The Monson Era
University of Idaho Photo Archives
University of Idaho Photo Archives
Staff Writer, VandalVenue.com
Posted Mar 2, 2004


EDITOR'S NOTE: VV.com staff writer Marlin Smith takes an in-depth look at the greatest era in the history of Idaho men's hoops. From 1977-1983, the Vandals transformed themselves into a program that "Danced" on the national stage. From their Sweet 16 run, to their #6 AP ranking, to a feature in Sports Illustrated, the Vandals were relentless. The man largely responsible for this unprecedented success was a coach by the name of Don Monson, a 1955 graduate of The University of Idaho.

Like most times, the 1970s were a time of change in Moscow, Idaho. The rapidly expanding "Miracle Mile" on Pullman Road would include the first McDonalds on the Palouse by the middle of the decade and the Palouse Empire Mall by the end of it. Over at the University of Idaho, the Blue Mountain Rock Festival was in full swing in the free-living 70's but the Vandal athletic program was struggling to meet the new challenges that the era presented. As the decade began, the football program had no home at all due to the demise of Neale Stadium in 1969, which resulted in the team having to play their home games in Pullman. In Idaho's other major sport, a decade after Gus Johnson had packed fans into its rafters, the Vandal basketball program was still playing within the constricted confines of Memorial Gym which was constructed in 1928. To alleviate these facility problems, Idaho had plans to build a 23,055 seat football stadium with an adjoining 10,300 seat basketball arena. However, these grand plans never materialized due to the tough economic climate of the day and the ramifications of the State Board of Education's decision to not allow the Vandals to move to the Pacific Coast Athletic Association (PCAA) in 1973.

Out of these conditions rose the multipurpose Kibbie Dome in 1975. The new home of the Vandals was created out of necessity and built from downsized plans. Nevertheless, with its innovative barrel-arched wooden roof the facility was quite an engineering feat that earned the prestigious "Outstanding Structural Engineering Achievement" award in 1976. This honor given by the American Society of Civil Engineers was once bestowed upon the St. Louis Arch. However, even with the addition of this impressive new structure on the Idaho campus, the major sports programs at the University of Idaho in the mid 1970's seemed to have lost their way. The Vandal football team consistently lost in the 1970's. For example, the 51-6 Homecoming loss to Weber State in 1978 sticks out in the mind of this author. 1978 was also the year that the NCAA reorganized their football divisions and Idaho was forced into the newly created 1-AA classification, which was a lower level than the Vandals were used to competing at.

They say that it is always the darkest before dawn. Well, the mid to late 1970's were a very dark time for Idaho basketball. Jim Jarvis, a former Oregon State player, was chosen to coach the Vandals in 1974. However, by the time his teams won only 5 games in 1976-77 and only 4 games 1977-78, his welcome was worn out in Moscow. To add insult to injury, Jarvis got into trouble with the NCAA for recruiting violations. The sin was having recruits spend time at a cabin owned by the family of Vandal assistant coach Wes Sordorf. The NCAA reprimanded Idaho for this recruiting tactic and put the Vandal basketball program on probation. The Vandal fans, the few that Idaho had, were not an optimistic bunch. They talked about how ridiculous it was to play the home games in the new spacious Kibbie Dome instead of cozy old Memorial Gym. Of course, soon the new Kibbie Dome wouldn't be big enough to hold the legions of Idaho basketball fans but the Vandal faithful didn't know it, not yet.

Richard Gibb became the new president at the University of Idaho in 1977. He was more athletically minded than his predecessor Earnest Hartung and intent to change the sagging fortunes of Vandal athletics. To turn the program around, President Gibb chose Bill Belknap to be his new athletic director. One of Belknap's first jobs at Idaho was to hire a new basketball coach. He immediately put his stamp on Idaho athletics when he insisted on hiring a guy named Don Monson to coach the Vandals, even though Monson originally didn't make the list of finalists put forth by the search committee. Don Monson, a 1955 Idaho graduate, came to Idaho from Michigan State where he served under Jud Heathcote. Monson was given credit for recruiting Earvin "Magic" Johnson, who would lead the Spartans to the national title in 1979. When Don Monson arrived back in Moscow in 1978, the Idaho Vandals seemed about as far removed from the nation's elite as they could possibly be. This, however, is something that would soon change.

