Twin River girls basketball coach Jeff Morris will always credit his success to a conversation he had riding the bus back to Columbus as freshman coach for Scotus Central Catholic High School.
At the time, he assumed the best way to make a team better was constantly playing together. Whether it was in the offseason or the summertime, he thought success meant taking advantage of every opportunity in the offseason and summertime to build chemistry.
“No, it’s player development,” Morris remembered Scotus girls assistant coach Scott Miller telling him on that trip.
“He gave the analogy that I use a lot and it was – you can stand and watch a group of fifth-grade boys play basketball every day for 30 days and at the end of 30 days those kids will be making the same mistakes. They’ll miss the same shots, they’ll have the same turnovers, same poor footwork. That’s true. Where the change is made, and progress is made, is in individual development. It just makes sense. The light bulb went off and I stored that away.”
Miller would have known. As an assistant on the staff of John Petersen, he was part of three consecutive girls state championships and four straight appearances in the title game.
Morris used that advice to embrace an approach focused heavily on one-on-one work, drilling the fundamentals that probably sound boring to most basketball fans – footwork, dribbling, passing, rebounding.
Nearly three decades later, Morris is leaving it all behind after more than 300 career wins. This past season, a 13-11 year for the Titans that ended in a 48-25 loss to Crofton in the district final, was his last after 32 years of coaching, the previous 13 in Genoa.
Morris started as a junior high coach at Grand Island Central Catholic, moved back to the Columbus area and took the freshman position at Scotus, took over head coaching duties at Genoa, moved on to Lakeview then returned to Genoa as the coach of Twin River where he recently retired.
The first Titans girls team he led in 2007 made the school’s only state tournament appearance – advancing to the semifinals where Crofton ended the run.
Four of the past seven years, Twin River played in a district final but failed to return to Lincoln. Though the Titans never took Morris back to state, many of those losses were either to state runners-up or state champions.
“Coach Morris, ever since I’ve worked with him, has instilled hard work from the girls. He’s instilled intensity and offseason development. It’s important to try and do you best to get better in the offseason,” assistant Dan Koziol, who’s coached along Morris for nearly a decade, said earlier this month at the Central Community College-Columbus All-Star game in which Morris served as one of the two head coaches.
“I think the players that we had and the success we had over the nine seasons just kind of proves his point. We didn’t always have the best athletes, but we had girls that worked hard, and we had girls that improved at basketball. The success and numbers show that. We had one losing season in those nine years. The girls bought in and really played well.”
In addition to learning Miller’s perspective on player development, Morris said his early coaching years were molded by several others at Scotus.
He was on the boys staff with Merlin Lahm, who Morris said, “helped him learn the game.” Both Lahm and legendary girls coach, John Peterson, often took the time to just chat with Morris and share some insight on how they ran their programs.
“They had a huge influence on my coaching. I’m not near the coach they were, but they had a great influence on my coaching,” he said. “I got to meet other people that had a huge impact. I got to meet some great people. (NAIA and Division II coach) Don Meyer was one of them. He was a legendary coach. Through Don I met a guy named Jerry Krause, who was the player development coach at Gonzaga who retired not too long ago. I spent a lot of time talking to Jerry and exchanging ideas on offseason development and how to do things better. I got to meet some great people.”
None of it though would have been possible without the support of his wife, Kelli.
“The wives of coaches also hear the disgruntled people in the crowd, too. It kinds of takes a toll on them a little, too, and your kids hear that crap. My hats off to my wife. It’s very difficult to coach for any length of time without a spouse that understands and supports you,” he said. “I’m very, very thankful that I married who I married. She’s a strong woman, and she was able to take care of stuff when I wasn’t around to do it.
Now he is.
Morris, who didn’t start coaching until he was almost 30, is in his 60s now and said that age plus the arrival of grandkids made now feel like the right time to step away.
Currently, he said he’s really enjoying seeing his granddaughter more often, and other more regular family get-togethers.
As a coach, he finished with an overall record of 311-233. Though he has just the one state tournament on his resume, Morris never mentioned what he did or didn’t do as the achievements that provided satisfaction.
Once he took Miller’s advice and began to concentrate on player development, Morris found the most joy in the process.
"I was able to work with great kids," he said. "The kids bought into what we wanted to do. Our strength was probably our offseason program. We did individual workouts with the kids. Development of shooters, ball handlers, things like that. The kids bought in and showed up.
"They believed in what we wanted to do. They became better players as a result of that. It just made it very enjoyable to coach."
Peter Huguenin and Nate Tenopir are a sports reporter and the sports editor for The Columbus Telegram. Reach them via email at email@example.com.