Travis DeCuire has the Montana men’s basketball team poised for a big season, but only if they can take care of the little things first
Travis DeCuire has seen enough. The University of Montana men’s basketball coach stood in his usual stance throughout an early season practice—hands firmly on hips, head tilted down, a hard glare as players ran drills—and only occasionally jumped in with a suggestion or correction. But when another defensive mistake leads to another easy basket, DeCuire steps in.
“You’re too soft!” he yells, not at a particular player but at the whole squad. “You’re not in the right spot. You’re not fighting to get to the right spot. Now I’ve got to work you harder.”
Without further explanation, all 14 players line up for a timed sprint. DeCuire blows his whistle and, as the team runs, the coach stomps along the sideline, taking this opportunity to bark his displeasure over the squeak of sneakers and heavy breathing of his players.
“Why do you think we had you run the drill at the beginning of practice? Why do you think we studied this on film?”
The way he walks the sideline now is similar to how he stalks the bench during games: reserved and focused, measured, until he sees something that stirs him into an animated burst. During games, these moments tend to show DeCuire edging farther and farther onto the Dahlberg Arena floor. Hardly a game goes by when he doesn’t receive a warning for leaving the designated coach’s box. Now, he’s mad enough to be walking among the running players, looking them straight in the eyes as they reach the finish.
“One thing leads to another,” he continues as they start a second sprint. “One thing leads to another and then another. We’ve got to do everything right. We’ve got to do every little thing right or else what we’re working for will not happen.”
What DeCuire and this year’s team are working toward is a mix of redemption and validation. It’s not a make-or-break season for the Griz, but 2017–2018 does carry the sort of urgency that can lead the coach to halt a practice mid-drill and remind his players what’s at stake.
“Every little thing,” he repeats as they finish the second sprint. “It all adds up, guys. Everything you do adds up.”
DeCuire, now in his fourth season at UM, took the reins at his alma mater with a decorated résumé and his name already in Montana’s record books. The school’s all-time and single-season assists leader as a point guard in the early 1990s, DeCuire went on to climb Montana’s lauded coaching tree, working as an assistant under former Griz mainstay Blaine Taylor at Old Dominion University and then alongside Mike Montgomery, another former Montana legend, at the University of California, Berkeley. Once he returned to Missoula for his first Division I head coaching job, becoming the school’s first-ever black head coach in any sport, DeCuire followed the script perfectly. He sprinted to two straight 20-win seasons, becoming the first coach in Montana history to achieve that feat, and caught the eye of bigger programs looking to nab the next great Griz coach.
But in each of those first two seasons, DeCuire fell short of the program’s ultimate annual goal—an NCAA tournament appearance—with losses in the conference championship game. Then, last year, the Griz took a significant step backward and finished a disappointing 16-16, losing in the conference quarterfinals despite an impressive, if disjointed, collection of individual talent.
This year’s team returns most of that talent, including all-conference point guard Ahmaad Rorie and the supremely athletic Michael Oguine, and adds to it eight new players, including 6-foot-8, 255-pound transfer Jamar Akoh and celebrated Texas freshman Karl Nicholas. (A ninth new player, Washington transfer Donaven Dorsey, underwent preseason hip surgery and will miss the season.) The 2017–2018 Griz have depth and balance that didn’t exist in the past—and, with such a promising-on-paper roster, higher expectations.
“We think we can be good enough to compete for a conference title,” DeCuire says after practice. “We have a list of guys who have experience and who we know what to expect. … We also have a list of new guys who are going to need to play with them, that we need to blend, and they make us unpredictable. It makes us unpredictable to opponents, but it also makes it unpredictable for us.”
Coaches tend to dislike unpredictability on their own team. It’s what makes DeCuire explode during practice over a repeated mistake. It’s what prompts a 20-minute lecture during sprints. It’s also what could make the difference between finally delivering a Big Sky championship and getting mired at .500 again. DeCuire doesn’t want the little things to get in his team’s way. He’s seen that happen too often at key points of his own career.
