Beloved Rams coach Boyd Grant dies at 87

Boyd Grant

Boyd Grant cut down the nets at Moby Arena in 1988 after the Rams secured a spot in the NIT’s final four.

Legendary Colorado State University coach Boyd Grant, who returned to his beloved alma mater to resurrect the men’s basketball program with a historic run from 1988 to ’91, died Monday, Aug. 17, on his 87th birthday in a Salt Lake City hospital.

Grant, who played two seasons for Jim Williams, CSU’s winningest coach, before launching his own career as a Rams assistant coach, suffered a massive stroke at his home in Pocatello, Idaho, last week before being transferred to University of Utah Medical Center. His family, including wife Mary Jean, was at his side when he died.

“I’m just very, very sad,” said Pat Durham, who played forward on Grant’s first two CSU teams and became an all-time Rams great under his leadership. “Boyd would tell everyone that I was his second son, and I certainly viewed him as my second father. He was an amazing man.”

Boyd Grant
Boyd Grant started his coaching career as an assistant to Jim Williams at CSU. Little-known fact: Grant coached the inaugural game at Moby Arena in 1966 when Williams was recovering from eye surgery.

Legend at 3 schools

Grant (B.A., Liberal Arts ’57; M.E.,’63) earned legendary status long before he returned to Fort Collins. He led College of Southern Idaho to a national junior college championship before landing at Fresno State and leading a resurgence there that included a championship in the National Invitation Tournament. He was so popular in Fresno and his teams so good that the school’s arena became known as “Grant’s Tomb.” He is enshrined in the CSI, Fresno State and CSU halls of fame.

But after he retired from Fresno State, the job at CSU opened after a lackluster period when athletics at the school became an afterthought. He inherited a team that included a trio of returning starters: guard David Turcotte, a two-time Canadian Olympian; forward Barry Bailey, the glue of the team; and Durham, the go-to scorer and rebounder. They coupled with Fort Collins native Eric Friehauf at center and transfer Trent Shippen at point guard to form a team that went down in Rams history.

The Rams earned a berth in the 1988 NIT – their first postseason bid in 19 years – and beat New Orleans University in a first-round home game at Moby. That victory earned a second home game against Houston, and the Rams again prevailed. By the time the Rams learned they would play Arkansas State in a third NIT home game, the campus and city were gaga over the Rams.

“Everywhere you went, the atmosphere was electric,” Durham said. “We had never experienced anything like it. In one season we went from playing in a half-empty gym to people lining up the day before a game to buy tickets. It was crazy.”

Bringing the Moby Madness

A crowd of 10,405 – fourth largest in CSU history – jammed into Moby for the game and screamed the Rams to a victory that propelled them to the semifinals at New York’s Madison Square Garden. The Rams finished third and won 22 games overall in one of the most remarkable turnaround stories in the country.

And here’s the interesting thing – it almost didn’t happen. Durham, who remains CSU’s all-time leading scorer and was just recently supplanted by Nico Carvacho as the leading rebounder, had determined that he was leaving the Rams when Grant was hired.

Boyd Grant
Boyd Grant was a fiery presence on the sidelines but he was beloved by players and fans.

“Coach called me in for a meeting to make his sales pitch but I told him I was transferring – I already had a school picked out,” Durham said. “He told me he wouldn’t have taken the job if he thought I was leaving. He promised me that people would be lined up outside Moby to buy tickets to see us play. I started laughing. My first two years, if we got 3,000 people it was a good crowd.

“We ended up talking for almost three hours. He promised me that we would win. I don’t know how he did it, but he convinced me to stay. I’ve never regretted it.”

With Durham leading the way, the Rams went on to win the 1989 Western Athletic Conference title – their first conference title in more than 30 years – and earn their first NCAA Tournament berth since 1969. When Durham left for the NBA, Mike Mitchell – who had played for Grant at Fresno State before following him to CSU – led the Rams to a second WAC title and NCAA berth.

Resurrecting the game

“The energy he brought to Fresno State and CSU were amazing,” said Mitchell, the only player to experience Grant’s magic in both places. “Basketball was kind of dead in both towns before he got there and he just flipped some kind of light switch and changed everything. The popularity of the teams in both towns was incredible.”

The Rams fell back in 1991, finishing 15-14, after which Grant retired for good at age 57 due to health concerns. When his four-year run was over, CSU had won 81 games, two league titles, earned three postseason berths and posted the four largest overall attendance marks in school history.

While his players have fond memories and funny stories of their time playing for their tough, defense-minded coach, they all talk about how he cared for them on and off the court. More than 20 of them remained in close contact with him, calling on a regular basis. At Christmas, they would join a group call with him and tell stories.

“Coach asked about every one of us, our kids and our parents,” Mitchell said. “My parents worshipped the ground Coach walked on. He was just a great man.”

Close ties

Shippen, one of several former players who followed Grant into coaching, lived nearby in Idaho Falls, Idaho, and spoke often to his former coach. He and Turcotte, who lives outside Salt Lake City, had planned to meet Grant this week for a birthday lunch.

“I talked to him last Tuesday, and he was the same as always,” Shippen said. “One of the last things he said to me was, ‘Trent, I love you. And tell your family I love them, too.’ That’s just the way he was. He wasn’t just a basketball coach – he taught life.”

There will be a graveside service at 11 a.m. Monday, Aug. 31.