University of San Francisco head coach Kyle Smith led his team to 20 wins in his first season in charge. (Stan Olszewski/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Dons new boss aces debut season, but bigger test awaits

When Kyle Smith was still the head coach at Columbia last March, he sat down to write an email just before bed when his phone buzzed to life. On the other end was Scott Sidwell, the athletics director at University of San Francisco, and his soon-to-be boss.

A day prior, Smith had interviewed for the top post with the Dons men’s basketball program. Almost one year after that late-night call, both Smith and Sidwell — in separate conversations — say they hit it off from the start.

As Smith sat as his computer that night in New York, composing an email he hoped would determine where he stood in the hiring process, Sidwell was reaching out to decipher what the leading candidate was thinking about the job.

“I never hit send,” Smith said as he cracked himself up. “And the phone rang.”

At the time, Sidwell was entrenched in an exhaustive search, logging some 20,000 miles in the air as he jetted around, scouring the nation for the next coach to pilot his program.

After visiting with Smith and other prospective coaches on the East Coast, the AD extended an invite out west.

“He said, ‘Hey, why don’t we get together, bring your wife,’” Smith recalled. “And that’s when I kind of, sort of thought there was some possibility there.”

In the pursuit of Smith, Sidwell described the school as the “hunters” who deployed all their top resources to secure their target.

Those assets included Jim Brovelli — a former Dons coach and now a color commentator on the team’s broadcast, and Bill Cartwright, a five-time NBA champ, three-time West Coast Conference Player of the year and current Director of University Initiatives.

“Look, Bill was instrumental along with coach Jim Brovelli in the search process,” Sidwell explained, adding that he’d asked the pair to speak with candidates, watch tape and even assess the coaches’ basketball philosophies.

Cartwright, in particular, has been an invaluable resource to the athletics department chief.

“He’s just a very caring, solid human being,” Sidwell said. “And a lot of that he attributes to the education and the experience he had when he was at the University of San Francisco.”

The Dons icon plays the same role for USF as Jerry West does for the Golden State Warriors.

Like West, an executive board member for the Dubs, Cartwright is the in-house living legend and sage sounding board who Sidwell leans on when it’s time to execute the most important decisions.

“It’s been a real blessing to have a guy like that help steer us and help be a part of the team that makes it all work,” Sidwell said. “I think that’s the key word that this is a real team approach. We’ve got our board of trustees, our president, our administration, our athletic department — everybody at our institution is lined up with this idea that we want to be special again.”

Whenever the Dons have taken the floor during Smith’s debut campaign, which featured a 20-11 regular-season mark, there was Cartwright, cramming his 7-foot-1 frame into the first row of folding chairs, just off to the side of the hoop at War Memorial Gym.

That 20-11 record stands as just the third time since the 1985-86 season that the program has reached the 20-win plateau. Smith never put any hard goals on his team, explaining that he didn’t want to burden the young Dons with undue pressure, but even the coach had to admit that Year 1 has exceeded expectations.

Smith also recognizes that the more daunting challenge awaits. Even after falling 76-69 in the WCC tournament quarterfinals to Santa Clara on Saturday night, the Dons have assured themselves of some form of postseason play — whether it be in the NIT or Postseason Tournament remains to be seen. Once the playoff push is over, their attention will shift to toppling — or at least threatening — the Gonzaga monopoly over the WCC (with Saint Mary’s situated as next in line).

“You don’t want to go crazy trying to go outside the box and reinvent the wheel,” Smith said. “But you’re going to have to do something different, probably, than what’s been done before.”

Smith intends to follow a template unlike the one that Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s — who have combined to win the past eight WCC tournament titles — have laid out.

“It’s no secret,” Smith said. “Gonzaga knows what they’re doing. Saint Mary’s knows what they’re doing … and they [both] kind of play with two posts and three perimeters. And [both] of them have an elite guard.”

Instead of attempting to out-coach or out-recruit the power players, Smith envisions a team that will thrive by prioritizing skill, utilizing two combo guards, two combo forwards and a talented center.

A year into the process, Smith’s boss is already fully invested in the plan.

“This is about USF and this is about us being able to do the very best we can do to put ourselves in a position for greatness and we’ve been there before and we’re on our way there again,” Sidwell said. “We’re seeing signs that we’re taking some dramatic leaps forward. One of the key pieces of that was getting Kyle Smith onboard and his system and his set of values and principles.”

bill cartwrightCollege SportsKyle Smithscott sidwellusf dons men’s basketballWCC

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