Craig Smith, former USD head men’s basketball coach, accepted the head men’s coach position at Utah State in March, leaving behind four years at USD.
Smith, who was named Summit League Coach of the Year in 2016-17, led the team to the Summit League regular season title and tallied a 79-55 record at USD.
The Volante talked with Smith about his reasons for leaving and his vision for USD basketball.
Cheyenne Alexis: Did you have any opening statements about your time at USD?
Craig Smith: I’ll be forever thankful to President (James) Abbott, David Herbster. It was an amazing four years for my family and I. Vermillion’s a tremendous community, they welcomed us with open arms from day one.
We have tremendous experiences and developed friendships that will last a lifetime, and there’s very special people there, certainly professionally and I can’t thank David Herbster and President Abbott enough for the opportunities that they gave me as my first Division I head coaching job. I had been a head coach before at a different level, but it was an amazing four years, from where we were four years ago to what we are now, going 49-21 over the last two years and being ranked, tied No.3 in the Mid-Major poll… that’s heavy-hitting company. We were very fortunate.
Really good players make the coaches look a lot smarter than they are, and I couldn’t be any more proud of our team and being associated with our guys in our program. I’ve said it on the record all year, but I don’t believe I’ve ever been part of a team that was more connected with better friendships, better chemistry than we had this past season. Those guys were bought in from the get go and I couldn’t be more proud of what we’ve accomplished these four years.
CA: When were you first considered/approached for the position at Utah State?
CS: I’m not sure when I was first considered. As a coach going through the ranks, I’ve always from a distance looked at Utah State. I’ve always admired what Utah State is all about. When I was at Colorado State for five years, we were in the Mountain West Conference… and I’ve always loved watching Utah State’s games at Utah State because the fans were absolutely crazy in a great way. The student atmosphere was tremendous.
As a younger coach, I always felt like that would be a cool place just seeing how important it was for the people. I firmly believed that when your leadership is great at the top, it all trickles down and certainly there’s no doubt in my mind that the leadership here was fantastic. And once the process got going and they offered the position, it was just a tremendous opportunity.
(They’re in) a very, very good conference. The Mountain West Conference, which is traditionally ranked out of 32 conferences, it’s almost always ranked in the top eight and sometimes even higher than that. What a tremendous opportunity to work at a school with rich tradition.
CA: Can you talk about your success with your seasons at USD?
CS: I think the biggest accomplishment is the guys in our program. Streaks and losses are great, and certainly you can look inside the numbers… we were a very, very good road team, obviously we were excellent at home in particular in the SCSC.
We had four guys at the All-Conference team and Triston Simpson as an honorable mention. All those things are great, it’s great for our guys to get those kinds of individuals honors, but that’s not why we coach. You coach because certainly you want competitive spirit and all that, but when you basically start it from scratch in terms of we really flipped the roster around and really try to improve the culture. And certainly winning the conference championship last year. It was disappointing that we didn’t get to the NCAA Championship… but that doesn’t define us. Those guys will be friends forever.
Being ranked in the top 10 Mid-Major poll is a tremendous accomplishment and that’s very, very difficult to do. I’m most proud of this year’s recruiting and having relationships with those guys. I know I can pick up the phone and call them at any point, and they’ll do the same. It’s always tough when you leave, because I believed in those guys with every fiber of my body and I can’t speak for them but I would like to think they’d say the same. That’s really what we’re about—we try to operate a team in a family-type atmosphere and I’d like to think we represented the University of South Dakota in a tremendous fashion throughout our duration there.
Certainly, the program is in a much, much better place now than it was four years ago when we took over. They’ve got a great group of men coming back. Returning five starters, top seven guys. I always said we are building a program at South Dakota, not building a team. And there’s no doubt that that program has got a bright, bright future ahead of it because of the work of our great players, tremendous staff.
I’m really proud that our whole staff was there all four years, that’s not easy to do at that level. And I think it speaks to the people we have and the chemistry we have in our program.
CA: Do you know anything about the new head coach, Todd Lee, and what are your hopes for him stepping in as head coach?
CS: I really don’t know Todd, but I wish him nothing but the best. He’s gonna find out what our family did, it’s a great place with great people and with those guys in that program under David Herbster’s leadership, the future’s gonna be bright.
CA: What are you looking forward to at Utah, and how do you hope to bring to their program?
CS: The same thing we did at South Dakota and basically everywhere we’ve been: I think it’s got a rich tradition of excellence and we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us, and at the same time really good, young men in our program as players and as people.
We had to develop some depth in our program, but every reposition, every job is different, being at a higher level, being in the Mountain West Conference, we have some heavy weights. Nevada won the regular season and got lost in the conference tournament, but that’s the beauty of this league is that you have a chance to have multiple good leagues most years… with a rich tradition here, obviously Mountain West is an established conference, we’re a relatively new program in the Mountain West. Everywhere I’ve been I expect to bring in great people that happen to be great players, and I expect us to win and I win at a high level, and that’s what we intend to do.