In addition to his winning track record, ties to the West Coast and history of breathing life into struggling programs, San Francisco coach Kyle Smith possesses one other quality that makes him an ideal fit for his new job.
He isn’t afraid to come to a league notorious for chewing up and spitting out promising head coaches.
The allure of moving closer to friends and family in California was only part of the reason Smith left Columbia last spring after six years as the Ivy League school’s head coach. Smith also truly believes he can bust up the West Coast Conference’s long-established power structure and elevate San Francisco into a contender just like he once helped Randy Bennett do at Saint Mary’s.
When Smith joined Bennett’s staff as an assistant in 2001, they inherited a 2-27 team whose players seldom wore their school-issued gear on campus out of fear of ridicule. Only a few short years later, Bennett and Smith built the Gaels into a perennial conference title contender and worthy rival to Gonzaga despite a massive deficit in resources.
“I’ve never been in a position to worry about a job being too tough,” Smith said. “I’ve never been a position where I could pick and choose. I’ve gone to places where there have been big challenges and big hurdles and tried to climb that ladder. I’m hoping to do the same at San Francisco.”
Achieving that goal will not be easy in a league unlike any other in college basketball, one with a gulf separating its top teams and also-rans.
Nobody besides Gonzaga or Saint Mary’s has won so much as a share of the WCC title since 2002. Nobody besides Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s or BYU has reached the WCC tournament title game since 2008. Only once since BYU entered the league in 2011 has another team besides the WCC’s marquee three even managed to finish third or higher in the standings.
The WCC’s basketball hierarchy has become an endless source of frustration for schools outside the top tier. Those seven programs have cycled through an astonishing 22 coaches in the past decade in their quest to do more than merely compete for third or fourth place in their primary revenue-producing sport.
Of the 22 men who have coached Santa Clara, San Francisco, LMU, Pepperdine, Portland, Pacific or San Diego during the past 10 years, not one has left on their own volition for another head coaching job. Those who get fired typically emerge either relieved to no longer endure the stress of fighting uphill every day or sympathetic to their former athletic directors’ desire to make a change.
“The coaching changes across the league are born out of frustration,” said former Portland coach Eric Reveno, now an assistant at Georgia Tech. “You’re trying to do something to break up the stranglehold the big three have on the league, but what do you do? You can’t change your location. You can’t change your student body profile. There’s so much you can’t change, so you change your head coach.”
The gap between the WCC’s haves and have-nots originated around the turn of the century when Gonzaga evolved from small-conference lightweight, to giant-slaying mid-major, to national brand. The Zags toppled Minnesota, Stanford and Florida to reach the Elite Eight in 1999 and followed that up with Sweet 16 runs the next two seasons, garnering more attention and accolades each year.
Whereas most small-conference success stories often eventually fizzle, a massive financial investment in basketball helped Gonzaga remain a consistent national presence. Having witnessed an unprecedented surge in applications and donations coinciding with the basketball team’s success, Gonzaga administrators began pumping money into the program at a rate previously unfathomable in the WCC.
They opened the $25 million, 6,000-seat McCarthey Center in 2004 to replace their outdated high school-sized gymnasium. They began chartering direct flights for road games and recruiting trips by 2007. They broke ground this year on a state-of-the-art practice facility that will include a court modeled after the one at the McCarthey Center, a basketball-only strength-and-conditioning area and sections devoted to nutrition, academic support services and a hall of fame.
Those resources make it easier for longtime coach Mark Few to justify staying somewhere he’s happy despite frequent overtures from power-conference programs. There’s nowhere else Few can compete for Final Fours and conference titles while still carving out time for fly-fishing, mountain biking and attending his kids’ Little League games.
While the WCC’s other programs have increased their basketball budgets to try to remain competitive with Gonzaga, only newcomer BYU can match the Zags’ financial clout. Many other coaches throughout the rest of the league still fight to gain permission for expenses as trivial as exit-row seats for their tallest players on commercial flights, a discrepancy that illustrates why the WCC’s second-tier jobs are so challenging.
“They’re all great schools and it’s a great league, but they’re all really hard jobs,” Reveno said. “From a coach’s standpoint, other leagues where you have a more viable chance to get to the NCAA tournament are much better career moves. Once you get to the NCAA tournament, you get an extension, you get some breathing room and that banner will always be up there.”