Ironically, the turnaround of Idaho basketball in the late 70's can be traced back not to Don Monson, but to a Jim Jarvis recruit named Don Newman. Newman considered Idaho out of high school but chose to play at Louisiana State University instead. After an additional pit stop at Grambling, Newman finally ended up in Moscow where he belonged. He sat out the 1977-78 basketball season due to the transfer rules. Therefore, Jarvis never got the benefit of Newman's talents as a guard on the basketball court but Monson benefited greatly. In addition to his athletic ability, Donald "Duck" Newman's charismatic personality captivated not only Idaho's fans but also Idaho's new recruits. Newman was the host when a recruit visited Idaho and Newman was very effective at selling what the Vandals had to offer. Don Newman ran out of eligibility in 1980 but his impact on what was soon to follow cannot be understated.

The dramatic nature of Idaho's basketball turnaround became apparent when Idaho won 17 games in Monson's second year in 1979-80. Reed Jaussi was a talented forward on this good Idaho team. Newman shared the backcourt with a promising young quick-handed and sharp shooting 6'5" 190 lb guard out of Richland, Washington named Brian Kellerman. Freshman forward Phil Hopson, a quick leaping 6'6" 190 pound Portland, Oregon native was also on this team and starting to make his mark on Idaho basketball. So, even with the loss of Newman and Jaussi, the Vandals had high expectations going into the 1980-81 basketball season. To replace Don Newman and Reed Jaussi, Idaho brought in two JC transfers named Ken Owens and Gordie Herbert. Owens, a talented 6'0" 180 lb point guard originally from New York City, came to Idaho from Treasure Valley Community College in Oregon. Herbert, a 6'6" 205 lb forward originally from Vancouver, British Columbia, came to Idaho from North Idaho College. Each new addition would fit in perfectly with Don Monson's system.

Idaho's revamped basketball team started out on a roll to open the 1980-81 season. They won their first 10 games, which included victories over Nebraska, Washington State, and Gonzaga before losing a game to Oklahoma State. Idaho went on to post a 12-2 Big Sky record and proceeded to win the conference championship at the post-season tournament held in Moscow. Idaho drew Pittsburgh in the first round of the NCAA tournament in a game played in El Paso, Texas. But, Kellerman had the flu and the Vandals came home feeling sick after a disappointing 70-69 loss to the Panthers. Idaho finished the year with a record of 25-4 and briefly broke into the nation's top twenty. Solid senior contributors such as Dan Forge, Jeff Brudie and Ron Maben had played their last game for Idaho. Don Monson warned Idaho's fans not to expect another year like the one that they had just witnessed to happen again. Little did he know that the best was yet to come.

First, Idaho had to find a new center. They found it in a long armed, high jumping JC transfer originally from Pasco, Washington named Kelvin Smith. Smith, only 6'6" tall and 190 lbs, came to Idaho from Taft Junior College in California and would play big for Vandals in the post. At first, Monson wasn't sold on Smith to be his man in the middle. But, when Smith was in on a recruiting visit, Kellerman (who knew Smith since they were both from the Tri-Cities) had him and departing Vandal post Mike Dow, who stood 6'11", stand next to a wall and see who could reach higher. When Smith's reach extended about 5 inches longer than the almost 7 footer's, Don Monson knew that he had found his center. When people later questioned Monson about his somewhat short center, he'd bark back by saying "You don't rebound with the top of your head, you rebound with your hands!" With Smith playing center what would become the most famous starting five in Idaho basketball history was in place. The guards were Brian Kellerman and Kenny Owens. At the forward positions, it was Phil Hopson and Gordie Herbert. Kelvin Smith at center became the perfectly fitting final piece of the puzzle that Don Monson needed to put Idaho basketball on the national map.

Idaho started out the 1981-82 basketball season by going 16-0. Early in December, the Vandals throttled the Washington Huskies in Seattle by the score of 86-61. A few days later, Idaho came back to the Palouse to defeat a strong George Raveling led Washington State squad in Pullman by the score of 68-48 in front of 8,300 fans. Vandal supporters knew that they had something special but the nation wouldn't notice the surging Idaho basketball team until the Vandals played in the prestigious Far West Classic in Portland just after Christmas. In their first tournament game, Idaho trounced Iowa State 88-68 in front of over 11,000 fans. Next up was powerful Oregon State. The Beavers, coached by the legendary Ralph Miller, were ranked 15th in the nation. But, before over 12,000 fans, the "Orange Express" was no match for Idaho on that particular night. The Beavers went down hard by the stunning final score of 71-49. Idaho followed this jaw-dropping performance up by dumping the Oregon Ducks the following evening by the convincing score of 81-62 to win the Far West Classic title. Owens scored 32 points in the effort. Idaho was 4-0 against the PAC-10 with an amazing average victory margin of 21.5 points.

