Montana men’s basketball coach Wayne Tinkle has had a great year by any measure.
He passed Stew Morrill to move into fourth place on the school’s all-time coaching wins list, won his 100th game at his alma mater, guided his team to its first outright Big Sky Conference regular-season championship in 20 years and into the NCAA tournament for the second time in three seasons.
On Monday, his peers acknowledged his success by naming him the league’s Coach of the Year.
“It is certainly a good feeling for myself and the Grizzly basketball program to get that kind of recognition,” said Tinkle, whose team takes on Wisconsin in the first round of the NCAA tournament on Thursday afternoon in Albuquerque, N.M. “Like we tell our players, with team success you’re going to enjoy individual success. This would not have happened without the great staff that I am fortunate enough to have, and the players obviously are the ones who get it done on the court.”
Tinkle, whose overall record is 116-70, has guided the Griz (25-6) to three straight 20-win seasons. The 25 wins are the third most in school history and the Grizzlies’ 15-1 mark in Big Sky play was its best to date.
“It has been a special season so far, and we will be able to reflect back in the offseason on all of the things that this team has achieved,” Tinkle said. “It is exciting. Certainly we want to try to stay in the moment. We don’t want to just make an appearance at the Big Dance. I guess as you could put it as a metaphor, ‘we want to stay on the dance floor as long as possible.’”
Tinkle is the first Montana coach to win the award since Blaine Taylor in 1991-92. Morrill won the honor in 1990-91. Taylor is currently the head coach at Old Dominion and Morrill is at Utah State.
It is just the fifth time a Montana coach has won the honor. Jud Heathcote was named Coach of the Year in 1974-75, and Jim Brandenburg shared the honor with Weber State’s Neil McCarthy in 1977-78.
The Grizzlies are getting a lot of love from the national media.
By the time the 13th-seeded Griz face fourth-seeded Wisconsin, they might be the favorites.
ESPN college basketball analyst Doug Gottlieb got the ball rolling Sunday, praising point guard Will Cherry while picking Montana to win. The Grizzlies received more love Monday morning from ESPN college basketball reporter Andy Katz on “The Herd,” Colin Cowherd’s national radio show.
“Give me your ONE, big, first-round upset,” Cowherd said.
“Well ... I’m starting to believe that Montana can knock off Wisconsin,” Katz said, citing Gottlieb as an influence.
Katz – who happens to be a Wisconsin alumnus – said Tinkle is “very underrated” and these Griz are better than the 2010 team that featured high-scoring guard Anthony Johnson.
“It’s cool,” Tinkle said. “It’s neat to see we’re getting some recognition and people are talking about Montana. As a coach you hope that your players don’t buy into all that and stay grounded, humble and approach this game like we have all the other ones.”
But isn’t it better to go into the game as the decided underdog?
“You bet,” Tinkle said. “That’s one of the motivating factors: Let’s go shock the world. I think part of the allure of March Madness with the people you see on TV is to spark some interest. It’s about picking the Cinderellas and the upset stories. I think they’re doing their job. It’s neat to see, but I wouldn’t have minded if they had picked another 13-4 (matchup) instead of ours.”
Montana assistant coach Bill Evans, who was named Idaho State’s new head coach last week, will stay with the Griz for as long as they stay alive in the postseason.
“I’m excited about it,” Evans said. “I’m watching film of Wisconsin right now.”
Evans, in his fourth season with Montana, came to the Griz after 15 years as the head coach at his alma mater, Southern Utah. He said he’s grateful for the opportunity Tinkle gave him.
“Having been a head coach, I think there were people who were apprehensive about hiring a guy and wondering what his role might be and wondering if I might try to do too much or say too much,” Evans said. “I think it says something about Coach that he wasn’t fearful of me being too overboard.
“He gave me a chance and he also gave me an opportunity to do more than just lean against the wall and watch him do all the coaching. He allowed me to intervene when I felt necessary and sometimes I probably intervened too much, to be honest. He was always very patient and allowed me to do the things that I’m capable of doing.”
Evans joins Montana State’s Brad Huse as former Griz assistants who are head coaches in the Big Sky.
“We’ve been pretty dang successful and now I have the opportunity to be a head coach again and a lot of that goes to Coach Tinkle and the success we’ve had at Montana,” Evans said. “Nobody wants to hire a guy in the same league if their team is 15-15.”
Sports editor Bob Meseroll can be reached at 523-5265 or at email@example.com.