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Washington State tabs Kyle Smith to restore long-dormant basketball program

UPDATED: Wed., March 27, 2019, 9:41 p.m.

San Francisco head coach Kyle Smith reacts during the second half against Gonzaga in San Francisco on Jan. 12. (Jeff Chiu / AP)
San Francisco head coach Kyle Smith reacts during the second half against Gonzaga in San Francisco on Jan. 12. (Jeff Chiu / AP)

Kyle Smith had a chance to be part of Washington State’s last golden era on the basketball court.

He passed up on an offer from Tony Bennett in 2006, electing to stay put at Saint Mary’s instead.

But Smith still watched from afar, scribbling down the occasional note as Bennett made the Cougars relevant again, taking them to the NCAA Tournament in 2007 and 2008.

Thirteen years later, an offer much more lucrative than the last one, and an opportunity to restore WSU’s long-dormant basketball program, have persuaded Smith to take a chance on the Cougars and a job that many consider to be among the country’s most challenging.

One day after initial reports surfaced linking Smith to the position at Washington State, the two sides agreed to a long-term contract to make him the Cougars’ 19th coach. The school announced Wednesday evening that Smith accepted a six-year contract that will pay the former University of San Francisco coach $1.4 million annually.

“When I think of Washington State basketball, I think of the great coaches that have been there, going back to Marv Harshman, George Raveling, Kelvin Sampson and then Tony Bennett, to name a few,” Smith said in a press release. “The most recent success being Tony Bennett, who actually offered me a job when his dad (Dick) left and he was appointed head coach. I’ve followed Tony’s career and he and I have often recruited some of the same types of players. He’s obviously done great things and he’s always been kind of a mentor of mine.

“I just hope I can honor the tradition of those coaches that came before me.”

Smith will be formally announced Monday at a press conference. WSU will release the time and location of the press conference later this week.

Ernie Kent, who was fired after leading the Cougars to a 13-18 record in 2018-19, was also earning an annual salary of $1.4 million. It’s costing WSU $4.2 million over the next three years to buy out the remainder of Kent’s contact, which was set to expire after the 2021-22 season.

But athletic director Pat Chun, stating in a “Cougs in 60” radio interview that “the cost of inaction was going to be greater than the cost of action,” decided to pull the trigger on firing Kent one day after WSU’s 33-point loss to Oregon in the Pac-12 Tournament.

Just 13 days later, the school moved to hire Smith, who has an impressive track record at the midmajor level and won at least 20 games in five of his last six seasons at USF and Columbia.

“Coach Smith has a proven record of success, a commitment to academic excellence and a passion for developing every aspect of his student-athletes,” Chun said. “The methodology he has created in building basketball programs for sustainable excellence is like none other in the sport.”

When Washington State’s Board of Regents convenes Thursday, it will consider approving additional expenditures “for the purposes of hiring a men’s basketball coaching staff,” according to the meeting agenda.

WSU, which will be paying current and former basketball coaches $2.8 million per year over the next three years, will ask for an additional $500,000 at the meeting, per the agenda. State law mandates any expenditures over $250,000 not included in the previous fiscal year’s budget be brought forth to, and approved by, the Board of Regents.

Multiple reports indicated that Boise State’s Leon Rice and Montana’s Travis DeCuire both declined offers from WSU before the Cougars reached out to Smith, but a source with direct knowledge of the situation confirmed that was false. The source said Smith was the only person who was offered the job.

Smith’s top assistant, associate head coach Todd Golden, is reportedly in line to become the Dons’ next coach.

The Cougars are counting on Smith to transform a program that’s gone 11 years since last appearing in the NCAA Tournament, and 10 since last winning a game in the Pac-12 Tournament.

Smith doesn’t have any coaching experience in the Pac-12, or at the Power Six level. But the 49-year-old, who’s touted as an analytics guru, won 63 games in his first three seasons as Dons coach and has been to multiple lower-level postseason tournament title games.

“I was really impressed during the hiring process with Pat and his team,” Smith said. “Being married to a Washingtonian myself, it really felt like home, there was just a lot of synergy in the room.”

During a “Cougs in 60” interview with radio host Derek Deis, Chun indicated what the school was seeking in its next basketball coach.

“Our coaches that have been the most successful here have a belief system of what their program needs to look like,” Chun said, “and a conviction that no matter what the adversity comes, no matter what the world is telling you, we are going to do it our way and we’re going to be happy with the results.”

Advanced numbers became an integral component of Smith’s tenure at USF, where the coach and his staff tracked 50 statistical categories for every player, including 12 for rebounding alone, according to a profile in The Athletic.

The analytics-heavy approach employed by Smith at USF was affectionately coined “Nerdball.”

“We might as well be putting our guys out there in bifocals,” Smith told The Athletic.

The unorthodox approach has been effective at both of the midmajor outposts he’s worked at.

Smith’s 2017-18 USF team was a runner-up at the CBI and he took Columbia to the CIT championship game in 2016. Smith, who has an overall head coaching record of 164-122, spent six seasons at Columbia prior to his stint at USF.

In Pullman, Smith will inherit a program that’s finished sub-.500 each of the last seven seasons and won 22 Pac-12 games in Kent’s five seasons at the helm.

And he’ll be tasked with reconstructing a roster that loses three seniors, including Robert Franks, who was the Pac-12’s top scorer and a first-team all-conference selection last season. Reserve guard Carter Skaggs elected to leave the program and pursue other opportunities as a graduate transfer and starting forward Jeff Pollard is reportedly browsing his options after entering the NCAA’s transfer portal.

Smith may have to re-recruit the players on WSU’s current roster and potentially a few of the incoming prospects.

Of the three players signed to WSU’s 2019 class, just one – transfer guard Ryan Murphy – has assured he’d be sticking with the Cougars. Texan forward Nigel John has reopened his commitment but indicated WSU is still his first option, and forward Daron Henson – a former Utah State Aggie – hasn’t given any hints about his plans.

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