Friday night of the trip had a different feel to it. Halfway through our venture through the frozen fields of Utah, coach Tyler Geving and his staff knew that something was missing from the team. Gone was the looseness that drifted over them when we initially left Portland.
A three hour bus ride from Pocatello, Idaho landed us in the beautiful, snow-driven town of Ogden, Utah, home to the Weber State Wildcats. For years Weber State has been a thorn in the Vikings’ side—a conference powerhouse that seems to have Portland State’s number, no matter the situation.
Compound that with theloss the night before, and things felt bleak as we pulled into the hotel, surrounded by grey skies set atop the mountains that outlined the city. The clouds cast an ominous feel; it seemed that at the moment nothing was working in the Vikings’ favor.
Things were bad. Tense. And once inside, they only got worse.
With the players settled into their rooms, an impromptu team meeting was called to announce the dismissal of forward Aaron Moore; a result of disciplinary reasons that stemmed from the previous game. It was a punch to the gut for a team already woozy from a lackluster start to the season.
At this point something drastic needed to happen, or we risked losing the season in the blink of an eye. Players looked cold and blank. They were a teammate down; they were far from home—far from where they thought they would be in many aspects.
As it turns out, a simple meal would do the trick.
Adam Wardell is the basketball team’s right-hand man.
A behind-the-scenes jitterbug who has his hands on every facet of the program, he is in charge of the team’s travel—down to the tiniest of details—and on this particular trip he had his hands full. (Adam, by the way, deserves a huge amount of credit for allowing this access for the Vanguard.)
Unfortunately for Adam, he was also my roommate for the weekend. But fortunately for me, as Adam was the one making the plans, I was able to get the inside scoop before anyone else.
It was in our room that afternoon where I first learned of that night’s plans; what now will be known as “The Dinner.”
After another team meeting later in the afternoon we were off to the arena, a complete turnaround from the dump we found ourselves in at Idaho State. Weber State calls Dee Events Center home: A bright, luminous arena that just feels likebig-time college basketball. Immediately you could see the players begin to get some bounce in their steps again. There was more energy, more optimism than earlier in the day and a sense that there was still something to play for.
Normally on the road following a practice, players are free to go get food wherever they want. That night, however, Geving knew something was needed to bring his guys together in light of all that had happened in the previous 24 hours.
“We need a spark,” Adam told me as we headed to the bus. “These guys need to bond.”
So they did.
The food wasn’t special, the games on the TV’s were a blur, but the impact of that night could last a season. Huddled close at a long table in the middle of Iggy’s Grill, 12 teammates laughed as one. They joked, told stories, talked of sports and women and anything else they could think of. They didn’t scatter to various fast food places. They didn’t hole up in their hotel rooms.
The coaches, trainers and radio staff, along with myself, sat at the table nearby, an ear on our table and an ear on the players. They didn’t care that their squad was being too loud; they didn’t mind that they were teasing each other with little ears at nearby tables.
Most of all, they didn’t care that they had lost the night before. They had all moved on, and the players were coming together.
It was the most important and impactful coaching decision Geving made all trip long, and the look on his face throughout dinner told the story: he looked content. Turns out, some victories are not earned on the hardwood. He may have lost the previous game, but that night, over cheap salmon and the bond of being far from home, his team had come together.
On a cold night in Ogden, 12 individuals became one team; the most important win of the season.
DEE EVENTS CENTER
SATURDAY, 5:34 P.M.
The true test of the previous night’s bonding wouldn’t be seen until the Vikings took the court against Weber
State. This would have to wait, however, as game days on the road are, for lack of a better word, long.
Hotel room, watch TV. Shoot around. Hotel room, watch TV. Food. You get the idea.
Finally, after what felt like days, we arrived at the arena. The amount of snow that had fallen since we arrived the day before was incredible—and not something these guys are used to, most hailing from Oregon or California.
To enter the arena is tricky enough; a long, sloping terminal guides players and coaches into a back door. Ice and snow cover the entire ramp, making the journey a scary one, as coaches all fix their eyes on the players’ precious ankles, making sure no one falls.
Once inside, we were hit with a wave of energy. For everything that Holt Arena in Pocatello wasn’t, this place was. It was alive with energy. The band was already in mid-game form, some fans had parked in their seats, and the smell of fresh popcorn was overwhelming.
FIVE MINUTES TO TIP
Coach Geving has been at PSU for nine seasons, the last five as head coach. He has garnered a reputation as an ace recruiter and as a developer of talent. He worked under the great Ken Bone for years, and has since brought in the right assistant coaches to fill out his staff.
On this trip, however, I witnessed where Geving shines most: the locker room.
Over the years, pregame speeches have become cliché and over-dramatized by Hollywood. Gone are the days of yelling and spitting—the true merit of a coach comes in their ability to connect with the team, no matter the situation.
That night, I learned why Geving has so much respect from his players. He doesn’t BS them.
He didn’t raise his voice. He didn’t stand on chairs or throw markers. In the middle of the room with every eye on him, he simply looked at his guys. The message was simple:
“We have to sell out. This is a great opportunity. We’re a good team, they’re a good team. I know that right now we have a bunch of guys in here that will stick together, play together, but…we got to have more pride. We have to take everything up a notch. Do we have the athletes? Do we have the players? Yes, we do. But we have to take it up a notch.”
Only at this point did his voice began to rise, the crowd noise from outside taking over our small space.
“The guy next to you, that’s who you’re playing for.”
Everyone rose, some clapping along. Armed in their black uniforms, players huddled around and Geving told them how proud of them he was for sticking together through the previous day’s events.
“It’s one game, one play at a time. Let’s go!”
And with that, it was back to what they do best—playing basketball, the game they all love. The players, the coaches, they just want to be on the court. Not in a meeting, not in practice. They want to lace it up against the best competition.
In Ogden, they got their chance.
It wasn’t the dream story you want to cover, but what happened on the court was something bigger than one game. While the Vikings came up short, the final score was not at all indicative of the performance they put on.
They were focused, energized and showed the heart they were lacking in Idaho.
In the locker room after the game, there were no solemn attitudes. With the Weber State band blaring the fight song in the background, Geving stood before his team for the last time on the trip, a proud coach focusing on the positives instead of harboring the negative.
“We get to go back home. Now is not the time to start chirping. Now is the time to stick together… Wehave to stay together more than anything.”
We boarded the bus, an 0–2 trip now official. Guys’ faces were still down, but there was a spark ignited. A belief that all was not lost. They know how good they can be and that night, despite the loss, they proved it to themselves—and to the conference—that the best was yet to come.
SALT LAKE CITY INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT
SUNDAY, 11:33 A.M.
Sitting in the airport I couldn’t help but notice that the effects of The Dinner were still taking hold. In a crowded lobby, players gravitated towards one another: bench guys with starters, seniors with freshman. It seemed, more so than when we arrived, that they were a team.
Geving and his staff found a spot along the wall and were breaking down game film. For them, there is no day off. The grind of the season doesn’t slow down for one second. The players were happy to take a reprieve for a day.
School began anew the next day, and it’s a long haul to the end. The day was a chance to relax. To laugh, joke and continue to piece together what will one day make them great.
As we gathered our bags in Portland, I found coach Geving and thanked him for allowing me to tag along. His voice was hoarse and only every other word came out. His eyes were droopy and his smile genuine, but lacking enthusiasm. I asked him if this ever gets to him, the constant travel. His lips pursed as he shook his head no.
“I love it. For us, travel is what it is. It’s what makes it special… Every trip is business as usual.”