After 18 years of playing second fiddle to other head coaches, Kyle Smith finally has a Division I basketball team to call his own.
Following a nine-year stint as the associate head coach at St. Mary’s, Smith took the reins of Columbia’s program last spring following the departure of former head coach Joe Jones. Jones left Morningside Heights after a seven-year tenure to become the top assistant under former Cornell coach Steve Donahue at Boston College.
Jones developed a close relationship with many of his players during his time as the Lions’ head man, leaving Smith with the tough task of replacing a highly popular coach.
“I just really didn’t know what to expect,” junior Noruwa Agho said. “I was a big coach Jones guy, obviously, and I was very sad to see him leave.”
Nevertheless, Agho, the Lions’ leading scorer, has bought into Smith’s coaching philosophy in a big way.
“I am really excited, and not just content and sort of stand-offish,” Agho said. “I was very impressed by how coach Smith carried out [the transition]. … Everyone is buying into what he’s brought to the table—really good teacher, positive attitude, all the things you look for in a leader. I think we can definitely run with his philosophy, and I think we are going to be really successful.”
And it’s not just Agho who is on board.
“We have all adjusted really well to coach Smith’s being here,” senior forward Brian Grimes said. “Everybody’s buying into the program, and I think it’s great for the team and for the program and for the University. I honestly just wish I had more time with this staff. The seniors, like me and Asenso [Ampim], Max Craig, Zack Crimmins—we all just wish we had more time here with this staff so we could continue to develop and have a chance to win a championship with these guys.”
“I think he’s going to help our program a lot, just the way that he coaches and the way that he acts around us,” sophomore center Mark Cisco added.
At St. Mary’s, Smith made a name for himself by helping head coach Randy Bennett turn around a program that had gone a woeful 2-27 the year before they arrived. Last season, the duo guided the team to a 28-6 record and an impressive Sweet 16 run in the NCAA Championships, including upset wins over No. 2 seed Villanova and No. 7 seed Richmond. This Cinderella run capped a three-year stretch in which St. Mary’s won 81 games.
Smith’s success at St. Mary’s did not come easily, though. After graduating from Hamilton in 1992, Smith spent eight years at San Diego, slowly working up the ranks of the Toreros’ coaching staff. Much like St. Mary’s, the San Diego program enjoyed unprecedented success during Smith’s tenure, winning the most games in school history from 1999 to 2001.
Despite the defensive prowess of that Toreros squad, Smith is known for the fast-paced “four out, one in” style of play that his teams at St. Mary’s showcased. While many expect Smith to cultivate a similarly high-scoring offense at Columbia, this year’s squad is full of players that Jones recruited to fit into a much slower-paced, half-court system. Smith acknowledged that, because of this, he may need to ease into the high-octane scheme with which he enjoyed so much success at St. Mary’s.
While some argue that the academic standards and lack of scholarships in the Ivy League limit the conference’s success, the recent past proves that these obstacles can be overcome. Before leaving for Boston College, Donahue led the Big Red to three consecutive Ivy League titles and a Sweet 16 appearance last season—the first for an Ancient Eight squad since Penn reached the Final Four in 1979.
For now, though, Smith is focused on what’s going on inside Levien Gymnasium.
“I’m trying to really just focus on what we’re doing,” Smith said. “It’s hard not to compare when you’re out there recruiting, but I think that’ll eat you up a little bit. They play a great brand of basketball, and actually watching them reminded me of the way we played at St. Mary’s last year. But you can get consumed studying [other programs], but we have got to know what we’re doing.”