Columbia head coach Kyle Smith reacts during an NCAA college basketball game against Connecticut in Bridgeport, Conn., Monday, Dec. 22, 2014. (Fred Beckham/2014 AP)

Dons’ new head coach outlines vision

Kyle Smith has helped struggling programs turn their fortunes around as both an assistant and head coach.

After helping to lift Saint Mary’s from an also-ran to a perennial power in the West Coast Conference and building Columbia into an Ivy League contender in his first job as a head coach, Smith will try to pull off a similar trick at tradition-rich San Francisco.

“I want to get San Francisco back to where we have a seat at the table,” Smith said at his introductory news conference Friday. “It’s going to take time and hard work to do it. But it’s capable. It’s obviously capable.”

USF has made the NCAA Tournament just once since the program returned from a temporary suspension in 1985. Before that, the Dons had great success, winning the NIT in 1949 under Pete Newell, back-to-back NCAA titles in 1955 and ‘56 on teams led by Hall of Famers Bill Russell and K.C. Jones and reaching No. 1 in the country in 1977 with Bill Cartwright as the star.

Now the Dons find themselves chasing national power Gonzaga, local rival Saint Mary’s and BYU for conference supremacy. USF has not won a regular season title since 1981 with the best finish coming with a tie for second in 2013-14.

“Those programs are not going to go backward,” Smith said. “They’re not going to fall off. You have to go get them.”

But those programs lack the rich history of San Francisco and Smith hopes to use that, as well as the attraction of going to school in a city like San Francisco to help raise the level of the program.

He will also be helped by an increased commitment to the team that will lead to a renovation of the arena and a new practice gym.

“As far as I’m concerned, we should be right there at the top with Gonzaga, with BYU and for sure Saint Mary’s,” said Cartwright, who was involved in the search in his new role as director of special initiatives. “This job is not easy. We know that. The big thing is they’re willing to do whatever it takes.”

One of the qualities that made Smith attractive to USF athletic director Scott Sidwell is that he has experience turning programs around that have much less history than the Dons do.

The 46-year-old Smith has spent 17 years as an assistant in the WCC at San Diego and Saint Mary’s, with his greatest success coming with the Gaels. He was an assistant on coach Randy Bennett’s first staff that took over a team that went 2-27 in 2000-01.

Saint Mary’s quickly rebounded, becoming an NCAA Tournament team in 2004-05, making it again in 2007-08 and then going to the Sweet 16 in 2009-10. That success helped Smith earn the head coaching job at Columbia the following season.

“I’m pumped. We’re all pumped,” Bennett said. “It’s just going to be a little tricky two times a year — one of my best friends. I’m really happy for him. It’s his dream job. How often do you get your dream job?”

Smith won 101 games in his six years at Columbia, posting a 25-10 mark this season when the Lions finished third in the Ivy League, set a school record for wins in a season and won the CollegeInsiders.com Tournament.

Columbia went 11-17 the year before Smith arrived, finishing ahead of only Dartmouth in the Ivy League. He won at least 20 games twice at a school that hadn’t reached that mark since the 1960s.

Smith replaces Rex Walters, who was fired last month after eight seasons with the Dons. Walters went 127-127 with a 63-65 record in the conference and was unable to end an NCAA Tournament drought that dates to 1998.Bill Russellcollege basketballCollege SportsKyle Smithsaint mary'sSan FranciscoUSFWCCWest Coast Conference

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