The secret that the Idaho Vandals had a great basketball team was out. The following week Idaho entered the national polls, getting ranked 18th by the AP and 13th by UPI. The Vandals continued their winning ways as the Big Sky Conference season got underway. On January 15th, Idaho beat Idaho State 73-62 in front of 8,500 Moscow fans. Also at the game was Sports Illustrated writer Jack McCallum who wrote a two page feature on Idaho entitled "A Case Of Vandalism In Big Sky Country." On January 18th, Idaho rose to #8 in the two major national polls. However, Idaho's own version of the infamous Sport's Illustrated jinx was about to befall the Vandals.

Up next for Idaho was the dreaded Montana road trip featuring games against the Bobcats and Grizzlies on consecutive nights. Idaho's first stop was in Bozeman where they came away with a 49-38 win over Montana State on Friday night. The Vandals were now 16-0 and headed to Missoula to face the Montana Grizzlies coached by Mike Montgomery the following night. But, before facing the Grizzlies Idaho had to face a snowstorm and a long, cold drive to Missoula where they arrived at 3:30 a.m. Playing the Grizzlies 14 hours later, the game was knotted at 51 and looking like overtime when Montana's Doug Selvig slapped a long rebound through the net at the buzzer for 53-51 win. Whether the ball actually left the shooter's hand before time ran out is a matter of debate. But, the fact of the matter was that Idaho had lost their first game of the season and they had no time to rest, much less stew about it. On Monday, Idaho was scheduled to play Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana in a game setup for television.

Getting to Notre Dame was not easy! The Missoula airport was closed due to the poor weather. Interstate 90 was also shut down and no charter bus would transport the Vandals under those conditions. Therefore, the already tired Idaho team ended up having to rent 4 wheel drive vehicles and drive themselves to Spokane in order to catch a flight to Indiana. After getting to Spokane and enduring a travel nightmare of canceled and reconnected flights, the Vandals arrived in South Bend and the Eastern Time zone at 4:00 a.m. They had to be up for a 10:00 a.m. shoot-around that couldn't be changed and had to play the Fighting Irish that evening. In spite of it all, Idaho burst out to a huge 28-10 lead. Then, Monson admittedly made one of his biggest mistakes as coach of the Vandals. Thinking that his tired team needed to conserve energy, he "took the air out of the ball" and slowed things down. The Vandals, who were no doubt running on pure adrenaline, lost their momentum and couldn't recapture it. With the Vandals' tank on empty, the Fighting Irish caught up to Idaho by the end of regulation. The game went into overtime where the exhausted Vandals again fell by two, 50-48.

The Vandals returned to Moscow smarting from two straight close losses and a drop in the national polls. Boise State was up next and the Broncos never had a chance! In front of 9,200 Moscow fans, Idaho drilled Boise State 91-59. A week later, the Vandals trounced Nevada-Reno 91-79 as 9,500 Idaho fans watched. On February 18th, the Vandals got even with Montana 71-58 insuring that the Big Sky Conference tournament would be held in Moscow. Idaho began a climb back up in the rankings where they peaked at #6 in both major national polls.

What made this Don Monson coached team so special? As a junior high aged kid lucky enough to witness the entire spectacle from front row seats, this author has to say that it was a combination of things. It started with the intense personality of Don Monson. He wouldn't let the team play poorly. If they did, he'd yell, pull his hair out and go through all kinds of fits and contortions. He was often as entertaining to watch as the team. But, no coach can win without the right players. Monson didn't get top recruits to Moscow, but the did get 5 guys who were the perfect fit for his system. Under Monson, the Vandals played a tenacious match-up zone defense that the players completely bought into. On offense, the secret was good chemistry, great timing and sharp shooting. On a typical offensive possession, the Vandals would pass the ball around until someone got a good look at the basket. Or, in their most famous play, Idaho would be passing the ball around when all of a sudden Hopson would break free on a backdoor play. Trust me, the Kellerman to Hopson alley-oop dunk was a thing of pure beauty to watch. It brought the huge Kibbie Dome crowds to their feet time and time again.

The 1981-82 Idaho basketball team was more than the sum of its individual parts. Even though the intangibles of what made the team great cannot properly be measured, Idaho was nationally ranked in several statistical categories. There also remains in the Idaho record books plenty of data indicating the greatness of the players that made it all happen. For instance, in his two years at Idaho Kelvin Smith blocked an incredible 133 shots! Phil Hopson shot 63.2 percent from the field in 81-82 and Kelvin Smith wasn't far behind at 56.9 percent. Gordie Herbert shot 53.8 percent during his Idaho career and he was mainly an outside shooter. Ken Owens led the balanced team in scoring in 81-82, averaging 15.6 points per game. However, a better measure of what Ken Owens meant to the team can be seen by looking at what he did against Iowa State. He had 15 assists and shot 12 out of 12 from the free throw line. Against Washington, he was 15 out of 15 from the line and for the season he made 86 percent of his free throw attempts. Brian Kellerman is the all-time Vandal leader with 390 career assists and 208 career steals. Kellerman would have been a prolific three point shooter had the line been a part of the game when he played. As it is, he stands as the second leading career scorer in Idaho history with 1,583 points behind Orlando Lightfoot.

