As success has piled up for Boise State basketball over the past two seasons, it’s easy to wonder: Why now? Why did it take Leon Rice 11 years to bring a consistent winner to the Treasure Valley?
Over the last few months, as the Broncos kept winning en route to a second-straight NCAA Tournament appearance, Rice has tried to identify reasons.
There’s the players, of course, and the character and competitiveness they all seem to have. There’s Athletic Director Jeramiah Dickey and his staff, who have actually given Rice support in the form of funding, charter planes and the actual desire to get things done.
Then there’s Rice’s staff, a group compiled of Mike Burns, Tim Duryea, Roberto Bergerson and David Moats that Rice lauds and leans on in game preparation. They have experience but, more importantly, defined roles. Burns is in charge of the defense. Duryea controls the offense. Bergersen is all about player development. And Moats handles recruiting.
“It’s huge,” Rice said last week ahead of the Mountain West Tourney. “We get done with this last trip and I don’t need to have five hours of meetings to explain to everyone what they need to do for this tournament. ... They all know their jobs.”
Ahead of the Broncos’ NCAA Tournament game on Thursday, The Idaho Press sat down with Duryea — the former Utah State assistant and head coach who joined Rice’s staff in 2018 — about his career journey and offensive philosophies.
Some answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Jordan Kaye: How did you get your first coaching job at Colorado State in 1988?
TD: So that started in 1983. In ‘83, my freshman year at Pan-American, I played under Lon Kruger, who just retired from Oklahoma. My graduate assistant was Tim Jankovic, who played at K-State. I got to know him my freshman year. So 1988 comes and he is an assistant at CSU. So he’s the one that got me the GA position under (head coach) Boyd Grant.
JK: So when you were playing, were you looking at coaching and trying to make connections?
TD: Umm, I don’t think I was doing that. But I was keeping in touch with (Tim). I was a business major and an insurance minor. That’s why I moved back to the Dallas area — I figured that’s where I’d live. I didn’t really know if I wanted to coach or not, but at the end of my senior year, I figured I did. But in 1990, when my GA position was up, I actually got out of it, went back to Dallas and got back in the insurance industry.
TD: Yeah. When I got married, my wife wanted to move to Texas. I couldn’t get a full-time coaching job — and I was trying like crazy. There was just nothing available. So I was like, we’ll go back to Dallas, I’ll put the ‘ole degree to work and that’s where we went.
JK: How long were you selling insurance?
TD: I was a brokerage consultant, so I wasn’t selling it. I worked for an insurance company and traveled a territory. I called on insurance agents and helped them sell my product that was disability insurance. I was like a consultant. I wasn’t a salesman, but I would go on sales calls. It was a good job. It gave me a car and an expense account and bonuses and salary. I was like, “Holy cow.” But after two years — two and a half years, it was like, “This is not who I am.” Then Tim (Jankovic) got the North Texas job and, so, I got back in it then.
JK: You’ve been at two places — Boise State and Utah State — for the past 22 years. Was that just how things worked out or is loyalty and keeping your family in the same spot super important to you?
TD: That became important. When I moved to Logan (Utah), we figured — coaching is kind of like being in the Army, you think you’re gonna be somewhere four to five years then something is gonna happen. Then four years kind of became eight years and then, at that point, keeping my family (in the same spot) — they were happy, and not moving my kids when they got to a certain age, that actually became part of my thoughts. And we were very secure with our job and our situation and in coaching, that’s hard to come by. Then, before long, it became 14 years and then Stew (Morrill) was going to retire and I tried to get the head coaching gig and did that. So 14 years became 17 and then I had to come here.
JK: You mentioned being at Utah State for 17 years and I know it didn’t end well (Duryea was fired after three seasons and the two parties argued over what was owed on his contract after a typo in the contract said the contract ran from 2015 to 2019 even though it was for five years). How hard was it for you and your family to move past that?
TD: You know, hard. And it would’ve been harder but (BSU assistant Mike Burns) and (BSU head coach Leon RIce) called me a day or two later and said, ‘Hey, come on up. We’d like to talk to you. I didn’t know what I was going to do. If I was going to take a year off. If I would do something different. But this thing happened so fast that I basically transitioned into a new situation really quickly without even thinking about it.
JK: Do you want to be a head coach again?
