Caught between a rock and a hard place in 2015 was David Collette, a sophomore forward for the Utah State University basketball team. For better or worse, he wanted out of the Utah State basketball program, wanted nothing to do with the team on which he had a prominent role and many believe intended to transfer to the University of Utah. There was one small problem: he arrived at his decision two days before the season started. And so this writer anoints Collette with the Utah Sports top story of 2015. Congratulations, sir.
Tongue and cheek aside, standing between Collette and his decision to transfer was the school from which he wanted to transfer, naturally. Utah State, a university with a longstanding basketball tradition, just saw its longtime head coach Stew Morrill retire and hired his longtime assistant, Tim Duryea, to take over.
Anyone who knows anything about coaching or the concept of team understands that once one head guy leaves and another takes his or her place–regardless of his or her loyalty–things are bound to change in ways.
Duryea came into the head job with not a lick of head coaching experience at the Division I level–just a few years under his belt at a junior college in Texas before coming to Utah State in 2001 as an assistant. And so things were bound to be in a state of flux to some degree, in part because the program has a new guy in charge and in part because nobody from the old system knows what to expect from the new guy.
Collette alleges that not only did things change under the new head coach Duryea who had been an assistant for 14 years, they worsened. To make matters worse, when Collette alleges that he complained about the conditions within the Utah State basketball team, Duryea and his staff turned a blind eye to his grievances and essentially pretended they didn’t exist.
After Duryea reportedly swept the issues under the rug is about the time things began to get interesting, added Collette. The Murray, Utah native alleges that Duryea began to ridicule him in practice, more than the norm. According to Yahoo! Sports, “[One of] Collette’s issues with Duryea stems from his alleged use of the phrase ‘you might as well shoot yourself in the back of the head’ when speaking with the team.
“Though Utah State said Duryea apologized to Collette when told the phrase was insensitive, Collette recalls differently. He said the coach laughed it off and told him it was just a figure of speech.” But a sucker punching incident, in which one Utah State player hit another in the back of the head during practice–and Duryea’s admittedly soft punishment thereafter–may have sent the normally milquetoast forward over the edge.
“He told us not to tell anyone about it — not even family members — because he didn’t want the media to find out,” Collette said. “Why tell your players to shove it under the rug? If you’re a coach telling your players to shove something under the rug, you’re obviously not doing something right.”
Walking through the Utah State basketball offices, you get the sense that something big is happening. White walls bedecked with photos and towering glass and steel guide you into the offices and through the hallways until you reach the locker rooms lined in oak, featuring Aggie blue and UState logos at every turn. Success permeates the facility along with a sense of pride and it is apparent the minute you step foot inside these offices.
Big things have already happened down the way within the football program, what with all of the success that ex-head coach Gary Andersen harvested from a bunch of two-star athletes and hard working farm boys joining the program as walk-ons. But, the architect for all of Utah State’s recumbent athetic success was none other than Stew Morrill, the former basketball coach and legend.
In his 29 years at the school, Morrill didn’t do like other Division I programs. He looked for kids who were overlooked by other schools, like Collette, who came from Murray High, a prep program that raised up boys like Craig Hammer and the Johnsen brothers, Jeff and Britton. All three ended up at Utah. But not Collette–at least for the moment. Morrill also sought kids who like the scores of foster children he and his wife helped raise over the years, might have been a bit outside what you would consider the norm.
So Collette asking to play at Utah wouldn’t be unprecedented. It would just be rare in a sense. It was Collette’s timing that was horribly wrong, according to Utah State, who refused Collette’s request to transfer. To give you an idea how strange Utah State’s refusal of Collette’s request was, in a report published by ESPN, from 2007-12 only half of such requests were denied.
In reaching its decision, Utah State concluded that it “has followed all applicable NCAA procedures and applied consistent internal practices in declining the request for release,” the university wrote. “David Collette chose to leave Utah State two days prior to its season-opening contest, which hamstrung the team in terms of recruiting a new player to that position or even practicing with other players for that position. The timing of David’s decision to leave the team is the reason Utah State is handling his release this way. There were never any other restrictions put on his release.”
