New USF men's basketball head coach Kyle Smith prepares his players for their first game of the season on Friday. (Courtesy USF Athletics)

New braintrust aims to return Dons to prominence

As Kyle Smith begins his first season patrolling the sideline at War Memorial Gymnasium, the new head coach of the USF men’s basketball team knows exactly what kind of situation he’s stepped into.

His colleagues picked the Dons to finish second-to-last in the West Coast Conference preseason coaches poll and his roster consists of 13 underclassmen, one junior and one senior.

“Everyone wants me to tell [them] that we’re going to be bad and we’ve got young guys and we shouldn’t be good,” Smith explained.
There’s just one problem: “I can’t do it. I can’t do it,” Smith insisted.

The Dons’ new leader has plenty of reasons to be confident, starting with the run he just produced as the head coach at Columbia. Before taking the USF post in March, Smith transformed Columbia into one of the most successful Ivy League programs in recent memory.

The Lions put up a 101-82 record during Smith’s six seasons in charge, which marked the winningest six-year span in school history dating back to 1965-1971. Last spring, Columbia won the CollegeInsider.com Tournament to become the second Ivy League school ever to claim a postseason tournament title.

“I don’t think it’s magic,” Smith said of his strong work at Columbia.

But there is a blueprint for turning a private urban university into a conference heavyweight and it begins with finding the right players.

“It’s the attitude, the work ethic, wanting to be there, then there’s the fourth one I don’t share very often. [You’ve] got to be able to able to make a shot,” Smith said as he cracked himself up.

Smith is already hard at work at finding those players. Two days before the Dons opened the season against University of Illinois–Chicago on Friday night, USF announced that Souley Boum — a two-time Oakland Athletic League Player of the Year from Oakland Technical High School — had signed a national letter of intent.

“My dream is if we could do it with all local guys,” Smith said.

Achieving that dream will be a big ask, as the Dons can only hand out roughly three scholarships per season.

“You have to get the best players you can get,” Smith said. “But I think USF will play well locally — especially if we win a little bit and people get to know our program.”

Even in his first season as a Don, Smith already knows the program and the WCC well. He spent 17 seasons as an assistant coach in the conference — eight at the University of San Diego and nine at St. Mary’s — and he plans to leverage USF’s legacy as a former powerhouse.

“I think some people would be scared of the tradition and we’re just going to embrace it, try to reconnect with it and do the best we can,” Smith said.

That process began last spring when the university hired one of its most famous graduates.

“Bill Cartwright doesn’t need to be working here,” Smith said of the school’s all-time scoring leader, who returned to USF as the Director of University Initiatives in April.

“He doesn’t need the money, he doesn’t need the job, but he wants his alma mater to be the best it can be.”

“That’s important for our guys to know. Here’s a guy who’s won three NBA championships [as a player and two more as an assistant coach]. [He was a] three-time player of the year in the [WCC]. And now in his middle age, he’s spending his time on the place that gave him his opportunities.”

Cartwright has assumed a wide-ranging role, which includes building relationships with alumni and the San Francisco community, helping with fundraising and mentoring students from underrepresented groups.

“It’s been really awesome,” Cartwright said. “Our president Fr. [Paul] Fitzgerald has been terrific. To be able to work with him, to be able to work with Scott Sidwell who’s our [athletic director], and just really see the vision that these guys have for the school [has been great].”

“It is an exciting time for both the men and women’s team,” Cartwright added. “There’s a lot of anticipation about really good things happening.”

When Cartwright was a three-time All-American back in the 1970s, the Dons won three conference titles and made as many trips to the NCAA tournament.

Both Cartwright and Smith recognize that it will be a long road back for the school. These days, teams like Gonzaga and St. Mary’s — ranked No. 14 and No. 17, respectively, in the AP Top 25 preseason poll — stand atop the WCC hierarchy.

Smith is also familiar with the cyclical nature of the conference. When he first joined the St. Mary’s staff as an assistant back in 2001, the East Bay school was just beginning its rise to the national stage.

“It goes in waves,” Smith said. “So maybe hopefully we can get back in there and get a piece of it.”

Like the head coach, Cartwright is also thinking big.

“We’re just looking to take back what is really already ours.”

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