BY JEREMY HOECK
Pretty much every new coach ‘wins’ their introductory press conference.
That’s the first goal: Impress the public. As they say, first impressions are the last impressions.
With that in mind, Craig Smith easily won the room Monday at the Muenster University Center in Vermillion. The new head men’s basketball coach at the University of South Dakota said what he needed to (we’re here to win, to recruit the right kids, etc.), but in so many other ways, he didn’t need to say much.
His experience brought enough cache to leave the crowd — of which included USD’s basketball players — impressed.
Smith has been alongside Tim Miles at 10 of his 13 seasons as either an assistant coach or a head coach across all levels of college basketball.Smith has been a head coach at the NAIA level, an assistant at the Division II ranks, and has been with Miles at Colorado State and most recently at Nebraska.
At each stop along the way, the tandem has helped turn around those programs. I mean, since when was Nebraska a competitive men’s basketball team? Smith was also the head coach at Mayville State (N.D.) where he turned a 1-win team into a 17-win squad and a national tournament qualifier in one short season. Two years after that, Mayville State was in the NAIA national title game.
Now, to be fair, nobody expects that out of Smith at USD.
What is expected — and he was the first to point this out Monday — is to compete annually for a Summit League championship. In three seasons in the league, the Coyote men are 16-33, and that includes a slight improvement to 6-8 this season.
Said Smith, “I firmly believe that we’ll make a major splash in Division I basketball and in the Summit League in the very near future.”
That’s why he was hired. That’s why he was offered a $185,000 salary (which, by the way, is more than his athletic director makes). That’s why USD wanted a national search.
USD needed to make a splashy hire. Men’s basketball is the face of your athletic program (some would say football is, but that’s at the FCS level. Basketball is where you’re going against the big boys in the NCAA Tournament). USD couldn’t afford to slip up in this hire, despite the challenges of only having 1-year contracts.
It needed a big name.
It needed a coach that would put butts in the seats and generate increased excitement from the Coyote fanbase.
It needed a coach that had proven he could win at the national level. Again, how many expected Nebraska to be a Big Ten contender?
And on the surface, Craig Smith appears to be the home run hire USD desired.
News & Notes From Monday’s Conference
• Smith’s salary of $185,000 is a $15,000 paycut from what he was making at Nebraska, but is a 46 percent raise from what previous head coach Dave Boots was making ($126,380, according to the most recent South Dakota payroll information). For reference sake, interim head coach Joey James had been making $90,000.
• Athletic director David Herbster said South Dakota’s policy of year-to-year contracts did play a role in the search process. He said “a quarter to a third” of the candidates were not interested because there was not the possibility of multi-year contracts. And if they were able to look past it, those candidates would have wanted up to $250,000. “That’s not realistic for us right now,” Herbster said.
• What will be Smith’s style? Expect a lot of motion offense with a fast-paced tempo and pressure defense, he said. “We give a lot of guys freedom, so you’ve got to be able to make decisions,” he said.
• My favorite moment of Monday’s gathering was Smith sharing his G.A.TA. style. That stands for Get After Their (Butts). You can figure out that last word. “It’s a relentless pursuit of excellence,” he said.
• On USD opening a new arena for the 2016-17 season, Smith said he can relate. Nebraska opened Pinnacle Bank Arena last year, and it “became an event.” He said, “Football is an event, so people get geared up for that game. You don’t always get that in basketball, but I feel like we had that at Nebraska.”
• As to what his staff will look like, Smith said he hadn’t narrowed it down. It’s one of many things on his short term to-do list. Stay tuned on that.