When I started to work on this piece, I asked Ray Murphy if he had any colorful tidbits to add. Ray was an Assistant Athletic Director for Development at Idaho during the Monson years. To me, his one story about the recruitment of Gordie Herbert seemed to say something about the all of the players that made the 1981-82 season so memorable. The story is that Don Monson was recruiting a different forward up at North Idaho College instead of Herbert. This 6-8 forward named John Bell was highly touted and going to attend a 4 year school after his freshman year at NIC. But, he changed his mind and returned to NIC for another year. Monson wasn't happy about this development. He also wasn't very high on Herbert, thinking that he was too small and too slow to be a good power forward. Into this situation stepped John Bell. He told Monson that he didn't know why he wasn't interested in his teammate Gordie Herbert. He said, "I'm faster than he is, but he beats me down the floor. I can jump higher than him, but he beats me to the rebounds. His shot is ugly, but he always beats me at horse." With that, Monson decided to take a chance on Gordie Herbert. I believe that the description that his NIC teammate used to describe Gordie could apply to the rest of his Idaho teammates. The Vandals didn't have the most physically imposing team but they had intangibles that were more important. The 1981-82 Idaho Vandals knew how to play that game of basketball!

In the Big Sky tournament in Moscow, the Vandals weren't handed the title without a fight. In their first game, Idaho was only able to eek out a 57-55 win over Weber State. In the title game the following night, Idaho beat Nevada-Reno 85-80 to lock up their second straight Big Sky title and NCAA tourney berth. From there, the Vandals couldn't have asked for a better situation to unfold. When the Vandals were given their draw, not only did they get an opening round bye in the then 48 team NCAA tournament but they would also be playing their first game in Pullman.

On March 14th, 1982 the Idaho Vandals took to the court at Washington State University in what can only be described as a Palouse basketball game for the ages. Their opponent on that day was the Iowa Hawkeyes who came into the game ranked 16th in the nation. Watching the contest was a Friel Court record of 12,350 partisan Vandal fans. In a great basketball game, Idaho took the early lead but Iowa fought back. The score was tied 57-57 at the end of regulation. Into overtime the Vandals and Hawkeyes went. Idaho pushed out to a 65-59 lead with 1:50 left in the overtime period but there was no quit in Iowa. They fought back and tied the score at 65. After the teams traded buckets, Idaho had the ball with the game tied at 67 and the clock winding down. Brian Kellerman took a shot with three seconds left. It bounced three times on the rim and fell through the hoop as the buzzer sounded to the roar of the packed Beasley Coliseum crowd. The Idaho Vandals had made it to the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA tournament!

Ralph Miller is a legend for a reason. By the time Idaho and Oregon State met up in the NCAA round of sixteen in Provo, Utah, his Oregon State Beavers were the 4th ranked team in the country. Still, with the 71-49 Idaho win earlier in the season fresh in his mind, he didn't want to play the Vandals straight up. He devised a game plan for Idaho that gave his Beavers their best chance for revenge. In an era of no shot clocks, his plan was to get a small lead and stall. That's exactly how the game unfolded. Oregon State got the early lead and went into a 4 corner stall offense. Idaho chased and chased the ball around the court for a couple of minutes and then a Beaver player would break free for a lay-up. It wasn't pretty basketball but it was effective in this case. Ralph Miller used the rules of the day and the tools at his disposal to his best advantage. The end result was a slow plodding game in which Idaho kept falling further and further behind. Later, the Vandals had to foul to get the ball back giving OSU free throws. The final score was Oregon State 60, Idaho 42. The Vandals didn't reach the Elite Eight but they did end the season with the best record in Idaho basketball history at 27-3. Don Monson was selected by his peers to be the NCAA Division 1 coach of the year.