Like Smith, the WCC’s other three newly hired coaches insist they’re undeterred by the litany of
obstacles. Former Portland Trailblazers star Terry Porter replaced Reveno at Portland, fellow ex-NBA guard Damon Stoudamire landed his first head coaching job at Pacific and onetime NC State and Arizona State coach Herb Sendek is attempting to revitalize his career at Santa Clara.
When Santa Clara first began courting Sendek, he admits he was wary of the “sizeable gap” between the top three and the rest of the WCC. Second-year athletic director Renee Baumgartner helped assuage Sendek’s concerns by pledging to provide him with more resources than predecessor Kerry Keating had.
“It’s not uncommon in our profession that when there’s change in administration or coaching, they typically make it better for the newcomers,” Sendek said. “Sheepishly by their own admission they haven’t invested in men’s basketball in a way they’re now prepared to do. That doesn’t necessarily happen overnight, but there is a vision, a universal commitment to move it forward. To be part of that is exciting.”
For Porter, the opportunity to coach sons Franklin and Malcolm in their hometown was too great to pass up. While he is hardly naive to the challenges of his new job, he tries to sell recruits on the opportunity to help the Pilots ascend to new heights.
“We talk about being part of something new, trying to build something, trying to break through,” Porter said. “All those schools at the top didn’t start out dominating. There’s a process where they got the right guy in charge and he was able to bring in players who fit his system. Then with the success comes tradition, so there’s definitely an opportunity for us to do the same thing.”
The only new WCC coach who has been part of such a transformation is Smith, Bennett’s right-hand man at Saint Mary’s for the first decade of his tenure. They recognized the potential of Australia before other programs, established Saint Mary’s as a destination for premier players from that country and then built a free-flowing system around skilled players such as Patty Mills and Matthew Dellavedova.
At San Francisco, Smith intends to follow a slightly different blueprint.
Taking advantage of the international appeal of the city of San Francisco, Smith intends to scour Europe, Asia and Australia for talent while also searching for Northern California prospects overlooked by bigger schools. Smith will emphasize big guards who are difficult to score over and skilled combo forwards and centers who can punish Gonzaga and BYU for favoring traditional two big man lineups.
“I think that’s different than how the top of the league plays,” Smith said. “If we’re going to try to play the same way as Gonzaga, we better recruit better than them because they’re really well coached.”
If any of the WCC’s new coaches succeed in breaking through, it probably won’t be this season.
Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s are both unbeaten and ranked in the top 15 nationally and BYU boasts a wealth of promising offensive talent despite Saturday’s surprising loss to Utah Valley. No other WCC program is ranked in the top 130 of either the RPI or Ken Pomeroy’s ratings.
“Everyone keeps talking about busting up the oligarchy,” Smith said. “We’ve just got to chip away.”
BEST IN THE WEST RANKINGS:
1. Gonzaga (6-0): Have already beaten three top 50 teams and should only get better as Zach Collins, Killian Tillie develop
2. UCLA (7-0): In a mere seven games, Lonzo Ball has molded UCLA in his image — unselfish, competitive and unflappable
3. Saint Mary’s (5-0): The emergence of center Jock Landale has made an already potent offense even more efficient.
4. Arizona (5-1): Until standout guard Allonzo Trier is cleared, Arizona will remain a very good team but not an elite one.
5. Oregon (4-2): This may be Oregon’s lowest spot on these rankings all year. Expect the Ducks to get better by Pac-12 play.
6. USC (6-0): Quietly, the Trojans own two of the Pac-12’s best wins — at SEC power Texas A&M and at home against SMU
7. Colorado (5-1): Derrick White’s seamless transition from Division II has boosted Colorado, as has Xavier Johnson’s return
8. San Diego State (3-1): Impressive win over Cal offered a glimpse of what San Diego State hopes to be when fully healthy.
9. Stanford (6-1): One of the Pac-12’s most formidable frontcourts, but point guard play, 3-point shooting remain concerns.
10. Cal (4-1): Charlie Moore’s emergence is encouraging, but the Bears offense won’t run on all cylinders until Jabari Bird returns.
