(Editor’s note: Story by Montana Sports Information)
MISSOULA — Zach Payne remembers the night well: Monday, Nov. 3, 2014. The box score will show a lower-level team losing to a school it should lose to, and not much else. For most, the game meant little, but for Payne, it marked the first night of his coaching career – a dream of his since, well, ever since he could remember.
The opponent that night? The Montana Grizzlies. The venue? Dahlberg Arena, in Missoula, Montana.
Over the next five seasons, Payne would make two more trips to Missoula, the following year with Whitworth and again last winter, as an assistant coach with Portland State. The venue is a familiar one for Payne, who beginning this fall will come full circle and transition 50 feet or so to the south, from the visitors bench to the home bench.
Payne was recently hired by Montana men’s basketball coach Travis DeCuire to serve as an assistant coach. While he won’t be limited to one specific on-court group, off the court, he will take on a lot of the director of operations and academic responsibilities, in addition to on-court coaching.
“The biggest thing that was attractive to me were the people here,” Payne said. “Big or small, I had an individual relationship with all of the guys on staff here. Combine that with the history and tradition of this program, and it made for a really awesome opportunity that I wanted to be a part of.”
Payne’s relationship with Jay Flores dates back to when they both coached at the lower levels. With Chris Cobb, it was the proximity of their hometowns, both Bay Area natives. With DeCuire, the relationship goes back to his former boss at Whitworth, Matt Logie, who has had a close relationship with DeCuire since a young age.
But it even dates back further than that.
“Travis actually knew my dad three or four years before I had met Travis,” Payne said.
While they never played against each other, Zach’s father, Harry Payne, played for Northern Arizona from 1984-87, while DeCuire ran the point for Montana from 1992-94. Their names have been connected in the Big Sky Conference record book ever since.
Both athletes finished their playing careers with exactly 435 assists, a number that ranked No. 5 in the Big Sky at the time of DeCuire’s final game and still ranks in the top dozen. Harry Payne led the league with 194 assists in 1986, DeCuire held the top mark in 1994, with 200.
The two connected in the Bay Area a decade ago, playing pick-up basketball with each other while DeCuire was coaching at California.
Zach Payne, though, wasn’t hired simply because of relationship ties. He checked all of the boxes – character traits like being a grinder and one who can build relationships, as well as the ability to wear multiple hats.
But there were also the intangibles.
Payne has spent his entire playing and coaching career along the West Coast, growing up in California before playing and coaching in Washington and Oregon – Montana’s primary recruiting region. He also knows the Big Sky Conference, having coached for Portland State in 2019 when the Vikings went 2-0 against the Griz.
“As you look at a lot of successful head coaches over the years, most are hired from other coaches who have worked for them or played for them. Zach was an opportunity for me to do that, after he played for and coached with Matt Logie at Whitworth. Zach fits a lot of what we’re looking for and I’m excited for him to be here.”
And then there’s the fact that he’s a proven winner.
In all of his years in basketball, both as a player and a coach, Payne has never been on a team that finished with a losing record. In high school, he was an East County All-Star while helping notable De La Salle High School to a USA Today top-25 ranking. He then played two years at Diablo Valley College, where as a team captain as a sophomore he led the Vikings to an Elite Eight appearance. Payne spent the next five seasons at Whitworth, where the Pirates never missed the postseason, winning a conference championship each season. He then moved up to the Division II ranks, where at Western Oregon the Wolves were ranked as high as No. 3 nationally.
“He’s been surrounded by success, and typically when someone has had success they work hard to maintain it,” DeCuire said.
During his lone season at Portland State, Payne worked with Holland Woods, a second-team All-Big Sky selection who ranked among the league’s best for scoring (15.0 points per game, seventh), assists (5.3 per game, second) and steals (1.6 per game, third). The Vikings had their best Big Sky Conference finish in seven years and led the league for rebounding, rebounding margin and steals, and led the nation with 15.6 offensive rebounds per game.
Prior to his arrival in Portland, Payne resided in nearby Monmouth, where he served as an assistant coach – and then associate head coach – for Western Oregon. The Wolves went 49-15 across the two seasons, winning the Great Northwest Athletic Conference regular-season and tournament championship in 2018. That year, WOU went 31-2 and was ranked as high as No. 3 at the NCAA Division II level.
Payne was at Whitworth University in Spokane for five seasons, first as a player before a season as a volunteer assistant and two more as a graduate assistant coach. The Pirates won the Northwest Conference and played in the NCAA Division III tournament every season. Whitworth went 126-20 (.863) across those five seasons, including 73-7 in conference play (.913). Before playing at Whitworth, Payne started his collegiate career at Diablo Valley College.
Payne, a Danville, Calif., native, graduated from Whitworth in 2014 with a degree in business administration. He recently relocated to Missoula, along with his girlfriend, Emily, and their six-month-old daughter, Avery.
“I’m really relationship driven; that’s really important to me, and that seems to be the biggest driving factor for everyone on this staff,” Payne said. “The guys here have a great work ethic and they’re used to winning at a really high level. I’m really, really excited to be here.”
Payne replaces Rachi Wortham, who returned to his hometown of Tacoma, Wash., following three seasons with the Grizzlies, including back-to-back Big Sky titles and NCAA tournament berths.
“Rachi has been phenomenal for us,” DeCuire said. “He’s incredible in the community, the guys loved him and he’s like family to me. I think this was a time for him to make a decision that was important for his family, like I’ve done before in my career, and we wish him well.”