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Coaching Search Bracket: Kyle Smith vs. The Field

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Kyle Smith’s quietly deployed a Moneyball approach to make over Washington State, arguably the toughest high-major job in the country. Or do you want to bet on an unknown coming out of nowhere?

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: FEB 26 Washington State at Washington Photo by Lawrence Iles/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Missouri’s embarked upon its fourth search for a basketball coach in roughly a decade, and as usual, you can find a listicle of candidates anywhere. We also know every fan has their preference. As does each of us on the masthead for this website.

A thought occurred to us: What would happen if you, me, and everyone else ran the process?

How are we doing this? We’re rolling out four regions featuring a pair of matchups. We’ve assembled a profile for each candidate: their background, play style, pros, and cons. At the bottom of each piece is a poll, where you have 24 hours to make your preference known. The fan vote will make up 50 percent of the vote.

Who makes up the other half? The Rock M staff.

If the staff is unanimous and the fans make the same selection, easy enough. If, however, there is a consensus amongst the staff, but the fans disagree, we have a tie. To break the tie, we’ve enlisted the services of Jim Root (@2ndChancePoints), who will render the final verdict.

On Saturday, we looked at the Young Bloods Region, featuring Kim English, Todd Golden, Dennis Gates, and Jeff Linder. The Steady Risers Region saw us pit Niko Medved against Casey Alexander, while Matt McMahon and Grant McCasland squared off. And Monday saw us offer a pair of riskier pairings in Sean Miller and Jerome Tang, and Chris Mack and Thad Matta.

Today, we’re wrapping up the first round with the Power Players Region. Here, you can choose between Washington State’s Kyle Smith or, hear me out, bet on the field. Our other matchup sees Oregon’s Dana Altman go up against Seton Hall’s Kevin Willard.

Altman’s been reported as a possible target. Meanwhile, each author picked a high-major coach they though had outperformed their resources. Matt Watkins went with Smith. Matthew Harris chose Kevin Willard.


NCAA Basketball: Pac-12 Conference Tournament-California at Washington State Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports
  • Name: Kyle Smith
  • School: Washington State
  • Age: 52
  • Seasons: 3
  • Record: 45-42 (213-164 overall)
  • Salary: $1.4 million*
  • Buyout: $1.4 million before April 1, $750,00 afterward

*Smith received an extension in the preseason, but it’s unknown whether it increased his pay, added years, or both.

Background

Kyle Smith’s road to a high-major coaching gig was circuitous. A graduate of Hamilton College, a Division III school, he attained his master’s at the University of San Diego. It was there his ascent began. After eight years on staff as an assistant he served one year as assistant at the Air Force Academy. Smith then moved on to a similar role with Randy Bennett at Saint Mary’s, where Bennett was laying the groundwork for what would become a very successful program. Smith spent nine years in sum with Bennett. Then, Smith’s time came.

His first job was at Columbia University in New York City. Taking over a program that had never cracked Ken Pomeroy’s top 200, Smith went to work. In five of his six seasons, he achieved that mark. In fact, during two of his last three seasons the Lions finished in the top 120. Since Smith’s departure in 2016, Columbia has failed to finish top 200 in each of six seasons.

The Ivy League has a strong tradition of hoops, even producing the famed “Princeton Offense” from which the game still borrows concepts. However, Columbia has not been a frequent contributor to that legacy, not having won a league title since 1968.

Smith then moved returned to the West Coast to take on a similarly daunting rebuild at the University of San Francisco. While the odds weren’t as long, moving to a mid-major conference populated with the likes of national power Gonzaga, BYU and Saint Mary’s still requires some heavy lifting. Taking over for Rex Walters, who had notched one top-100 finish in eight seasons, Smith accomplished that feat by finishing 67th in 2019.

Unlike at Columbia, USF had the foresight to hire from within when Smith jumped to his next stop. That move? The hiring of Smith’s trusted assistant, Todd Golden. He received his own treatment in this project, but for the purposes of Smith’s background, his ability to find undervalued assets is extraordinary. His coaching staff is no different. Those two impacts are still being felt three years after his departure.

Finally, Smith found his way to Mars…excuse me, Pullman. There are few objections when one suggests Washington State is the toughest power-conference job in the country. Last winning a league title in 1941 and boasting only six trips to the NCAA tournament…ever…the program is light on accolades. What it lacks in history of success, it makes up for with bottom of the barrel financial resources and a secluded — but beautiful — geographic disadvantage. Oh, and to make matters worse? Should you get a regional recruit befitting of a high major, Gonzaga is 80 minutes away.

As you can see, this is not an easy job. The only extended success the Cougs have enjoyed was under Tony Bennett when Klay Thompson was ripping nets. Since 1998, Washington State has finished top 80 in Ken Pomeroy’s rankings just seven times. Tony Bennett owns three, Dick Bennett owns one and Kyle Smith owns two. He’s been on the job for three years!

Play Style

Instead of a deep dive on schematics — and Smith’s are known for changing frequently — I offer instead his program strategy via Sports Illustrated. The key to Smith’s rapid ascension at programs that just don’t have a lot going for them can be traced back to this foundation. What players are undervalued? He developed an algorithm to solve it! What can we do statistically to optimize the talent we do have? How can we compete against teams that are playing by different rules financially?

