MOSCOW — More than six weeks after he was named interim men’s basketball coach at the University of Idaho, Zac Claus spoke to reporters for the first time Wednesday at the Kibbie Dome.
The former assistant coach seeks to bring stability to a Vandal program that fired its longtime head coach, Don Verlin, for cause last month amid seemingly minor NCAA violations following a five-win season.
Claus will lead Idaho for the entire 2019-20 season.
“Obviously humbled by the opportunity to lead this program,” Claus said. “It’s a wonderful university and place to be, and for the leadership to ask me to lead the program for the upcoming season was something I didn’t take lightly and something I’m obviously looking forward to.”
One thing is clear: Claus isn’t stepping into an easy situation. Idaho finished 5-27 last season after losing its top seven scorers from the previous campaign, and seven more Vandals elected to leave the program again this summer — some before and some after Verlin was fired.
But Claus and returning assistants Kirk Earlywine and Tim Murphy added seven newcomers — mostly junior college transfers — to a group of seven returners that includes a solid core in players like Lapwai’s Trevon Allen, a Clarkston High graduate, and 7-foot Oregon State transfer Jack Wilson, who will be eligible to play after the fall semester.
Most importantly, the players have been understanding of challenges the program is facing.
“I’ll back up to literally five days ago ... it was by far the loudest, best energy that we’ve had all summer,” Claus said. “You talk about kind of two different groups (returners and newcomers), over the course of six to seven weeks, that went away very quick.
“And it was a complement to both the returning guys who welcomed their new teammates with open arms, and then the incoming guys that were eager to join and be a part of the group.”
The newcomers are Ja’Vary Christmas, a 6-3 junior guard; Damen Thacker, a 5-11 junior guard from Meridian via Walla Walla Community College; Quinton Forest, a 6-4 senior forward; BJ Simmons, a 6-1 sophomore guard; A.J. Youngman, a 6-4 junior guard; Babacar Thiombane, a 6-7 forward and 6-4 walk-on Gabe Quinnett from Moscow.
Christmas, a former walk-on at Oregon during its Final Four run in 2017, and Thacker, who averaged 22.6 points per game last season at Walla Walla Community College, might have the biggest upside, but Claus said he’s far from ready to name starters at this point.
“More than anything, I thank them for believing in our staff and this program because they certainly had some doubt — whether it be with their families, their coaches, those closest to them — they still had to believe in the University of Idaho,” Claus said of the newcomers. “And they shared enough of a belief with our existing staff and the players that were still here to want to still be here.”
In addition to Allen and Wilson, Idaho’s other returners are 6-4 guard/forward Chance Garvin, 6-3 guard/forward Marquell Fraser, 6-6 forward Khadim Samb and 6-8 center Scott Blakney.
Allen is easily Idaho’s top returner after averaging 14 points per game a season ago.
Claus said there won’t be a drastic change to the Vandals’ playing style this season, but they may have to go small at times due to a lack of height, at least until Wilson is eligible in December.
Claus said all the players have “Been fabulous. There’s been a lot of ups and downs, there’s been little hiccups here and there on a daily basis, (but) the players have far and away the best part of the past month-and-a-half and it’s not even close.”
With an interim coach in place, a mostly full roster and a team that seems to be gelling nicely in the offseason, the Vandals are in a much better place than they were a month ago, although Claus isn’t ready to put any expectations on the season.
The final schedule is yet to be released, but Idaho is tentatively set to open Nov. 14 at the Red Wolves Classic in Jonesboro, Ark.
A contest against border-rival Washington State awaits on Dec. 4 at the Cowan Spectrum.
Claus called it “a dream” to be coaching the Vandals this season, and said he would be interested in being the permanent coach, although he’s not looking that far ahead.
The weeks and months following Verlin’s firing have been tough, he said. Claus said he hasn’t spoken to Verlin since Idaho fired its all-time winningest coach.
“There’s conflicted thoughts on almost a daily basis because for all of us on this staff, we’ve all been coaching for the majority of our lives,” Claus said. “This is the profession we’ve chosen and you never want to have to go through situations like this.”
Claus said there were numerous meetings with current and former players after he was named interim coach June 14.
Now, it’s all about moving forward.
“We talked long and hard with the guys about being where your feet are,” he said. “This is the group you signed up for, this is our Idaho basketball team. We’re looking forward to the challenge of the year ahead.”
Stephan Wiebe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter at @stephansports.