New USF basketball head coach Todd Golden has Sean McVay quality

Dons begin first season under seventh-youngest head coach in Division I men’s basketball

Charles Minlend couldn’t even hit a layup.

Finally back on the court after missing a year with a torn shoulder labrum, the dynamic University of San Francisco guard had tweaked his knee during an open run. When he returned to the gym a week later, he couldn’t even get through warmups. He limped out of War Memorial Gym, headed to a bathroom in the lobby and sank to the tile floor, weeping. “I just broke down,” Minlend said.

Todd Golden, then the Dons’ top assistant, soon came in. Through tears, Minlend told him that basketball was his everything; he couldn’t bear losing it again. Golden lifted Minlend to his feet. “Regardless of what happens,” Golden said, “I’m here for you.”

A former walk-on at St. Mary’s and a fringe pro overseas, Golden’s ability to blend compassion and empathy with advanced analytics is why he was tapped to succeed Kyle Smith as the Dons’ head coach nine months later.

When San Francisco tips off the season at 7 p.m. on Tuesday against Sonoma State, Golden, 34, will be the seventh-youngest head coach in Division I men’s basketball.

“He really had to fight for everything that he had,” said USF great Bill Cartwright, a former NBA All-Star and head coach who Golden has brought on as an official advisor. “He learned basic fundamental skills and really started from the bottom. He has those same qualities as a head coach. He really watches and listens.”

It’s a quality Golden shares with Warriors head coach Steve Kerr.

“One of the reasons Steve is so successful is that nobody’s ever going to be perfect at everything, and Steve understands that,” said Kirk Lacob, Golden State’s assistant general manager and Golden’s friend of eight years. “He knows what he doesn’t know. And so he’s not afraid to say ‘I need help with this’ or, ‘Why don’t you do that? You’re better at it.’ I sense some of that in Todd.”

It’s why Golden brought Cartwright on the day he was hired and added former pro seven-footer Mamadou Ndiaye to his staff soon after, and why he lobbied to promote veteran assistant Kevin Hovde and hire Oakland native and ace recruiter Vinnie McGhee. It’s why Lacob thinks that Golden is destined for bigger things.

“I don’t want to ever, you know, step on college’s toes, especially a local,” Lacob said. “But, he’s the type of guy who could make the jump [to the NBA] if he ever wanted to.”

“He’s got that ‘It’ factor, that Sean McVay quality,” Smith said, referring to the head coach of the Los Angeles Rams, who became the youngest head coach in the NFL when he was hired in 2017 at age 30.

Some of the greatest coaches in Dons history were hired before they turned 35, including the legendary Jimmy Needles, who won three conference titles after being named player-coach at 23, and Phil Woolpert, who won 155 games (including 60 straight) and two NCAA Tournament titles after being hired at 34. Pete Peletta was 31 when he was hired, and won three conference titles. Pete Newell was just 31 when he took over. San Francisco, though, has not hired a head men’s basketball coach under the age of 35 since Pete Barry in 1980.

“For me, age is not a big deal,” said athletic director Joan McDermott, who made Golden her first official hire on April 1. “It’s more about what they do, who they are and their experience.”

In the summer of 2003, just after the publication of “Moneyball” vindicated the analytical approach Smith and Randy Bennett had taken at St. Mary’s, Smith saw more in Golden — a 6-foot-2, 155-pound 16-year-old — than the garish blond streaks in his hair or the headband he wore in his first and only summer playing AAU ball for the Arizona Stars: He was an energetic, willing passer who made his teammates better.

Smith couldn’t offer Golden a full scholarship, but did promise that he’d be put on one for his final two years. It was a very Moneyball approach — bring in atypical athletes who possessed elite skill in undervalued areas, and do it on the cheap. With no other scholarships, Golden — whose father’s law firm had just dissolved — took Smith up on his offer.

“The question that I get from everybody is, ‘How did this happen? How did he become a head coach so quickly?’” said Omar Samhan, one of Golden’s St. Mary’s teammates. “I tell them the same answer every time: He’s been a coach for 20 years.”

On Samhan’s first day on campus, when he went to shoot at McKeon Pavilion at 6 a.m., Golden — a redshirt sophomore — was already there. “If you want to shoot in the mornings,” Golden said, “I’ll shoot with you.”

It became their routine. Even when Golden was playing and Samhan was redshirting, the two would shoot together on game-day mornings.

The next year, Golden ordered Samhan to his place every Friday night not for partying or socializing, but for game film study. Those sessions eventually came to include Patty Mills, arguably the greatest player to come out of St. Mary’s.

“He took me in,” said Mills, now with the San Antonio Spurs. “He took care of me as a little Australian freshman coming over all the way. I’ve got huge respect for him … You could tell, from early days [that he’d be a coach], just his basketball IQ, his attention to detail when it came to game stuff.”

Golden became a three-year starter and a team captain. His court vision and energy powered a 2008 NCAA Tournament team with multiple future pros.

After two years playing in Israel — where he learned how to synergize individual objectives with team success — Golden returned to the Bay. Smith tried to get him to join his new staff at Columbia, but Golden took two years to work at IMG-College and Comcast SportsNet Bay Area in San Francisco. When he finally told Smith he wanted back in, all Smith had to offer was an off-court director of basketball operations position.

Once admonished by Smith for discussing a fantasy baseball draft during team time at St. Mary’s, Golden put his analytical accumen to work streamlining the program’s back end, from scheduling and recruiting to talent evaluation. Within a year, he was Smith’s defensive coordinator. The Lions’ scoring defense jumped 50 spots in the Division I rankings.

When he left to join Bruce Pearl’s staff at Auburn, he’d already started to blend a humanistic approach with analytics to unearth hidden talent. He convinced Pearl to take a chance on a 5-foot-10 guard with no Power 5 offers. That guard — Jared Harper — became just the third player in school history to amass 1,000 points and 500 assists, and was the MVP of the Tigers’ first-ever Final Four team last season, a team built partly out of Golden’s recruits when he was the youngest assistant in the SEC.

After Golden left to re-join Smith at San Francisco — where he helped win 63 games and lifted the Dons’scoring defense from 316th out of 351 Division I teams to the Nos. 56, 79 and 75 in his three seasons as Smith’s defensive coordinator — Auburn coaches still asked him about recruits because of his keen eye for talent.

Golden, too, took something from his stint in the south: Advice from Pearl.

“One thing he said was, ‘They’ll play as hard for you as they know that you love them,’” Golden said. “I want to take a lot of what Kyle was so great at and a lot of what Bruce was great at, and if I can kind of merge that in the middle. If it weren’t for [Smith] kind of having that outside-the-box thinking, I would not be in the position I’m in today.”

It’s what brought Golden into that bathroom to console Minlend in July of 2018. It’s why it took McDermott less than 24 hours to decide to hire Golden after Smith told her he was leaving to take the head coaching job at Washington State. It’s why, when she brought Golden down from the back of the team meeting room the day Smith informed the Dons of his decision, Minlend sat in the front row smiling. He knew what was coming next. The entire team stood up and cheered.

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