April 6, 2018, was Todd Lee’s first day on the job as USD’s head basketball coach. The Huron, S.D. native, who graduated from USD in 1986, said he feels a sense of pride returning to Vermillion to coach.
“To take over the program where you went to school is a really neat deal. The family’s really proud, because they’re from here,” he said.
Ushering in a new coaching staff is never an easy adjustment, Lee said, but there is a procedure to get a group of players to believe in someone new.
“You have to be genuine. You have to show up every day and they have to know that you’re going to be there for them, that you’re going to demand they work hard,” he said. “You’re trying to gain their trust, but the only way to do that is to improve them as players— to make them feel like ‘hey, he has made me a better player.’”
Next year, the Coyotes return with a core of seniors: Triston Simpson, Tyler Peterson, Cody Kelley, Brandon Armstrong and Tyler Hagedorn— a fifth-year senior who used his redshirt year to recover from a foot injury last season.
“This year they had to step up and be the main guys. Even though last year was tough with the injuries and having a roster that was depleted, that year will benefit them. It benefited [Umude] because he had to step up and play,” he said. “And with the addition of Hags, we’re excited for next year.”
Lee said an athletic program succeeds when that excitement spreads to its fanbase. When students come to games and have a good time, so do the players. However, today’s climate of involvement has changed since he resided in a USD dorm room— athletics is competing with other engagements, he said.
“You didn’t have the competition for entertainment as much,” he said. “They didn’t have Netflix or Fortnite. They didn’t have games on TV. Now you can just sit at home and watch game after game of ACC basketball, or football games on a Saturday. I think there was more participation because that was the entertainment they had.”
Other things have changed in the 33 years between Lee’s arrival at USD as a student and a coach as well. The campus has seen the sproutings of the Sanford Coyote Sports Center (where Lee and his team take the floor during the winter), Coyote Village, the Muenster University Center and the Wellness Center. However, there are parts of Vermillion Lee said haven’t changed, such as downtown.
“If you dropped me back in 1986, it would look the exact same,” he laughed. “Varsity, Carey’s, Char Bar and Leo’s. Those four have been there since I went to school and probably since my dad went to school. They’ve added some really nice restaurants, like Red and Brickhouse, but I don’t remember any restaurants back then. Maybe I just didn’t have any money so I didn’t go to them.”
Lee’s wife and three kids are still living in Phoenix, close to Grand Canyon University, where Lee was an associate head coach before this last year. Though he said the distance is difficult, he’s still found comfort in a place where his family roots run deep.
“My dad passed away in 2010. I ran into a family friend the other day and he said, ‘your dad would be so proud to see you coaching here,’” he said.