Friday Mar 11 2005
Verlins share a bittersweet rivalry
By: Todd Mordhorst, Journal Sports Editor
Twin brothers with Del Oro, Placer connections are key components for the Big West's top teams
The University of Pacific men's basketball team has a chance to complete a magical run through the Big West Conference on Saturday night. But Tigers assistant coach Ron Verlin may not enjoy cutting down the nets as much as the rest of the Pacific staff and players. If the top seeds prevail tonight, Ron Verlin will be squaring off with his identical twin brother Don Verlin, the top assistant at Utah State University. The two Del Oro High graduates have been in that situation numerous times over the past eight years and it's never a pleasant experience for either one. "It's one of the hardest games we play all year," Ron said about coaching against his twin. "It's tough competing against your brother. About a month ago, we beat them in kind of a miracle game and I know it was hard on those guys." Pacific has been hard on a lot of teams this season. The Tigers have won 21 straight games and posted an 18-0 record in the Big West regular season, including an incredible 64-63 comeback win over the Aggies last month in Logan, Utah. Utah State (22-7 overall, 13-5 BWC) could get another shot at the Tigers (25-2 overall) Saturday night. Should both teams win their semifinal games tonight, Pacific will play Utah State at 9 p.m. Saturday on ESPN for the Big West title and an automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament. With all that's on the line, it makes the brothers' meeting all the more awkward. "Those games aren't any fun, to be honest," said Don Verlin who has served under Utah State head coach Stew Morrill for seven years. "We want to win, but I don't want to see them lose. At this level, if you don't win games, they'll fire you. But we've had some great, competitive games over the years." The Verlin brothers' coaching roots are in the Auburn area. They started their careers together, sharing the Del Oro freshman boys coaching duties for one year after playing with the Eagles under coach John Rankin. Don Verlin then took over Placer's junior varsity program for a season. He coached, among others, Joe Carroll, who went on to become the Capital Athletic League's Most Valuable Player as a senior. "His love for the game was obvious," said Carroll, who's now a real estate attorney in Sacramento. "I remember he'd just come back from a bunch of different camps and he was implementing Kentucky's full-court jump traps at Placer JVs. He taught me a lot about discipline, a lot about the game." Terry Tangney was coaching at Placer at the time and saw something in the Verlin brothers that stood out. "They just had tremendous energy and a willingness to learn," Tangney said. "They were on a mission, no doubt about it. They decided early on they wanted to coach at a high level. Whatever height they ascend to, it'll be because of their own effort." Don said the influence of the coaches at Del Oro and Placer helped convince him that coaching was the career for him. "Those guys' impression has lasted a lifetime," he said. "It's the reason I'm in coaching." Don went on to earn his bachelor's degree from Cal State Stanislaus before coaching at Columbia Junior College. He earned his master's degree at Colorado State, where he hooked up with Morrill and after a two-year stint at Cal State Bakersfield, he returned to coach the Rams, under Morrill. As Don was working his way up the college coaching ladder, so too was Ron. After two years with the Del Oro freshmen, Verlin assisted Rankin at Sierra College for two years. "I have to attribute a lot to those guys," Ron said of Rankin and Barker. "They helped me learn the game, learn how to coach. I always loved the game and loved to be around it and I knew coaching would be a fun job. I didn't think it would go like this, I just kind of found my way here." Ron landed an assistant position at the University of Nevada and then he took over the head coaching duties at Columbia JC in 1993 before landing at Pacific under head coach Bob Thomason. Ron has been with the Tigers for 11 years and has seen the program blossom into one of the best on the West Coast. The Tigers are currently ranked No. 17 in the nation and have essentially locked up a berth in the NCAA tournament. "In Stockton it's crazy right now," Ron said. "We completely sold out the last two games and my phone's been ringing off the hook for tickets. I think this is a team that can definitely win some games in the (NCAA) Tournament, it just depends on the matchups. But this program, the last four years, we've just taken one game at a time and we've been very successful doing that here." Ron heads up the recruiting duties at Pacific, bringing in talents like Big West Player of the Year David Doubley and leading scorer Christian Maraker. He also works with the post players and preps the Tigers defensively. "The last few years I've become a lot better recruiter," Ron said. "Kind of the neat thing is, I've been on both sides of the ball. The first few years, I worked with the offense and the last five or six, I've worked with the defense and worked with the big guys. You learn from your players and we've been able to get some very good players." Utah State and Pacific have dominated the Big West in recent years. Both teams went 17-1 in conference play last year, but Pacific won the Big West Tournament and advanced to the NCAAs, where the Tigers upset Providence in the first round. Don Verlin and the Aggies got the last laugh in 2003, when Utah State edged Cal Poly in the Big West Tournament title game and nearly toppled Kansas in the first round of the NCAA tourney, falling 64-61. The success of the 39-year-old Verlin brothers comes as no surprise to those who saw their great energy and passion when they were young. "These two guys are so personable," said Bill Barker, who coached the Verlins at Del Oro and still keeps in touch with them. "They used to be at the gym when they were little biddy guys and even then they were very good with people, they've just got the gift of gab. And they weren't super athletes, but boy, did they know the game." Don said there's a lot that goes into coaching at the college level, but the most important attribute is a true passion for the sport. "You've got to have a great passion to coach," he said. "There's a lot more that goes into it than people think. Your actual coaching is a very small part of what you do. You've got to be able to start and work for next to nothing. It's a hard profession." The Verlin brothers used to talk often about teaming up again on the sidelines, just as they did at Del Oro 20 years ago. They still hold out hope that one day they can work on the same staff. "If (coaching together) could ever work out, that would be great," Ron said. "You always have goals and I want to be a head coach at this level. But it's been really good at Pacific. Coach Thomason has been really good to work for." Added Don: "I'd love to coach with him if it worked out professionally and financially. The Verlins' bittersweet rivalry could come to a close on Saturday. Next season Utah State will move into the Western Athletic Conference, meaning those awkward meetings on the court between the Verlin brothers will be far less frequent. "We butt heads on the court, but also with recruiting," Ron said. "It's fierce competitive, but there's also a lot of respect. As they leave the league after this year the two staffs will get together and share ideas."