After 10 years at USC, Bob Cantu is ready for the call to become a head coach for the first time.
He didn’t expect it to come hours before tipoff of the Pac-10 Tournament semifinals last week, but the Paso Robles native welcomed it nonetheless.
“It was great experience,” said Cantu, who coached the Trojans to a 67-62 loss to nationally ranked Arizona hours after head coach Kevin O’Neill was suspended following an altercation with Wildcats fans. “You get a chance to handle the media, especially in an environment like a national TV game and a Fox Sports game.
“It was great. The kids made it easy because they’re great kids, and they’re very coachable. I’d say that definitely helps.”
It was Cantu’s first opportunity to coach a game since 1997, and a call to become a permanent head coach might not be nearly as far off.
Cantu, USC’s associate head coach, has been identified as an early candidate to fill the head coaching vacancy at Fresno State, which announced the removal of Steve Cleveland on Thursday night.
A Bulldogs administrator told The Fresno Bee that the search could last up to a month, but a Los Angeles Times report said that Fresno State looked into contacting Cantu even before the announcement that Cleveland would be moved to a consultant position within the athletic department.
For Cantu — a former Cuesta College assistant, Mission Prep coach and Cal Poly alumnus and staff member — a promotion in the nearby Central San Joaquin Valley would be a natural step.
“Fresno’s only a hundred miles from Paso,” Cantu said. “It makes sense in a lot of ways because of the locations and because of the fact that there’s some similarities to USC.
“With the experience of recruiting for USC, you can get those same types of players to go to a Fresno.”
Fresno State has improved its image for compliance and academics under Cleveland, who took over in the wake of sanctions for major rules violations in 2005.
But mediocre results and slumping attendance have made the Save Mart Center, a 15,500-seat on-campus arena that was constructed in 2003, an under-utilized basketball facility.
Cantu last interviewed for the opening at Cal Poly two years ago, when the Mustangs eventually settled on current head coach Joe Callero.
Since then, Cantu has worked on strengthening his coaching résumé.
In a poll conducted by Fox Sports, coaches voted Cantu as the No. 2 assistant in the Pac-10 prior to this season, and The Hoop Scoop Online has rated him as a top-25 assistant nationally for four years running.
Under previous Trojans coaches Henry Bibby and Tim Floyd — and during a five-day period that Rick Majerus had the USC job — Cantu was not as involved with on-court coaching.
But O’Neill promoted Cantu to his current role, where he continues his duties as recruiting coordinator and also takes on an added responsibility with in-game strategy.
“Kevin was really good defensively when he was with the Pistons,” Cantu said. “A lot of the things that he taught, I was able to learn from. My experience working for him is strengthening my basketball abilities.
“I’m involved a lot more with the decision-making, what plays to run, substitutions, defensive calls. Kevin has really relied on me to make big coaching decisions.”
In addition to his ties to San Luis Obispo County schools, Cantu is well-known for his youth basketball camps in the area.
Cantu’s camps will return to the Central Coast for the 15th straight year with sessions in Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo scheduled for late June and another in San Luis Obispo in mid-July.
By then, Cantu could have to make some edits for the camps’ run of television commercials.
“Time is ticking,” Cantu said, “and I think I’m getting a little closer to having a chance to run my own program.”