Mike Morrell was named the new head coach at UNC Asheville, replacing Nick McDevitt who left for Middle Tennessee.
Mike Morrell grew up in the small town of Elizabethton, TN (population 14,000) nestled in the Smoky Mountains near Johnson City where one of his best friends since age 5 was Jason Witten, famous later as a Dallas Cowboy.
Both played college sports - on opposite ends of the spectrum.
Witten starred at Tennessee, was a third-round pick in the 2003 NFL Draft and enjoyed a 15-year career as one of pro football’s premier tight ends. Morrell, on the other hand, played NAIA Division II basketball at Milligan College, scoring 1,000 points. He was also an all-conference selection in golf, leading his team to a league championship.
Coming from a modest background fueled the 35-year-old Morrell through his 13 seasons in college coaching. Unable to play the sport at the highest level, he’s been hungry to learn from the best and mold a philosophy that would enable him to be successful once his opportunity arose.
That call came in early April when UNC Asheville, one of the Big South’s premier programs, hired the former Texas assistant to replace Nick McDevitt, who departed for Middle Tennessee.
The Asheville job was attractive to Morrell for several reasons: Great city, recent program success, tradition, proximity to home. This school of 3,900 undergraduate students also felt like the perfect fit.
“I’m a small college guy,” he said. “I will lean on those experiences. Recruit guys who have a chip on their shoulder because I feel like I have a chip on my shoulder. And a lot of that comes from my background. I didn’t play big-time Division I college basketball, so the next best thing is to coach at this level.”
Lest anyone thinks this is Morrell’s first shot at head coaching, he laughs and offers a gentle reminder of the first two years of his career - at age 22 and 23 - when he was not only the assistant basketball coach at King College but also the head men’s golf coach.
His golf game is in shambles these days. The lone time he’s played since arriving in Asheville his opening tee shot landed in the adjoining county. But, the pars and birdies can wait. Morrell has been busy.
He’s signed five players and still has a scholarship open. He’s hired five staff members, including assistant Kyle Perry, who was the head coach at USC-Upstate last season. Asheville is only an hour away from Elizabethton, but Morrell hasn’t made the short drive home yet, with good reason.
He knew the Bulldogs graduated four seniors when he took the job. He’s also had four players transfer out. The star guard MaCio Teague, who scored 1,061 points in two seasons at UNCA, departed for Baylor. Meanwhile, blossoming star Jonathan Bahre - who had 28 points, 14 rebounds and five blocks versus Southern Cal in the NIT - headed across the mountain to Clemson.
In recent years, UNCA has taken the brunt of kids “transferring up” to power conference programs. Dwayne Sutton (Louisville), Dylan Smith (Arizona), Andrew Rowsey (Marquette), Keith Hornsby (LSU) all started their careers with the Bulldogs.
Morrell praises McDevitt and his predecessor Eddie Biedenbach for identifying those talented players and developing their skills while on campus. He sees the departures as a reflection of the current recruiting model and a landscape where 700 players from Division I programs transfer each year. UNCA has won at least 10 Big South regular season games for 11 consecutive years, a league record. It is 40-14 in the conference and has reached the postseason the last three years. In many ways, UNCA has been hurt by its success.
“I don’t necessarily think it’s a UNC Asheville thing or a Big South thing. I think the recruiting model for the bigger schools in our sport has changed. Hey, I’ve been there for the last seven years (VCU and Texas). I get it,” Morrell said. “Are we going to sit here and say we’re going to change this by doing one particular thing here? I don’t think so. But we’re also not to going to go out and say we’re not going to try and recruit a special player because we’re afraid we’re going to lose him. What we’re going to to try and do is find the guys that fit our style, take some to develop them, stick to our plan and get them to be the best version of themselves.”
That philosophy, centered on building relationships with players, is a tenet of his former boss, Shaka Smart, who Morrell spent seven years working under at VCU and Texas. Morrell is simply the latest branch of Smart’s growing coaching tree. His hire and Jeremy Ballard’s at FIU within a week of each other in April means the 41-year-old Smart has a half-dozen former assistants who are now head coaches in Division I.
“Coach always challenged us to not only think about being a Division I head coach but think about being a successful one,” Morrell said. “Go to a place that you really believe in and a place where you think you can be successful. Gave us opportunities to be a head coach in our own area.”
The former assistants remain a tight, supportive group. Each one in some way can thank VCU’s 2011 Final Four run and the program’s sustained success thereafter for the opportunity they earned to be a DI head coach. They trade ideas, staying in touch via calls and texts. Expect to see shades of the up-tempo, pressure-oriented ‘Havoc’ style Smart used at VCU on the court in UNCA. But as each coach has left the nest, each has put his own twist on the product on the floor.
“We’ve all taken bits and pieces of what coach Smart has taught us,” Morrell said. “VCU was special for all of us. No matter how you play, the culture that you set for your program is the most important thing. A lot of people talked about Havoc as a style of play but Havoc was really a culture. It engulfed you. When you came into the program, you didn’t have a choice. It was… you were going to win every time.”
“Like my old coach Oliver Purnell used to say: we’re in a daily battle for the hearts and minds of our players.”