Talk of his departure to the University of Arizona didn't materialize and Don Monson coached at Idaho for another season. But, without Ken Owens and Gordie Herbert, his team wouldn't reach quite the same level of success that they had enjoyed the previous year. Idaho did manage to repeat their regular season winning ways against PAC-10 foes, even if the margin of victory was smaller. Idaho beat the Washington Huskies 51-46 in Moscow on a Thursday night. On Saturday, the undefeated Washington State Cougars would be in town. For this game, Idaho installed a second tier of aluminum bleachers on the student side, which increased the seating capacity on that side of the court by 1,200. The extra seats would be needed. As 10,893 fans in Richmond, Kentucky watched Dennis Erickson's Vandal football team fall in the 1-AA playoffs to Eastern Kentucky by the score of 38-30 in part due to a terrible call by the referees that stopped their comeback, a record number of 11,000 fans were filling up the Kibbie Dome to watch the Vandals play the Cougars in basketball. The fans were packed in the new bleachers on the student side like sardines. None would go home disappointed.

In the last Palouse edition of the Monson-Raveling basketball rivalry, Idaho took a big early lead. However, the Cougars fought back. The game had ebbs and flows and went back in forth. This author remembers it as one of the best basketball games that he has ever seen. The score was tied at the end of regulation. However, Idaho took control in the overtime period. Stan Arnold, who had taken the graduated Owen's spot in the Idaho lineup at guard, hit his free throws down the stretch and the Vandals beat the Cougars 62-58 in a thrilling game. Washington State, led by Craig Ehlo, would go on to reach the second round of the NCAA tournament where they would lose a close game to Ralph Sampson's Virginia Cavaliers. However, they couldn't break the string of victories that the Vandals had going in Moscow. With the win over Wazzu, Idaho extended their home court winning streak to 37 straight games.

Idaho went back to the Far West Classic to defend their title and didn't disappoint. They beat Oregon 56-53 and got their own measure of revenge against Oregon State by beating the Beavers 42-41 in 2 OT for the tournament title. In January, the Vandals traveled to South Carolina for a game that was nationally televised on CBS. However, the game would end in heartbreak for Idaho fans. With the game tied near the end of regulation, the Vandals had the ball and took a timeout. Idaho would get the last shot. If the Vandals didn't score, the game would go to overtime. But, things didn't go the way Monson had drawn them up. Pete Prigge, who replaced the graduated Gordie Herbert in the Idaho lineup at forward, was to throw the inbounds pass at halfcourt. He evidently didn't see a South Carolina player and threw it right to him in the backcourt. The Gamecock player took the ball and scored an easy uncontested lay-in. The stunned Vandals had lost 56-54. Their record fell to a still very respectable 13-3.

The South Carolina game seemed to be a symbolic turning point for the fortunes of Vandal basketball. Idaho couldn't keep up their winning ways as the Big Sky season wore on. Yet, their home court streak without a loss continued. That is, until the Montana Grizzlies came to town on February 12th, 1983. For this Big Sky showdown, Idaho pulled the expanded student side bleachers away from the court, along with the side bleachers. They then sold spots on the floor in front of them where people could sit beside the court. The crowd was impressive but the Grizzlies weren't intimidated. Before a still standing record of 11,800 fans in the Kibbie Dome, the Montana Grizzlies put an end to Idaho's amazing 43 game home winning streak by the convincing score of 80-61. I remember being shocked. The Vandals couldn't lose at home, but they did. The Vandals ended up taking third in the Big Sky with a 9-5 record. Don Monson's 100th, and last, win as coach of the Vandals was in the final home game of the season against Boise State by the score of 86-70. The Vandals then went to Reno for the Big Sky tournament, where they fell in their first game to the Wolf Pack 78-73. Idaho wouldn't be going to the NCAA tournament for the third year in a row. Idaho was invited to the NIT tournament where their season ended just like it did the previous year, with Oregon State getting revenge for their regular season loss to Idaho by the score of 77-59. Idaho's 20-9 overall record in 1982-83 would normally be well remembered but not in this case as it was a bit of a letdown given the great heights reached during the previous season.

So, it is the 1981-82 Idaho basketball team and the incredible season that they had which remains in the hearts and minds of the Vandal faithful, especially those who experienced it firsthand. It endures as a beacon that Idaho supporters can still look towards as an answer when the question comes up as to how high athletic teams competing for the University of Idaho can reach. It's been over two decades now since Don Monson patrolled the basketball court in the Kibbie Dome but the memories of what he and his special group of players once accomplished there still linger. Yes, the early 1980's were a special time at the University of Idaho. In another sport, Dennis Erickson was starting to make his own mark on Idaho athletics. The Palouse Mall was new. The drinking age was 19 in Idaho so WSU students came over to Moscow to party. And, the song "Celebration" was played after every home game because the Idaho Vandals had just about the best basketball team in the land.


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A huge crowd on hand in The Dome to watch The Vandals play hoops.


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The buzzer beater that propelled Idaho over Iowa, and the Vandals to the Sweet 16.


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A shot from the stands with Idaho in the NCAAs.




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