Count Kyle Smith as one of the few Inland Northwest residents who would’ve been overjoyed to see the University of San Francisco hang on Thursday night to stun second-ranked Gonzaga at the McCarthey Athletic Center.
Smith hasn’t been around the Dons for nearly a year, but almost anywhere you look, the imprint Washington State’s coach has left on USF is still visible, from the “Nerdball” strategy he used to determine on-court value, to the roster of players he recruited, to the 34-year-old who stepped into his shoes and picked up right where Smith left off.
For the second time this season, the second-youngest coach in Division I men’s basketball came close to springing an upset of Gonzaga. By now, it’s no accident that the Dons are routinely one of a few West Coast Conference teams capable of keeping Mark Few’s Bulldogs within striking distance whenever they play.
In three of the past four meetings against Gonzaga teams ranked no lower than fifth, the Dons have either had a lead or been tied at halftime. Todd Golden has been USF’s head coach for two of those matchups, but his predecessor is unofficially responsible for all three.
“I would not be anywhere close to where I am if it weren’t for (Smith),” Golden said. “He’s really provided me with great opportunities, first as a player at Saint Mary’s, then again as a coach at Columbia and a coach here at USF. I really owe most of my career to him, and (he’s) a guy I look up to and a guy I hope to be as good of a coach as him someday.”
With a strong reference from the last man who coached at USF, Golden took over the Dons in March almost immediately after Smith accepted the position at Washington State.
“Nerdball” has a second branch on the Palouse, but it still has discernible roots in the Bay Area, where the Dons (17-11, 6-7) are three victories shy of a fourth straight 20-win season – something that seems attainable with three regular-season games left, at least one in the WCC Tournament and possibly another in the postseason.
“When we got here, the program was not in good shape. It just really wasn’t,” Golden said. “They weren’t having success, there was some bad apples in the program. And quickly, we had three years of 20 wins. (Smith) just understands how to win, and he’s a great guy, and I imagine he’ll do it at Washington State in no time.”
During Smith’s tenure as an assistant coach for Randy Bennett at Saint Mary’s, he was one of the first to notice a 6-foot-3 prospect out of Phoenix’s Sunnyslope High, ultimately convincing Golden to sign with the Gaels. The point guard appeared in two NCAA Tournaments, finished second in the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio and graduated as SMC’s career leader in free-throw percentage.
“Kyle, he’s my mentor,” Golden said. “He recruited me out of high school and the guy’s just a winner. He just understands how to run a program. He understands what’s important in terms of student-athletes, and he understands how to build a winning culture. Him and Randy did it when I was playing for him at Saint Mary’s, went to Columbia – one of the hardest jobs in the country, did it there – and came to USF.”
Smith also gave Golden his coaching start, offering him an assistant coaching position at Columbia in 2012. After three seasons in the Ivy League, Golden jumped to Auburn to become the director of basketball operations for Bruce Pearl, then returned to the WCC to reunite with Smith at USF.
With Golden by his side, Smith transformed an underachieving program at Columbia, then used the same strategy to boost a middling USF team.
“It’s kind of funny, but we’re underdogs,” Golden said. “At least that’s the way we think of ourselves. We’re undertalented and we have to find ways to beat the glass. I think Kyle’s really smart. I’m not on that level, but we can find ways, and we feel that gives us a little bit of an advantage and a really important piece of our program in every aspect with player development.”
Analytics play a key role once the Dons get to the court, but Golden said the “culture” Smith established at USF is the most valuable component of his legacy – and the thing he’s most determined to preserve at USF.
“We’re family and we root for each other,” Golden said. “I know he wants us to do well. … We share a lot of the same fundamental basics in terms of our ways of life, building programs, and we work really, really hard for each other. If there’s any opportunity for us to watch a Cougar game, we’re watching it, and I’m sure he’s doing the same for us.”
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