It's hard to imagine 2015 being much better for Scott Garson than 2014. In 2013, after he became the 15th men's basketball head coach in the history of the College of Idaho, Garson led his squad to a Cascade Collegiate Conference championship. He recognizes that his Division II opponents in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics are gunning for his team, but the C of I Coyotes responded by opening the 2014-2015 season with a school-record 11 straight wins and are the NAIA coaches' favorite to repeat as champions.
Garson, a Southern California native, brought serious cred when he took the reins at C of I. He was an assistant under legendary coach Rick Majerus at the University of Utah and served nine years as an assistant UCLA men's basketball coach, helping to take the Bruins to back-to-back Final Fours.
It's all uphill from here: Garson's team has some busy months ahead, playing 12 games between Friday, Jan. 9 and Saturday, Feb. 21. With a bit of luck and a great deal of skill, the Coyotes will be back in the playoffs and headed to another championship in the NAIA's own version of March Madness.
Is sports a big part of your bloodline?
My dad and dad's dad were great athletes. My dad was a pretty good basketball player when he transferred to UCLA. John Wooden [basketball coach] had some great talent already, including somebody by the name of Lew Alcindor [a.k.a. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar], so that ended my dad's basketball career. My grandfather was a pretty good football player at UC Davis and boxed a bit in the Navy. He used to have to defend himself against some anti-Semitism.
Let's talk a bit about your faith. I'm guessing that it didn't take long for you to get to know Dr. Howard Berger [namesake of C of I's Howard Berger-Ray Neilsen Chair in Judaic Studies].
First of all, I'm a minority in the business I'm in. Secondly, I'm coming to Caldwell, Idaho. But lo and behold, they started a chair in Judaic studies at the C of I this past year; I'm blown away by all that. Dr. Berger is a great friend.
Do you spend time on the Berger Bench [in the C of I quadrangle]?
Weekly. Howard is such an amazing presence on campus.
Talk to me about someone else who was a role model: Coach Rick Majerus. To an outsider, he seemed like an enigma.
He lived in a hotel in his entire time at Utah. Coach John Wooden used to say that next to love, balance was the most important thing. Coach Majerus didn't have that balance. It was all about basketball and food for him. And when it came to basketball, he was a savant, a genius. He wanted everyone to go hard at all times, at every practice, every day. He was hardest on his best players.
What part of that have you adopted in your own philosophies?
Coach Majerus' practices would go pretty long. For me, we're going to end practice on time. I think of Coach Majerus every single day, but I have to be myself. I don't like to cuss in front of players. I'm a teacher, and I think players will give you their best because they know you care. We have incredible young men, and it's important that they grow up to be better people.
You have a very talented team but playing in the NAIA, it's a good bet that these young men won't end up in the NBA, and for many of your seniors, this season will be their finale.
They'll never be a part of something like this. Tomorrow, we'll be at practice, and I'll tell them that they'll never have another day like that day—to practice in college. This is it. And seniors get that.
You have to channel those emotions, yes?
It could be detrimental if you let your emotions take over. We talk a lot about poise.
You have a master's degree in sports psychology. I'm presuming that's where some of your technique comes from.
I learned about meditation: closing your eyes, taking deep breaths, visualizing the moment. I've had my team in crucial timeouts, and I tell them to close their eyes and imagine the court, their routes and the play—all of it.
Tell me about the pressure to repeat as NAIA champions.
Handling success is so much more difficult. All of our opponents are giving us their best shot at each game. Now, they see College of Idaho on their schedule and say, "That's a big game for us."
And talk about how the College of Idaho has become a sports destination, especially following your championship run and the success of the football team.
Suddenly, the College of Idaho is the cool place to go. It's amazing to see how many Ada County license plates are in the parking lot for our games. The culture has totally changed. Phenomenal. Not just with basketball or football. More than 40 percent of [students at] our school are student athletes. And keep in mind, we're the No. 1 academic college in the state. It's thrilling.