Talk to anyone who knows DeCuire—current or former players, fellow coaches, old teammates—and one word surfaces in short order: intensity. His passion is evident in his sideline demeanor and during practices, and it’s a trait that tracks back to his earliest days as a player growing up in the Seattle area.
“Travis is about as fierce a competitor as I’ve ever coached,” says Ed Pepple, the winningest coach in Washington prep history, who earned 952 victories over 49 years, including 42 years at Mercer Island High School. “He’s a winner. He’s a leader. He’s hard-nosed. He’s always been the sort of person who refuses to lose.”
DeCuire attributes his competitive nature to his father, Nile DeCuire. A former standout defensive back for the Washington State football team in the early 1970s, Nile took an active role in his son’s athletic pursuits. He was an assistant coach on Travis’ basketball teams from fourth through sixth grade, the head coach in seventh and eighth grade, and he continued to coach Travis’ summer league teams during high school.
“In life, he taught me how to compete,” Travis says. “He taught me what it means to fight for success, and I continue to fight for that.”
Nile knew football better than hoops, so he surrounded his son with basketball minds. Family friend and Seattle-area standout guard Tom Battles, whom Travis always referred to as his uncle, taught the younger DeCuire the finer points of playing point guard. Travis developed a deft handle on the ball, started to perfect his pinpoint passes, learned to be a lock-down defender and became an overall student of the game. He also developed into something of a showboat—he describes his younger self as “flashy, probably too flashy”—and garnered the nickname “Tricky” because, he says, “I hardly ever looked at the guy I was passing the ball to.” When it came time for Travis to attend high school, it was Nile who steered him away from closer schools with winning traditions and toward the stricter environment and stronger academics at Mercer Island.
“He was very hands-on,” Travis says of his father. “… In his own little way, I think he manipulated my basketball path.”
Mercer Island and Pepple proved to be an adjustment for DeCuire. A fierce disciplinarian and former Marine, Pepple didn’t allow DeCuire’s showboating. He did, however, provide a foundation of success and a national platform for DeCuire’s skills.
“Everything with him was about results,” DeCuire says. “You had to do things the right way. I tried to use my athleticism to cut corners. I played a certain way growing up and it didn’t necessarily fit his system, so I had to learn to concede that to be a part of something special.”
Something special seemed imminent during DeCuire’s senior year. Following a strong junior season, he’d attracted the interest of four or five Pac 10 schools and was leaning toward an offer from Washington State, his father’s alma mater. Mercer Island also entered the season with a Top 15 national ranking and received an invitation to the Beach Ball Classic in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. The tournament included top teams from around the country, including heralded recruits—and future NBA stars—Jimmy Jackson, from Ohio, and Kenny Anderson, from New York. DeCuire saw the tournament as his chance to put his name among the nation’s best.
But the day before the semifinal against Jackson’s team, DeCuire fell asleep in the team hotel while his teammates went shopping. He’d asked his roommates to wake him up, but no one did, and DeCuire missed the bus to a team function. As punishment, Pepple suspended DeCuire for the first quarter of the semifinal—a move that DeCuire says raised question marks among recruiters about his character.
“You know, it might’ve been unfair,” Pepple says now. “His dad was furious at me, and I don’t blame him. I mean, I was furious. I didn’t have anyone to guard Jimmy Jackson.”
Jackson went off for 12 first-quarter points, Mercer Island lost the game and DeCuire’s Division I prospects lost momentum. Both he and the team rebounded with another strong regular season campaign and appeared the favorite for a state championship, but things came undone during a late-season rivalry game. With Mercer Island comfortably ahead, DeCuires says, an altercation broke out with him in the middle. Punches were thrown and the star point guard was suspended again.
“At that point, all of my Division I offers were gone,” he says.
“It was hard,” Pepple says. “I think maybe it was a learning lesson. You can’t put all of your faith in a teammate to wake you up. You can’t lose your composure. You can’t let those things get in the way of you and your team’s bigger goals.”
Intensity isn’t the only trait that tends to dominate descriptions of DeCuire. Over the years, he’s commanded a deep sense of loyalty among those who helped him reach his current success, as well as those he’s influenced as a teammate and coach along the way.