And so for the Utah State program to deny Collette of a procedure that many find commonplace within college basketball came as quite a shock to Collette, who aired his grievances with national media like ESPN, USA Today and others.
Instead of going to the local media, where in a strange but probably accurate way there may have been conflicting interests due in part to the school’s need to advertise and market their products and services on such local media outlets, Collette went big time with his complaints.
The national media powers heard Collette’s complaints loud and clear. What in other circumstances would have made for a blip on the radar screen resonated with other college basketball players in ways both good and bad.
In a shock move, several Utah State players threw their support behind the 6-foot-9-inch Collette, who in a twist of irony was also up for a prestigious humanitarian award for his work in the Cache Valley community.
And so perhaps the most maddening aspect to Collette’s shock decision to transfer came from the very players Collette alleged were aligned with his decision to quit the team. What in the world then led to such a bizarre decision?
Two days before the season opener, Collette walked into the office of Tim Duryea and delivered an ultimatum that came as a surprise to the new head coach. Having lost 77-60 in stunning fashion in an exhibition game to Cal State Monterey Bay, a team that–ironically enough–was blown out days earlier by Utah in Salt Lake City, things were not exactly hunky dory in Logan if you read into the quote Collette gave at his postgame press conference, but it wasn’t end-of-the-world talk, either.
“We have a lot of things to work on. I guess if anything, it’s a good thing it happened now because it gives us a lot to work on. It was a good wake-up call. You better believe we’ll come back, starting Monday with practice,” said Collette. “We’ll turn things around and we’ll be ready. I think a lot of it was that we weren’t mentally prepared. Last year we were ranked second-to-last in the Mountain West going into the season. We had something to prove. I think it kind of got into our heads being picked third this year and we took advantage of that. We have to play with a chip on our shoulder like we did last year and turn things around.”
That Monday in November came and went, along with the sun. Collette didn’t make any decision–until the following week. If his sound byte from Nov. 6 sounds like a man defeated, well, you might be on something. Read into some of the quotes from Duryea after the game and you get a similar sense of resignation from the head coach. Neither party seems to have a differing opinion.
“They played well, played hard. They out-played us at every position statistically,” said Duryea. “They out-played us as far as passion and enthusiasm go and did a tremendous job. They out-coached us, out-played us, out-everythinged us.” So begs the question: had Collette already checked out? Had he already made his mind up? Is there more to the story that is yet to come out? Didn’t sound like it at the time.
Surely you wouldn’t quit on your team two days before the season opener. Surely you wouldn’t sacrifice your 12 points per game average from last season–likely to increase this season–when your team is being picked to finish near the top of a highly competitive Mountain West Conference.
And surely you wouldn’t let down an entire student body, faculty, and administration by giving up so soon after a disappointing loss, for sure, but certainly not an event that signals the end of the world, right? After all, Collette did score 20 points in the meaningless exhibition loss. But apparently, the writing may have been on the wall long before Collette made his decision, according to Duryea.
“The difference between stupidity and genius is that genius has its limits.” – Albert Einstein
Larry Krystkowiak is a smart man. The native of Shelby, Montana and Utah Utes head coach has spent a lifetime coming up the hard way, first making it onto the scene as a high scoring forward at the University of Montana. There he set countless records as a player, before surviving for nine long years in the NBA and later becoming a college and NBA head coach.
To give you an idea on how impulsive this man is not, consider that Utah once offered Krystkowiak the head coaching job Rick Majerus vacated years earlier, a position Krystkowiak turned down. The offer was then extended to Gonzaga head coach Mark Few, who instead suggested the position go to a former assistant, Ray Giacoletti.
Years later, after Giacoletti was replaced by Jim Boylen, the head coaching job at Utah was again offered to Krystkowiak, who this time accepted it after a somewhat brief and mildly successful stint with the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks. Since he’s been at Utah, Coach K has turned the Utes from a six-win team into one that made the Sweet 16, equaling Giacoletti’s greatest accomplishment at the school.
