Jeff Linder finds the right fit at Wyoming

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May 29—LARAMIE — As the University of Wyoming rolled to 25 wins, an NCAA tournament appearance and its highest ranking since the 1980s, anxiety stirred among Cowboys fans that the head coach who led them there would be pursued by higher-profile opportunities once the season was over.

Fortunately for the Pokes, Jeff Linder sees no reason to look elsewhere.

Shortly after signing a contract extension in March that will run through 2027, Linder spoke about the importance of finding the right fit. He referenced his comfort in the region and Mountain West conference, having grown up in the Denver area, as well as the appeal of raising his family in Laramie.

Linder also discussed what he learned from Gonzaga coach Mark Few, who turned the Bulldogs from a mid-major program with two NCAA Tournament appearances into a national power that has been to the Big Dance every year since the turn of the century. He acknowledges that what happened at Gonzaga "probably can't be duplicated," but he does see promising signs in terms of buy-in from the university — something that's been a staple of the historic run at Spokane, Washington-based Gonzaga that's unfolded over the past two-plus decades.

As an avid fly fisherman, Wyoming has its other perks, too.

"The biggest thing is knowing what has gone into the support behind the scenes (at Gonzaga) to allow that program to continue to grow," Linder said. "That's the thing. As I said when I signed my extension, as long as the university and administration continue to show they are willing to grow the program, especially when you have the right people in place, there's no reason to go searching for greener pastures. I've known a lot of coaches that have done that, and they realize quickly that just because it might be more money or perceived to be a higher level, it isn't the case.

"We were a top 25 team this year at the University of Wyoming. Now, is it a little bit harder to be a top 25 team at the University of Wyoming, compared to maybe some of the Power Five schools? Probably, but it's the job that fits me. It fits how I want to recruit, the type of kids we want to recruit, and now we just have to continue to build off that. Thankfully, the administration wants to build off that, and I'm happy to be here. There aren't too many places where I can go 40 minutes from my house and catch 10-pound rainbows, either."

Linder's perspective originates from two decades in the coaching industry, during which he's worked for guys like Randy Rahe — who recently retired after 16 years at Weber State as the Big Sky's all-time winningest coach — and built close relationships with fellow coaches such as North Texas' Grant McCasland and Arizona's Tommy Lloyd.

Despite spending the bulk of his career out west, it was a two-year stint at Midland College in West Texas that, in many ways, paved the way for what's unfolded since.

McCasland had first connected with Linder while he was helping out at Northeastern Junior College in Sterling, Colorado, and Linder was an assistant coach at Emporia (Kansas) State. Linder was recruiting two Northeastern players, Greg Patton and Tony Travis, and McCasland was blown by his organization on the recruiting trail. A friendship started to grow from there, and when McCasland was named Midland's head coach in 2004, Linder joined him.

"Kind of like I do now with Ross Hodge, I just viewed it as we were both head coaches," McCasland said. "We were the same age. We both had daughters born the same year, we both had sons born the same year. I basically looked at it like we were head coaches together. I was only head coach in title in regards to when we went into the Midland situation.

"I was an assistant the year before, and it was my first year as a head coach at 27, and I knew how successful, organized and intelligent he was. I knew you have to have people around you who are smarter and better at it than what you are, and I knew he was. It was a blast. It was so much fun. We went to the national tournament our first year and got to the final eight teams and lost on a tipped dunk at the buzzer, but it was an awesome, impactful time for both of us."

It wasn't always easy — living on a $25,000 salary, Linder recalls saving Subway stamps from pregame meals to cut costs on personal food expenses. However, the experience taught him the value of weighing risk with reward, and ultimately led him to his first Division I coaching job.

While at Midland College, Linder further developed his relationship with Rahe, who had first noticed him in high school as an assistant at Colorado State. Rahe was on Utah's staff when was hired as Weber State's head coach in 2006. Linder was the first prospective assistant he reached out to.

They went on to win a conference championship and reach the NCAA tournament in their first year at the school, with Linder playing a vital role in the recruitment of future NBA star Damian Lillard. In their brief time working together, Rahe recognized that Linder was destined to lead a program sooner than later.

"The first thing that stands out to me is he is extremely bright and has a great coach's mind," Rahe said. "He's just really sharp. He gets the game, and he understands the game inside and out. Then, on top of that, he's very ambitious. He was an extremely hard worker and really loyal to me, and he was really, really good with the kids as far as player development.

"He knew what kids needed to do to get better. He had the whole package, he really did. He has a great demeanor for it. He's going to push his kids, but he's also going to have a good relationship with them and make them work hard. I saw early on here that he had a bright future, and I knew he would be a head coach in the next few years."

Building something special

After stops as an assistant at San Francisco and Boise State, Linder took his first head coaching job in 2016 at Northern Colorado, where he inherited a program facing NCAA sanctions from violations committed under the previous regime.

The Bears went 11-18 in year one. However, they proceeded to go 69-32 over the next three seasons, winning the CIT championship in 2018, with Linder being named the 2019 Big Sky coach of the year.

This success caught the attention of UW athletics director Tom Burman, who saw a chance to turn around a program that had gone 17-48 in its final two years under Allen Edwards. Having grown up during the heyday of Wyoming basketball, when Fennis Dembo brought the Pokes into the national spotlight and the Arena-Auditorium was regularly packed to the rafters, Linder saw an opportunity, as well.