“He’s been a mentor of mine my whole life,” says current Griz assistant coach Rachi Wortham. “A lot of it is about basketball, of course, but there’s more to it. He’s provided me with a lot of real-life thoughts, ways to … carry yourself. He’s the type of person who creates relationships beyond just basketball.”
Wortham, who also grew up in the Seattle area, has known DeCuire since DeCuire coached him in ninth grade. The way Wortham tells it, he basically had to force his way onto DeCuire’s radar. When the coach was putting together a traveling summer league team, he invited five players from Wortham’s high school to try out. Wortham wasn’t among those who received an invitation, but he tagged along anyway because, as he says, “I didn’t know any better. I was shorter than the other guys, maybe not as good, but I believed in myself and I guess you could say I believed I was a leader among the group.” DeCuire recognized Wortham’s contributions beyond the court and, even though he wasn’t one of the 12 best players, Wortham eventually made the team.
“When it was all said and done, he recognized my qualities as a leader,” says Wortham, who went on to win a Big Sky title at Eastern Washington in 2004. “He didn’t have to do that, he didn’t have to let me hang around on that team, but he did … He looked out for me, and he’s been doing that ever since. ”
DeCuire says he’s lost track of how many of his former players have become coaches, but he acknowledges that once someone comes under his wing, they tend not to leave. That consistency is true the other direction as well. Asked about his own mentors, DeCuire lists his father, coach Pepple and former Griz player and coach Blaine Taylor. All three played a part in DeCuire’s circuitous route to Missoula.
When scholarship offers dried up for DeCuire following his senior year scuffle, his only choices were nationally ranked junior colleges, some late interest from the University of North Carolina in Wilmington, and Division II Chaminade University in Hawaii. The latter hosted the Maui Invitational, a televised early-season tournament that attracted top D-1 schools, so DeCuire went to Hawaii figuring he could at least showcase his talents and maybe parlay the opportunity into a better offer down the road.
“Terrible,” he says flatly of the experience. “The only losing season I ever had in my life.”
Chaminade went 8–18. DeCuire put up decent numbers (he led the team in scoring with 10.9 points per game), but the team never gelled and his exposure was limited. After the school year, DeCuire returned to Washington to play summer league, determined to leave Hawaii as soon as possible.
Meanwhile, Taylor, then an assistant coach for Stew Morrill at Montana, was searching for a point guard to recruit to Missoula.
“I was at an event in Pomona [California],” Taylor says, “and one morning I ran into Ed Pepple and asked him, ‘Whattaya got for me?’”
“I was in the pool!” Pepple recalls. “Every morning I’d swim laps and this one morning, I finish my laps and see this big guy jump in the water and swim over to me. It’s Blaine Taylor. We had the whole conversation in our bathing suits.”
Pepple told Taylor about DeCuire, who was then 1,150 miles away in Seattle. With Morrill’s blessing, Taylor hopped a flight to see DeCuire play—only to immediately regret his decision.
“I arrive in Seattle,” Taylor says, “get to the game, and I remember walking into the gym and there’s this guy on a breakaway layup who bounces it off the floor, off the backboard, gets all tangled up in a mess and tries to dunk it, and I’m thinking, well, that can’t be him.”
Taylor laughs now at his introduction to “Tricky” Travis DeCuire. He watched a few more games and eventually saw the traits that had prompted Pepple’s recommendation. He also took the time to talk with the cocky guard.
“If you got to know the kid at all, he’d look you in the eye and he had that deep baritone voice and he just had that little something extra,” Taylor says. “You can sense a kid’s passion for the game, his understanding of the game. He had an aptitude.”
For DeCuire, Montana represented a return to winning. Morrill’s teams had done well in the Big Sky, but they’d failed to secure a conference title. Taylor detailed some of the recruits coming in and how DeCuire could help put the Griz over the top. It didn’t hurt that Montana’s athletic director at the time, Bill Moos, had been a teammate of Nile DeCuire at Washington State.
