tick.
He graduated from UM in 1994 and coached his first AAU team in 1996. He took that team on a tour and had some success. In 1997, more kids were interested.
“In ’97 we decided we needed to expand and be more than just an AAU team,” DeCuire said. “That’s when I started the (non-profit Fastbreak Basketball Association). At the time I was counseling … and I also had taken a job at Sammamish High School where I was an assistant administrator. I was in direct contact with teachers and through my counseling I had direct contact with counselors, so then I hired people to volunteer to counsel kids, mentor kids and tutor kids. That was the foundation of the program, the social development, the academic development and then obviously the basketball.”
While at Cal, DeCuire secured 40 tickets for every home game that he donated to youth programs or non-profits.
“I tried to identify the students that wouldn’t typically find themselves on a college campus,” DeCuire said. “It was a way of introducing them to college life. It’s hard to set goals of things you’ve never seen, so that was the purpose of that program.”
DeCuire is busy getting his family – wife Sabrina and daughters Tamia (3 1/2) and Brianna (21) – moved to Missoula. With one assistant in place – holdover Jono Metzger-Jones – he still needs to fill out his staff with two more. The schedule needs to be completed and camps begin later this month. But DeCuire promises to hit the ground running.
“I’m passionate,” he said. “Passionate about basketball, passionate about the student-athlete, passionate about social development. I look forward to having the opportunity to mold my own program and put the energy, the thought process, the commitment that I’ve put into other coach’s programs and Fastbreak, and put it into the Grizzly program.”