Dropped out: BYU, Utah
THE COUNTDOWN: FIVE BIGGEST EARLY DISAPPOINTMENTS
5. NEW MEXICO (4-2): While the Lobos have not lost to a lesser team thus far, they’ve squandered two of their only cracks at quality non-league wins. They left the Wooden Legacy tournament on Sunday with only a victory over Cal State Northridge sandwiched around losses to Virginia Tech and Dayton. New Mexico’s soft schedule leaves it with only one more chance at a meaningful non-league win — a Dec. 20 road game at Arizona. Lose that, and the Lobos’ path to the NCAA tournament gets very, very narrow since the Mountain West has again failed to distinguish itself in non-league play. To have any chance at Arizona, New Mexico’s defense must get more consistent and its offense must become less reliant on Tim Williams. That means more efficient scoring from Elijah Brown, greater consistency from Sam Logwood and more playing time for Damien Jefferson.
4. BYU (4-2): Inept defense has been a sporadic problem for BYU the past few seasons, however the Cougars hit a new low on Saturday night. They surrendered a staggering 1.19 points per possession at home against Utah Valley in an embarrassing 114-101 loss. Whereas BYU’s previous loss to Valparaiso is a respectable one, the Utah Valley upset is likely to become an albatross for the Cougars’ RPI the rest of the season. They need to compensate by taking advantage of their remaining chances for quality non-conference wins against USC, Colorado and Illinois. BYU plays at the second-fastest tempo in the country so far, which can sometimes obscure the fact that inconsistent defense is not its only problem. The Cougars aren’t shooting efficiently enough from behind the arc, nor are they getting enough offensive boards. It would also help immensely if big man Eric Mika could stay out of foul trouble.
3. WASHINGTON (4-2): Ben Simmons may soon have company among No. 1 overall picks who failed to reach the NCAA tournament. As poorly as Washington has played to start the season, the same fate could easily befall standout freshman guard Markelle Fultz. So far the Huskies have zero top 100 wins and a pair of not-so-great losses, one at home to Yale and the other on a neutral floor against rebuilding TCU. The common denominator in both those games is that the run-and-gun Huskies surrendered too many points per possession. Fultz has been everything he was supposed to be so far, averaging 23 points, 6.7 assists and 2.2 steals per game. But unless he and the rest of the Huskies can clamp down on defense and stop fouling so much, it’s hard to imagine them faring well against the stronger competition on their schedule.
2. OREGON STATE (2-4): No Pac-12 program has endured a rougher opening month than Oregon State, which is losing both games and players at an alarming rate. Playing without standout guard Stevie Thompson, the Beavers dropped four straight games to the likes of Tulsa, Nevada, Fresno State and Lamar. Then just as Thompson’s foot injury was healing enough for him to contemplate a return, tests revealed that fellow star Tres Tinkle suffered a broken wrist last Friday against Fresno State and will miss the next two months. By the time Tinkle is back, Oregon State’s hopes of a second straight trip to the NCAA tournament could be long dead. The Beavers, already in a deep hole, play road games at Mississippi State and Charlotte next week and start Pac-12 play in late December.
1. OREGON (4-2): With all but two key players back from last year’s 31-win Elite Eight team, Oregon appeared to have a chance to have an even better season this year. The Ducks instead are off to a tepid start, mixing decent wins over mid-major power Valparaiso, rebuilding Tennessee and struggling UConn with losses to resurgent Baylor and middling Georgetown. Part of the problem is that Dillon Brooks suffered an offseason foot injury that sidelined him against Baylor and had him still shaking off the rust in Maui. It also hasn’t helped that Tyler Dorsey and Dillon Ennis are both off to ragged starts, leaving Oregon without enough playmakers or consistent perimeter shooting. Chances are that Oregon will be fine once Brooks returns to form and Dorsey emerges from his slump, but the Ducks certainly bear watching. They have a string of winnable home games upcoming before the schedule stiffens once Pac-12 play begins.
LAST CALL: Christmas may still be a month away, but I already received a generous gift last week. It was a box containing four IPA’s from Stone Brewing Company, one celebrating their fifth, 10th, 15th and 20th anniversaries. Of the four, my runaway favorite was actually the newest release, Citracado IPA, which is named after the street where Stone Brewery is located in Escondido, Calif. The name is also an homage to the beer’s two most important ingredients, Citra hops and avocado flower honey. GRADE: 8.5/10
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