TD: Yeah, sure. I kind of feel like I have unfinished business. I really didn’t get to finish the job that we started there. We kind of started over in our second year with some young players and they went on to have a lot of success — and two of them are still there. (Trevin) Dorius and (Steven) Ashworth are still there and they were my last two recruits at Utah State. So 40% of their starting lineup are still kids that we brought there — five years later. In one way, that’s been rewarding to see what they’ve done. In another way, that’s been frustrating to wonder what might have been. And, yet, we’ve gone on and done some good things here. But I think you always, you know, in my case anyways, you feel like you have unfinished business and you would like another opportunity to go the whole way.
JK: Well I’m guessing you’re thinking like, my process was correct and if I had the chance to see it through, then you start playing the what-if game.
TD: Sure. Yeah. We knew we needed to add a couple pieces to what we had coming back and, if we did, we thought we’d be really good. In my last year, we went further than we’d ever gone in the conference tournament. We were in the very beginning stages of being in the league and we made the conference semifinals. We felt like we were gonna be good, but we knew we needed some size. My starting center had missed the whole season with injuries — we had so many injuries. We felt good about it and then were just blindsided. But I’m not the only guy who has been blindsided in this business. It’s a hard business. There are always sharks in the water. Everyone knows that when you get into it. It’s just one of the things you sign up for, I guess.
JK: You’ve mentioned college basketball has turned into free agency. Do you like that?
TD: No. No. I wish it was a little bit different. I think the NIL is a good thing for players and freedom of movement to a certain degree is good. But where it feels like total free agency is every year, I just don’t think college athletics is meant to be.
JK: But, you guys at Boise State don’t have the youngest staff in the country and you have adapted extremely well.
TD: Leon has taken the attitude — and we’ve taken the attitude of we can sit around and gripe about it … or we can adapt. And if you don’t adapt, you might as well quit. You either adapt or you die. It doesn’t really matter if you like it or don’t like it. This is how it’s run nowadays. You’ve gotta jump on or jump off. There’s really no in-between.
JK: On a basketball note, I’ve noticed you’ve been calling plays this season using a binder with the play names on flip cards. What are the pros and cons of that?
TD: The pros are, it’s the easiest way to communicate with your team in the loud environments we play in. And there are actually more people in the country doing it than probably what people probably think. Some people use a whiteboard, like Colorado State. (Coach Eric) Mussleman did it at Nevada when he was in the league. They still do it at Arkansas. Purdue uses a whiteboard. We started using the cards way back with coach Morrill at Utah State. And I saw how easy it was to communicate.
JK: For a novice basketball fan, what kind of offense do you play?
TD: Umm, you know, we’re an execution-based team. We try to hit you with a lot of different quick hitters where there’s a planned action where we can kind of direct the ball to who we want to direct it to. Then, a lot of times you don’t get the shot you’re looking for, what we say is you have to play behind the play. The play is over, the little quick-hitter you tried is over, you didn’t get a shot. Now you have to be good at playing more ad-lib, motion basketball. It’s a mixture of freedom and structure. We try to help them, yet not get in their way. It’s a fine line.
JK: You say directing the ball. Does that mean to who has the best matchup?
TD: Yeah, matchups or who our best players are, where they are good at, where they need to catch it. Those kinds of things. Steal a few buckets here and there with some tricky actions. You try to scratch out baskets any way you can. This time of year, it’s hard.
JK: I’ve always thought the mark of a good in-game coach is what you do out of a time out and what you do on an out-of-bounds play. You’ve drawn up some incredible plays over the last two years that I’ve seen. A few last-second shots but even some in the middle of the game on an out-of-bounds play. I remember one to Tyson in the UNLV game. Where do you come up with these plays? Youtube? Scouting other teams?
TD: There’s some things that you’ve had for a long time that are good plays. There are other things that — you may be watching another game and you see an action. Or you’re scouting a team and the team they’re playing does something that you really like. Coaches are great thieves. You steal from everybody. You may have a friend in junior college who says, “Hey I run this and it’s been great.” Just all over the place. Maybe it comes from European basketball. In the offseason, I get a list of who led each conference in field-goal percentage offense then I try to watch them over the summer. A hundred possessions of different teams and try to see, like, why were they’re such an efficient offense? What were they doing? Are they doing some things that we could do?
JK: Last thing, I know you’ve watched some film of Northwestern. They have a really impressive backcourt, but they’re No. 14 in KenPom defensive efficiency. What do they do so well defensively?
TD: They do very few things — and they do them really well. In other words, they are a half-court, man-to-man team and they know exactly where they’re supposed to be at all times. They are very, very solid. They know how to guard pick-and-rolls. They know how to guard in the post. Usually guys are where they need to be when they’re executing their defense. There aren’t many missed assignments. It’s not like they hit you with a ton of different things. But what they hit you with, they do really, really well.