Some might say that Krystkowiak actually surpassed what Giacoletti accomplished, because Krystkowiak jettisoned so many troublemakers accumulated from the recruiting classes of Giacoletti and Boylen that over two-thirds of Utah’s roster was made different. But, there are whispers that the Montana man could have handled this David Collette situation a bit different and waited until the season concluded to entertain the notion. Even prominent Utah boosters boasted on Twitter that they knew Collette was heading to Salt Lake City, keeping a not-so-secret secret under not-so-secret wraps.
So what gives? What gives Collette the right to leave his team in a quagmire two days before the season is to begin? Honestly, that’s the question everyone wants to know, and the one that nobody has answered succinctly. Maybe over time the real reasons will come out like guideposts on a freight ship hurtling back to port through unruly waters in the night, but for now there are none. Being sensitive and overreacting are certainly not valid feelings when you’re talking about quitting on your team two days before you tip off.
When Ian Gilbert wrote about the five steps of ideation in his field guide to creativity, he said, “Genuine creativity needs a collision of ideas, something that will never happen if all your thoughts travel in the same direction.”
While it’s clear Collette’s thoughts were traveling in one clear and succinct direction, for some bizarre reason the powers that be never caught the messages he was sending to Utah State’s coaches or to their athletics administration–or they just flat out ignored them altogether. What’s most interesting about Collette’s exit was Duryea’s response.
For starters, following Collette’s shocking exit, Utah State never held back in its steadfast belief that something was arai. Even Duryea alluded such in his remarks after Collette’s decision. “I think there were a lot of factors in play that, unfortunately, have become a trend in college basketball of schools poaching other schools’ players,” Duryea said. “I don’t feel good and don’t like how things transpired.”
The school itself didn’t take too kindly to Collette leaving, either. When Collette tried to play by the rules and he appealed Utah State’s decision, the school first emailed him, notifying him that he would lose his athletic aid eligbiility effective immediately. When Collette filed an appeal, they sent his case to an administrative court comprised of faculty members from the athletics department and school administrators.
If this kind of reminds you of the court scene in “My Cousin Vinny” when all hope was lost when Joe Pesci’s cousin and friend were accused of committing murder in a backwoods hick town and were sent before the biased judge, well, you wouldn’t have been far from the truth. The only difference between that movie and this reality is that Pesci won his impossible case and Collette did not.
The words kangaroo and court were not far from anyone’s lips outside of Cache Valley, a spacious long stretch of farmland and dairy silos that you can only reach by maneuvering your vehicle through a treacherous canyon in good weather. In basketball season, the trip to Logan can seem impossible.
For his part, Duryea was resonant that foul play took place. For Collette, he not only lost his appeal–he now has to pay for his own schooling, courtesy of some evil doing by a prideful but vindictive school administration.
Should Utah State have just let Collette go to Utah and let sleeping dogs lie? The Utah State basketball team is off to a wonderful start under Duryea, giving fans hope for the future despite losing Collette in the process. And what, if anything, does Utah State have to gain by staying vindictive towards Collette?
In one Yahoo! Sports report, Collette complained that the school’s athletics department even changed his height and weight–presumably, to make his possibility to transfer less appealing to other schools–and noted he quit the team on his bio.
“I don’t understand why Utah State would do this,” Collette told Yahoo Sports. “If a guy’s not comfortable where he is or not happy, why not let him go? The coaches and administrators always talk about how they have their players’ backs. Well, obviously not. From what I’ve experienced, they do not have my best interest at heart whatsoever.”
The short answer for Collette and for any other college basketball player looking to transfer, is that the system is still set up to allow such vindictiveness from a school. However, long gone are the days a player must be held to the binding terms his or her scholarship at any school.
But, times they are still a-changing. In March 2015, the NCAA announced it will no longer accept hardship waivers and allow athletes to transfer immediately to a different NCAA Division I program.
All players must wait at least one year to transfer to a Division I school. Collette will also wait to play next year at Utah. In the meantime, one thing is clear: future cases involving college athletes requesting transfers from schools might be affected in part to Collette’s efforts to rewrite the current rules.