Pros

Smith has shown the ability to turn around programs that are much more difficult to win at than Mizzou. The Tigers need someone to embrace their challenges and have the intelligence and fortitude to overcome them. Enter Kyle Smith. He’s made a career out of doing that.

Cons

For better or worse, winning the press conference is often a factor in the decision tree. Kyle Smith may receive a collective, “Who?” While the available metrics show his incredible worth, the raw numbers paint a less rosy picture. No tournament appearances. No league titles. Those things matter in perception. While I have little doubt Smith could turn Mizzou into a consistent winning program, the ceiling question is fair. Once you get the ship on track, what then? We simply do not know.


NCAA Basketball: Furman at Louisiana State Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports
  • Name: The Field
  • School: All of them
  • Age: Young or old
  • Seasons: Unclear
  • Record: Good, you hope
  • Salary: Affordable, maybe
  • Buyout: Low, ideally

Background

We had more than 35 coaches on our initial list, and it didn’t include assistant coaches or those working in the NBA or G League. We’ve tried to pick guys we think might be appealing to Mizzou’s brain trust and represent a diversified pool.

But we’re not infallible. We’ve already had to pull Niko Medved out of the pool and swap in Drake’s Darian DeVries for the next round. We didn’t have Baylor assistant coach Jerome Tang on our initial list, but he was profiled on Monday. And the same goes for Oregon’s Dana Altman, who replaced Wake Forest’s Steve Forbes in our other matchup.

It’s a cliche, but this process is one of ebb and flow, where reporters are trying to parse the fine distinction rumor and fact. Oh, and it’s still relatively early.

Need an example of how wacky a search can go? Look at Georgia. Who had Mike White bailing on an objectively better job at Florida to take on a tough rebuild? No one. Apparently, it took just one Zoom call for White, whose seat was warming, to find a reset — even if it was with an SEC rival.

A decade ago, I was floored that Matt Painter was even an option. Or that Frank Martin would bail on K-State for South Carolina. Or Buzz Williams would exit Virginia Tech for Texas A&M. Moreover, Desiree Reed-Francois is a relatively new athletic director. So, we don’t have a lot of hiring history to use as a reference point.

We do know she’s hired Eddie Fogler, a former coach at Wichita State, Vanderbilt and South Carolina, to serve as a consultant. He assisted Reed-Francois when she hired T.J. Otzelberger at UNLV.

Pros

Let’s leave open the possibility MU opens up the checkbook to get someone whose coaching credentials glitter. We’ve droned on a lot about the fact that MU’s budget is average for its peer group. Yet Mun Choi made it abundantly clear when he hired Reed-Francois last summer what the expectation would be moving forward.

“Today, we’re going to go from good to becoming champions,” he said in August. “She’s going to be making some deep — but necessary — changes. So, business as usual goes out the window.”

What does that look like? I can’t guess. When MU hired Martin, it pulled of a rare feat of landing a sitting power-conference coach. Yet the move was also logical. It moved Martin close to home, better resources, and comparable pay. Plus, he had an easy staffing hire that came with two five-star prospects.

Today, we’ve got several coaches that might offer a repeat of that plan. But what if Reed-Francois, Choi, and Fogler have quietly back-channeled to make a hire that leaves our jaw on the floor? Like poaching Chris Holtmann from Ohio State. Or going after Danny Hurley at UConn, where Choi used to work. Let your imagination run wild.

Cons

Um, you remember Frank Haith, right?

Time is a commodity. Spend too long going after a big target, and the rest of the board might clear out. It’s how Mike Alden wound up frantically shopping the NABC convention at the Final Four.

This section also accounts for the circumstances we saw as MU searched for Barry Odom’s replacement. I’d argue some factions overestimated how attractive that vacancy might be, and we know what happened when Sterk presented his initial pool to the curators. Shunning that list hand leverage to Eli Drinkwitz in negotiations.

This is a way wondering how aligned MU’s leadership as this process unfold. An organization is a rational actor when it has agreed upon preferences and a plan to meet them. It doesn’t mean you or I necessarily have the same ones. That’s life. What matters is institutional alignment.

That didn’t happen a couple of years ago. It needs to happen now. Will it, though? If its absent, it’s easy to envision an underwhelming choice.

I had a newspaper colleague who gave me sage words: Fans always assume the peak is the baseline. And they never account for the worst-case scenario.

Right now, there are five power-conference openings: Louisville, Maryland, Florida, LSU, Missouri, South Carolina, and Kansas State. Over the weekend, Mississippi State refuted reports that Ben Howland was on the way out.

If that corner of the coaching market stays quiet, MU is arguably the fourth-best job available. (LSU’s infractions case weighs it down.) Maybe it works in MU’s favor. Or maybe we see other candidates join Niko Medved in staying put and forcing MU to look further down its list.

If you’ve paid $6 million to move on from Martin, is bringing home a candidate like Kim English, who has a bright future but is also young, the outcome decision-makers envisioned at the start? Or will they and the fanbase get a brutal lesson in how this job is viewed?


Poll

Which coach would you prefer to see leading Missouri next season?

This poll is closed

  • 34%
    Kyle Smith
    (111 votes)
  • 65%
    The Field
    (213 votes)
324 votes total Vote Now