“Hell, Bill held Travis as little baby,” Taylor says. “You can’t ask for a better deal as a recruiter. He had other offers, I think, but once we got him to visit, I thought we had him.”
“He sold me on a dream,” DeCuire says of Taylor. “I had always won. After that year [in Hawaii], I just wanted to get back to winning.”
Sure enough, in DeCuire’s first year on campus, the Griz won the Big Sky, later losing to eventual Final Four team UNLV in the NCAA tournament. As a redshirt transfer, DeCuire could only practice that season, but Montana had returned to the sport’s highest level and was poised to repeat in 1991–92 with DeCuire in the rotation. The success also brought change: Colorado State hired Morrill away, and Taylor took over as Montana’s head coach.
The team hardly missed a beat under Taylor. Montana finished the season 26–5, again making the NCAA tournament. DeCuire played nearly 20 minutes a game and led the Big Sky in three-point shooting percentage. His experience, coupled with the bulk of the roster graduating, meant DeCuire would return for his junior season as the focal point and captain of Montana’s team. It turned out to be more responsibility than he knew how to handle.
DeCuire doesn’t often mince words. Like most good coaches, he’s direct and clear. He’s also honest in his assessment of a player, play, team or season—even when the assessment involves him. That openness isn’t limited to the court, and it’s one reason that many of the team’s current players chose Missoula.
“When I came to visit, part of what attracted me was that he was just down to earth,” says Jamar Akoh, a transfer from Cal State-Fullerton. “He tells you how it is and then that’s how it is. He’s true to his word.”
“He’s real,” says point guard Ahmaad Rorie. “We talk a lot of basketball, but he asks about my family, we talk about my grades, we talk about life. That’s real big for coach, and it always has been.”
“He’s the most relational person I’ve ever been around,” says Wortham. “He understands his community. He understands his family. He understands the kids that he works with. His relationships are true relationships.”
DeCuire’s ability to communicate with players is partly why he carries the label of a players’ coach.
“I’m about as intense as they come,” he says, “but I also try to be compassionate. I care about my guys. I try not to beat them up.”
By his own definition, being a players’ coach also means he doesn’t try to force his players into a rigid system, as Pepple did to him. Rather, DeCuire tailors his system to his players’ strengths and weaknesses.
“I don’t want to make everyone into squares and triangles [on a chalkboard],” he says. “To me, a players’ coach is someone who has a good feel for what’s best for each individual player. He allows them to play to their personality, to play the game they’re comfortable playing. At the same time, he helps them identify their strengths and weaknesses so they see them—and that goes for both off the court and on the court.”
The lesson applies to DeCuire’s own junior year at Montana. At first, he describes it simply as “hard.” The more he considers it, though, the more he starts to assess what he did wrong, and why, and how he could’ve been better. The Griz went a respectable 17-11 and DeCuire, who led the team in minutes played and assists, earned all-conference honorable mention. But ultimately, the team—and DeCuire—fell short of their goals.
“I didn’t accept [my role],” he says now. “I thought that putting guys on my back and scoring was who I should be. I didn’t realize how easy it was to make shots when you’re not the guy they’re keying on. I think I downplayed my value as a passer. I look back at it with regret, because I wasted a year when it comes to my assists, my strengths, and I think it affected what was there for me after I finished playing.”
Taylor doesn’t disagree.
“When he’s asked to defend the way he does and dime [pass] the basketball, he was at his absolute best,” Taylor says. “But then you ask him to be the captain, make sure everyone gets to class, make sure everyone is working in the weight room, advise the club when we lose and keep everyone level-headed when we win, and then you also ask him to score the ball more? You worry if it’s going to wear him thin. I think that’s what happened.”
DeCuire returned for his senior year with a better sense of his strengths and weaknesses. He was still a team captain, floor general and defensive leader, but he looked to share the burden and better serve his teammates. During the 1993–1994 season, a typical DeCuire stat line might involve one or two shots from the field, double-digit assists and an opponent’s leading scorer shut down. The Griz improved to 19–9, and by the end of the year, DeCuire had dished out 199 assists, giving him 435 for his career—both school records.
