Wooden disciple brings a basketball renaissance to College of Idaho

First-year coach Scott Garson has the Coyotes' men's program buzzing again

bmurphy@idahostatesman.comFebruary 4, 2014 

— When he was 5, Scott Garson memorized legendary basketball coach John Wooden’s definition of success at the insistence of his father, a UCLA graduate.

Now the College of Idaho men’s coach, the 37-year-old Garson keeps one of Wooden’s books on his desk and quotes him extensively. And through his first 25 games, the nine-year UCLA assistant coach, who had a personal relationship with Wooden in the years before his death in 2010, is winning like the Wizard of Westwood.

The Coyotes are 20-5, in first place in the Cascade Conference and ranked 10th in the NAIA national polls.

“We use Coach Wooden’s definition of success: peace of mind, attained only through self-satisfaction and knowing you made the effort to do the best that you are capable,” Garson said.

Importantly, Garson and his high-scoring team have rekindled interest in the program, packing the gym and making home games an attraction. The Coyotes are 11-0 at home after going 18-25 the past three seasons.

“It was so down last year, the last few years, the negativity around the program. I need to bear a lot of that responsibility,” said Athletic Director Marty Holly, who won 423 games and a national championship as the coach from 1981 to 2000. “The program was in such dire straits, and it was my fault. I just wanted to hire the right person.”

Garson came highly recommended by Bob Burton, a good friend of Holly’s. Burton is a former coach at Cal State Fullerton.

Still, Holly needed to be convinced that Garson, who also worked under Rick Majerus at Utah, was the right coach to turn around a program that has not won a Cascade Conference regular-season or tournament title since 2004. The C of I had not won 20 games in a season since 2005; it won at least 20 games in a season 20 times in the previous 24 seasons.

“I was leery. A UCLA guy coming here? Come on,” Holly said. “Even if he would come here, it’s too big of an adjustment coming from one of the top five premier jobs to the College of Idaho.”

Burton called Garson before UCLA’s season was over to gauge his interest

Garson wanted to be a head coach. He liked the tradition of College of Idaho, which won its national title in 1996. He liked the community. And he liked Holly, an athletic director with deep basketball ties, an easy manner and plenty of stories.

“Basketball is basketball. Things are going to work out,” Garson said. “My favorite quote of Coach Wooden’s is, ‘Things work out best for those who make the best of the way in which things work out.’ That’s something I try to live by each day.”

In a few months, Garson has convinced Holly that he is the perfect person for the job.

“Honestly, I wouldn’t trade him for anybody in the country right now,” Holly said. “Ten years from now, that might not be a ludicrous statement.”

Before his introductory press conference in Caldwell, Garson went to work on making sure things worked out best for the Coyotes. He visited El Camino CC point guard Josh Wilson and recruited him to Caldwell. Wilson was being recruited by Big Sky and Big West schools, including Montana and UC Irvine. Garson pitched him on playing for something at C of I.

“Coach G always says every team has a leading scorer, but is he leading his team to wins?” Wilson said. “You don’t want to go somewhere and lose games. It’s not fun playing basketball when you’re losing. He said he wanted me to come here first and foremost because we were going to win.”

Garson has kept his word — but it was his personal touch that convinced Wilson he made the right choice.

Wilson had been playing through pain in his left leg for two years. Before he signed his paperwork, he told Garson about the injury.

“Josh, sign the thing and we’ll worry about that later,” Garson told him. “I’m going to be there for you.”

Wilson was about to find that out.

Garson used his contacts in Southern California — and a relentless approach — to find a surgeon who would accept Wilson’s insurance. Turned out the point guard had a serious fracture of his left tibia that, if left untreated, could have led to a serious fracture, not unlike the one suffered by Louisville’s Kevin Ware in last year’s NCAA Tournament. The surgery was done by a USC doctor.

“Coach pushed it real aggressively and he helped me get the surgery ASAP,” Wilson said. “When coach wants something, he gets it done quick. He gets it done.”

