BILLINGS — Mick Durham was nervous.
And he could tell the players were too.
Durham had officially been Montana State Billings men’s basketball coach for only a few hours as he gathered the returning Yellowjackets around him at Alterowitz Gymnasium.
“I wasn’t sure how I was going to be received,” said Durham of the April 5 workout. “I'm sure the players’ heads were spinning because of the coaching change.”
As Durham scanned the huddle and the players scanned back, he was struck by a thought.
“Hey,” he told the Yellowjackets. “It was just a few weeks ago that I was coaching against you.”
Now he will be leading them.
Durham was formally introduced as MSUB’s next men’s basketball coach on Monday afternoon. He was hired on March 28 but conflicting schedules with him and athletic director Krista Montague prevented an immediate press conference.
The 61-year-old Durham replaces Jamie Stevens, who resigned after seven seasons with MSUB.
Durham comes to Billings after seven seasons, “Coaches speak in seasons, not years,” he joked, with the University of Alaska in Fairbanks.
Both MSUB and the Nanooks are members of the Great Northwest Athletic Conference.
Montague said there were 32 applicants and Durham was the only one to have an on-campus interview.
“We knew this was an important hire,” said Montague. “Obviously, Mick caught our attention right away. Something that stood out, with all the people I talked to, was that Mick is really a good person. He understands the Division II experience. We’re thrilled that our student-athletes will have an outstanding role model.
“I’ve received a lot of texts and emails after his hiring was announced and it’s refreshing to have that excitement around the program.”
Durham inherits a team that finished 13-18 overall and 5-15 in the GNAC.
“There is a good base here. It isn’t broke,” he said of the returning players. “All seven returning players have played quality minutes in the GNAC.”
Along with establishing relationships with the seven players, he has started to reestablish his ties with his basketball contacts around the state.
“When I talked to Krista one thing we discussed was re-connecting the program with the state of Montana,” said Durham. “I want to give Montana kids a chance to compete at this level. I think many don’t understand the D-II experience. We fly to games and are in a league that has hubs in Portland and Seattle. They just don’t know how good this basketball is.”
The Three Forks native was the head coach at Montana State in Bozeman for 16 seasons, winning Big Sky Conference titles in 1996 and 2002. His 1996 team advanced to the NCAA Tournament, the last NCAA appearance for the Bobcats.
“When I took over MSU, we didn’t have a Montana player on the roster,” he said. “And a kid named Scott Hatler took a chance on us.”
Hatler is in the MSU athletic hall of fame.
Durham hopes to bring in as many as six new players for next season and have an assistant coach hired by the next week.
The new job has also been a trip down memory lane for the former Bobcat point guard.
“I lost the only game of my senior year in Alterowitz,” Durham recalled.
Three Forks was 24-0 going into the 1975 Class B state tournament but was upset by eventual state champion Medicine Lake in the first round. The Wolves rebounded to win their next three and defeat Belt for third place.
Durham and his wife Donna lived in Billings for two years when he was the head coach at Shepherd High School (1980-82).
"We knew at some point, we would like to come back from Alaska," he said of returning to his home state. "This is a better way."
But now the focus is on teaching the current players and recruiting new ones.
“You’ve got to take care of your backyard,” Durham emphasized. “It’s important to sign Montana kids when you can. We’re the only D-II school in the state. Why not get the whole state to support us?”