Cal Poly men’s basketball has their man, and he’s confident he can turn around the beleaguered program — quickly.
The Mustangs announced that John Smith will be the new head coach at a press conference inside the Performing Arts Center on Thursday. The news comes on the heels of one of the program’s worst seasons since joining the Big West Conference.
Smith spent the past six seasons with Cal State Fullerton as the associate head coach. The Titans had three postseason appearances in the past three years — including a trip to the NCAA tournament in 2018, when Cal State Fullerton went 20-12. Cal State Fullerton also qualified for the College Insider.com Postseason Tournament in 2017 and 2019.
With the Titans, Smith helped turn the program around after three straight seasons with 20 or more losses from 2013 to 2016. Cal Poly is betting that Smith can do the same with its program. With Smith’s experience in the Big West, he’s confident that he can have success with the current roster.
“I really feel that this team can compete in the Big West conference for a championship next year, I really do,” Smith said.
Smith replaces Joe Callero, whose firing was announced with two games left in the season, after 10 years with the program. Callero led the Mustangs to a 126-184 overall record and its first — and only — NCAA Division I Tournament appearance in 2014.
The Mustangs finished last in the Big West this year in their sixth straight losing season.
Prior to Fullerton, Smith was the head coach at Riverside City College, where he accumulated a 196-87 overall record — the second highest win total in school history — along with four conference championships, nine postseason appearances and a state championship in 2009. Prior to his time at RCC, he spent four years as head coach and assistant athletics director at San Bernadino Valley College from 2000 to 2004, recording an 88-44 overall record and a state championship semifinals appearance in 2002-2003.
The Titans have also gone 10-6 in conference games in each of the past three years. The last time that Cal Poly had 10 or more wins in the Big West was the 2012-13 season.
Even so, he said the “cupboard is full” when it comes to the current roster.
“They know how to score and how to play,” Smith said. “The one thing that they lacked — and it’s not a knock towards them, it’s not a knock to the staff that’s here and Joe (Callero), Joe is a dear friend of mine — but they were easy to score on.”
Smith said he hopes to push the tempo.
He said he adopted the playing style of his first coaching mentor who played under North Carolina head coach Roy Williams — meaning that they will play fast. Players are encouraged to take good shots within the first seven seconds of the shot clock, or if nothing materializes, work the ball around for 17 seconds and attack the mismatch.
“We’re going to attack wherever we can, wherever the mismatch is,” Smith said.
Smith said that while he introduced himself to the team via video call yesterday, he asked the team about go-to plays from other Big West teams: “Laker Fist. Kansas Seven. Circle One.”
They didn’t know any of them, he said. Smith said that practicing defending those plays in November and December can help bolster the defense come conference play.
“That type of knowledge helps with this job, and I was fortunate enough to be in this conference in order to do that,” Smith said.
Smith also addressed recruiting concerns. He said he will look at what the roster needs and recruit from there.
“It’s about where we’re at,” he said. “So if we’re senior heavy and we lose a lot of seniors, I don’t want to be too young the next year. So I will reach into the junior college level. If we have more balance, then I will continue to try to recruit high school guys.
“The top high school guys.”
He said by the time players at the junior-college level bought into his philosophy in their second year, they were gone.
“The beauty of being at the four-year level is that you can continue that training for the next four years,” Smith said. “So that’s what I’m more attracted to, is recruiting high-quality, high-character athletes from the high school level. But I don’t ever want to get too young.”
Currently, Cal Poly is young. There were only three seniors and two juniors on last season’s team.