“I had fun with it,” says DeCuire. “I could just be me.”
At banquets and in interviews, Blaine Taylor has a line to describe the pressures of playing and coaching at Montana.
“It’s old like the line from ‘New York, New York,’” he says. “If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. That’s Montana basketball.”
Taylor uses the line to help explain how Montana, of all places, cultivated one of the sport’s most illustrious coaching trees. It’s not easy to recruit top players to Missoula, he says, nor is it easy to schedule quality opponents at Dahlberg Arena during the winter. Yet over the years, Montana has produced some of college basketball’s most successful coaches.
The tree’s roots start with Jud Heathcote, who went from Missoula to Michigan State University, where he won the 1979 National Championship with the help of a guard named Magic Johnson. Heathcote’s former assistant, Mike Montgomery, coached eight seasons at Montana before jumping to Stanford, then to the NBA’s Golden State Warriors and finally to Cal. Montgomery’s exit from Montana opened the door to Morrill, who, after a stint at Colorado State, became the all-time winningest coach at Utah State. Then there’s Taylor, who went on to four NCAA tournaments with Old Dominion University. In more recent years, Larry Krystkowiak led Montana to two consecutive March Madness berths before leaving for the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks and, now, the top job at Utah in the Pac 12. Wayne Tinkle took over for Krystkowiak at Montana and, after two NCAA berths of his own, followed Coach K to the Pac 12 by earning the head coach position at Oregon State.
DeCuire’s path to succeeding Tinkle in Missoula touches almost every branch of the Montana tree, as well as his earlier days in Washington. In fact, DeCuire’s coaching ascent is a lesson in making and maintaining connections.
“It’s like one long version of that movie Pay it Forward,” says Taylor.
After graduating from Montana with a business degree, DeCuire played one season overseas in Australia before realizing that he wanted to pursue coaching. His first stop was at Mercer Island on Pepple’s staff. One of DeCuire’s roles involved coaching the freshman team, which included Matt Logie, Pepple’s grandson and a former Mercer Island ball boy. Logie considered DeCuire his favorite player while growing up, and used to follow him around on road trips, “probably annoying the heck out of him, to be honest,” Logie admits. “But I was the coach’s grandson, so what was he going to do?”
Logie remembers DeCuire as a passionate and driven coach—and even tougher to play against. By the time Logie made varsity, his childhood idol had taken the head coach position at rival Sammamish High School, where he won two conference titles.
“I tease him that he stole a little bit of our family knowledge and used it against us,” Logie says.
Today, Logie is in his seventh season coaching Division III Whitworth in Spokane. The Griz opened the 2017–2018 season by beating Logie’s squad 72–60 at Dahlberg Arena. Ed Pepple, now 84, watched the game from the Whitworth bench.
At the same time DeCuire started to establish himself as a high school coach, he launched a nonprofit in Seattle aimed at helping young athletes in need. The Fastbreak Basketball Association, which included a traveling Amateur Athletic Union team, gave DeCuire the chance to teach life lessons he had learned the hard way—about recognizing strengths and weaknesses, about how the little things add up—and also created a pipeline of teenagers willing to follow his lead. FBA is how Wortham first met DeCuire.
Following his stint at Sammamish, DeCuire took over a last-place program at Green River Community College just south of Seattle for the 2001–2002 season and, a year later, led them to a conference championship and their first 20-win season in more than 20 years. One of his assistant coaches was Tom Battles, the family friend who helped teach him the point guard position.
Blaine Taylor, then at Old Dominion in Virginia, says he had been keeping tabs on DeCuire. In 2003, after Krystkowiak left Taylor’s staff, Taylor looked to fill the position with someone else who understood his background.
“Most of the staff was from the East Coast,” Taylor says. “I wanted someone familiar with Montana basketball, someone familiar with me, someone who knew where I went to high school, someone who knew the foundation of what I teach.”
DeCuire spent five seasons with Taylor, helping lead the Monarchs to a 117–53 record and two NCAA tournament appearances. Taylor put DeCuire in charge of monitoring academics and, later, recruiting, where his gift for communicating with players shined.