A 14-11 mark during a shortened 2020-21 season spurred positivity around the program, and the Pokes translated this momentum into one of their most successful seasons of the past three decades. Crowds were sparse at the start of the season, but as UW rose as high as No. 22 in the polls and established itself as a top Mountain West contender, a quiet Arena-Auditorium transformed back into the Dome of Doom.

"It's one of those places where if you put the right product on the floor, you're going to get not just people, but an entire state around you," Linder said. "As you saw this year with the crowds we had at home down the stretch, you had 8,000 or 9,000 people in the Double-A each night. As I've mentioned before, what George Karl once told me is in order to be a championship team, you have to have a championship home environment. Those environments really helped us get to the NCAA Tournament.

"That energy that was in that arena allowed us to maybe win a couple of those close games that, if you don't win those games, who knows if you make it to the NCAA Tournament. That was the biggest appeal to me, just being in a place where people really care. You can really see that in this state. They bleed brown and gold, whereas other states there are a lot more four-year schools. Here, you are the one school in the state, and I think that goes a long way in terms of building a special program."

Lloyd — who was named the 2022 Associated Press national coach of the year in his first season at the helm of Arizona, following 22 years as an assistant at Gonzaga — is no stranger to special programs. He helped turn the Bulldogs from a little-known mid-major into a household name, and sees familiar traits in what's currently brewing in Laramie.

"I don't think there's any doubt about that," Lloyd said. "You're already seeing it in the way they're recruiting, and the way they're able to retain most of their core every year. That's a huge thing when you're at that level and being consistent, just the continuity. If you have good continuity with your roster and coaching staff, and then you're able to sprinkle in some high-level recruits, that's a winning formula. It looks to me like that's what they're doing."

Attention to detail

Whether it's on the bench, in the film room or on the recruiting trail, Linder's attention to detail and knowledge of the game instantly stands out to his colleagues.

"He puts real thought into things, and he develops his ideas," Lloyd said. "He's somebody who is eager to learn and not afraid to think outside the box. You can think and think and think, but it's another thing to be able to take it to the court and actually develop those ideas.

"Sometimes you think about ideas, and you take them to the court and they don't work. That's part of the process. I've just been impressed over the years how not only he's been able to think about the game, but how he's able to take his thoughts and have the players execute them on the court."

Added McCasland: "I don't think people understand the level of detail that he goes into to be successful, and how much film he watches and how much he thinks about this 24/7. This guy has the greatest compilation of basketball plays and scenarios and schemes of anybody I know. Literally anybody. He has a library, and it's organized to a level of detail that's worth millions of dollars."

Linder's willingness to adapt was on full display last season, as he developed a post-heavy offense centered around the strengths of sophomore forward Graham Ike and senior guard Hunter Maldonado at a time when perimeter-centric philosophies have become the norm. According to KenPom's rankings, the Cowboys had their best season in terms of adjusted offensive efficiency since 2001.

"That's what good coaches do," Rahe said. "They don't just have a system, and you try to pound a square peg into a round hole. He's going to adjust, and I think that's what makes him a really good coach. He's a good game adjuster, too. He changes things up and gives you different looks."

UW's production fell off a little down the stretch, as the wear and tear on Ike and Maldonado, who ranked No. 3 and No. 36 nationally in usage rate, respectively, started to take its toll. The Pokes responded by bolstering their depth with three Pac-12 transfers: UCLA's Jake Kyman and USC's Ethan Anderson and Max Agbonkpolo.

As he's done before, expect Linder to adjust to his personnel.

"It's one of those deals where just because we played that way last year, doesn't mean we're going to play that way this year," he said. "I think we'll definitely be different. Now, is the ball going to go inside to Graham? Yes. Is Maldo going to get into dribble downs? Yes. But I think you're going to see us playing at a lot faster pace.

"We're not going to play crazy fast, but we'll definitely get up and down more. A little bit more free-flowing, a little bit more what my teams were like at Northern Colorado."

'One of a kind'

UW's 2021-22 season far exceeded outside expectations, with the Cowboys being picked to finish tied for eighth in the Mountain West preseason poll. For those close to Linder, though, this success didn't come as a shock.

"It's no surprise, just because I've known him for so long," McCasland said. "I know how brilliant he is, and he's also just great with people. He has high expectations, but he loves people well. What he's done at Wyoming is pretty miraculous, just in the timeframe he's been able to do it.

"When you take something over during COVID and you find a way to make the NCAA Tournament as an at-large team, that's crazy ... It's a credit to his hard work and remarkable talent. He's one of a kind, and I think regardless of age, he's one of the best coaches in the country. I don't care what level, what sport, just pick it. The dude literally is one of one."

Rahe beams with pride when speaking about what Linder has accomplished at UW, with the Cowboys winning more games in his first two seasons — including an abbreviated 2020-21 campaign — than they did in the previous three combined.

Like McCasland, however, he isn't surprised by any of this.

"I'm just so happy and so proud of him, and it's fun to see him have that success," Rahe said. "I knew he would. I just knew he would. He was destined because he's a great basketball coach. It's been fun from afar to watch him. We stay in touch now and then, and I just love watching his teams play. I actually liked to watch them and pick them apart a little bit, and see if there were things we could do.

"Jeff's a great basketball coach, but he's also a great person. He's a good family man, good husband, good father, and I'm proud of him for that, too. I know he's going to continue to have great success, and it's been really impressive to see what he's done at Wyoming in a short period of time. But to be honest, knowing Jeff, I kind of expected that from him."

Josh Criswell covers the University of Wyoming for WyoSports. He can be reached at jcriswell@wyosports.net or 307-755-3325. Follow him on Twitter at @criswell_sports.