Wilson, a 6-foot-3 junior, wasn’t cleared to practice until right before the season. In conference play, he’s averaging a team-high 29.8 minutes and contributing 9.8 points, 6.3 rebounds and a team-high 4.8 assists in a free-wheeling offense. C of I is averaging 87.5 points per game, 13th among 132 NAIA Division II teams nationally.

“He gives his players a lot of freedom. If we take a shot, he’s not going to scream at us or tell us not to take that shot,” said Demetrius Perkins, the team’s leading scorer in conference games at 16.7 points. “I love the style of play.”

At practice last week, the Coyotes worked nearly exclusively on fastbreak offense and defense. Back and forth they ran, with Garson only stopping play to implore his team to communicate better.

“This is who we are. We run the floor,” Garson told his squad.

Ten players average at least 12.5 minutes per game. The Coyotes pick up full court on all defensive possessions, whether they trap or not. Garson wants his point guard to cross midcourt with at least 32 seconds left on the shot clock after misses and makes. The shot clock starts at 35.

“If we can get the same good shot in the first 10 seconds of the shot clock versus having to grind and work for it at the end of the shot clock, I’d love to take it,” he said.

Garson wants his team to be the best-conditioned team in the nation and the best communicating.

The conditioning part has paid off late in recent victories. On Friday, the Coyotes outscored Concordia 22-7 in the final 7 minutes, 34 seconds for a key victory. At Southern Oregon, the Coyotes pulled away in double overtime.

To get the best communicating team, Garson has employed some unusual methods. Before the game at Southern Oregon, he took the team on a walk through a park in Ashland. They ended with a talk — about anything non-basketball related.

In January, Garson, who is Jewish, took his players to the Idaho Human Rights Education Center at the Anne Frank Memorial in Boise and to the movie “12 Years A Slave.”

“I’ve never ever in my life had a coach do something like that. That was one of the most important things in the season because we feel closer as a team. To see what others have to go through we’re privileged just to be free and not go through anything like that,” Perkins said.

The team — with players from diverse socio-economic backgrounds from Idaho, Southern California, England and Africa — then talked about their own upbringings.

“Coach Wooden always said he never liked being called a coach. He liked being called a teacher. That’s what we’re doing, we’re teaching. I have an incredible opportunity as a basketball coach to instill some other values in our team,” Garson said. “I think that stuff carries over to the basketball court.’’

Garson’s outreach extended well beyond his players. Before the season, he held a reunion for former Coyote basketball players at his home. It engendered support from alums and gave current players a chance to learn more about the school’s rich basketball tradition.

During freshman orientation, Garson wore a tight basketball jersey and a football helmet and led the gym in the “Harlem Shake.”

“I was showing off a little L.A.-style, Hollywood dancing. I Hollywood’ed it up a little bit and everybody went nuts,” said Garson, who has a self-deprecating sense of humor.

It’s hard to see Wooden doing the “Harlem Shake.”

During the Coyotes’ version of Midnight Madness, he helped teach students a series of basketball cheers.

“Our students and fans have been lethargic the last few years. That’s on us,” Holly said. “He’s helped change our culture. It’s OK to be smart, but act stupid as long as you’re doing it the right way. We’re going to do it classy. We’re not going to say crude things, but we’re going to get in our opponents’ heads.”

Garson has similar touch, Holly said, with a 90-year-old man and a 12-year-old girl. Asked to donate to the Coyotes’ new football program, donors want to talk hoops. Garson has helped improve relationships with boosters and faculty, Holly said.

“Coach goes around talking to everybody. I’ve never met somebody who knows everybody. He’s been out here as long as I have and he knows everybody in the community,” Wilson said. “Everybody knows him, everybody loves him. He’s a great guy.”

Home games are events again. Friday night’s crowd was above capacity. The students have returned.

So, too, have the wins.

College of Idaho has achieved its highest-ranking since 2007 and seems poised to climb higher.

“To have a place where they really care about basketball is pretty exciting, is pretty special. How many places in NCAA Division I, II and III, and NAIA I and II can legitimately tell kids if you come here, we’re trying to win a national championship? How many teams can legitimately ay that with a straight face without lying?” Garson said. “We’ve won a national championship before and we’re going to try and do it again.”

Brian Murphy: 377-6444, Twitter: @MurphsTurph

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