“The only thing that limited Travis in recruiting was that we only had 13 scholarships,” Taylor says. “If he could’ve had his way, we’d have 50 guys on full rides, because he could attract kids from everywhere.”
Taylor, who refers to DeCuire as “the son I never had,” now works as an assistant at UC Irvine. On Dec. 17, he’ll have the “really uncomfortable feeling” of sitting on the visiting bench at Dahlberg Arena when the Anteaters play Montana.
In 2008, DeCuire finally made his way back west when Mike Montgomery, at Taylor’s suggestion, added DeCuire to his staff in Berkeley. For six years, including four as Montgomery’s associate head coach, DeCuire helped Cal to four NCAA tournament appearances.
In 2014, when Montgomery announced his retirement, he publicly recommended DeCuire as his replacement. The school balked at hiring someone without any major college head coaching experience, and instead lured Cuonzo Martin from the University of Tennessee. DeCuire’s future was in limbo until, a month later, Oregon State announced the hire of Wayne Tinkle from Montana. It took less than two weeks for Griz athletic director Kent Haslam to fill the position. On May 31, 2014, DeCuire returned to his alma mater as head coach.
“As soon as I started to visit with him,” Haslam said at the time, “it was very apparent that he was the right guy for this job.”
For all his flash on the court, DeCuire doesn’t much like attention as a coach. When first approached about an interview for this story he reacted with surprise. “Me? You sure you don’t want to just talk to the team?” An old website built when DeCuire was looking to land his first head coaching gig and detailing his coaching values—it’s still online, although it hasn’t been updated for at least five years—features a quote from Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu on the homepage: “A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”
It’s silly to think that DeCuire would escape recognition if this year’s Griz team regains a spot atop the Big Sky, but the coach’s thinking does offer a window into how he’s approaching the current season. With a deep roster split between established veterans and new faces, DeCuire needs to simultaneously build chemistry, define roles and manage egos.
“Everyone defines success by banners and rings, how many guys you put in the NBA and how many all-conference guys you have at the end of the year. I want to think beyond that,” DeCuire says. “For me, success is when each individual player takes his individual goals, his dream, and puts them aside for what’s better for the whole. What sacrifice does he make for our group? If each guy does that, your chance of success is pretty high. And your level of success is defined by how many guys do it and fully commit it.”
Early in the season, DeCuire got a glimpse of the level this team could reach. On Nov. 13, the Griz traveled to Pittsburgh and won 83–78 in overtime. It was Montana’s first win against a “Power 5” school since 2010, and the first time it had beaten an Atlantic Coast Conference opponent since 1966. Michael Oguine scored a career-high 29 points and Ahmaad Rorie added 18, while fellow starters Bobby Moorehead and Fabijan Krslovic combined for 20 points and 15 rebounds.
Just as important as those headlines were the details farther down the stat sheet. Most notably, Sayeed Pridgett, a Swiss Army knife sophomore capable of playing point guard or guarding a power forward, and who started 11 games last year, came off the bench to score 12 points and grab eight rebounds while playing almost the entire second half and overtime. His selflessness and ability to fill multiple different roles could be a key to Montana’s season.
After the defining win of his Montana tenure, DeCuire kept the game in perspective. In the postgame press conference, he acknowledged that the victory was exciting for fans, good for recruiting and a sign that his team was maturing. Ultimately, though, he said it was simply “part of the process.”
DeCuire used a similar phrase before the season started. Even as he explained his own process-oriented definition of success, he said the team’s goals were different this year. Yes, the Griz aim to reach the NCAA tournament. How they approach that goal is what’s changed.
“Last year, we set goals at the beginning of the year. The year before that, we set goals at the beginning of the year,” he said. “We were always working toward that ultimate goal, so if you lose a game you go into a depression. It was always about a championship instead of just enjoying the process and enjoying the moment. So right now, we’re not going to talk about the championships.”
He prefers to focus on the little things, doing each one right, and hope that, in the end, they all add up this time.