PULLMAN — Late last week, new Washington State Cougars basketball coach Kyle Smith officially announced he had made his first two hires: Derrick Phelps and Jim Shaw. Phelps has been on Smith’s staff for the past five seasons (most recently as associate head coach), while Shaw has been the head coach at Division II Western Oregon for the past four years.
The third assistant? That one might actually not come right away.
“We’ve got our working force now and we’re just going to roll with this group until we find (the guy),” Smith said in an interview from his office last week, days before Phelps and Shaw were announced. “Our biggest thing was getting the infrastructure — set up the analytics, selling the culture. I can build that — the culture builds and attracts the right stuff.”
With a handful of people already in place — including one staff member whose hiring should be announced later this week and is very exciting (at least to me) — to handle the immediate needs of filling out the roster and finalizing the schedule for next season, Smith feels he can afford to be patient to find the right fit.
“If you go the other way, just the salad bowl, throw everything in there just talent, talent, talent and think you’re going to work through it? I’ve never done it that way,” Smith said. “I’ve always been, ‘Here’s what we’re about, let’s get the right people on the bus, let’s attract the right people into the program.’ ”
The third assistant will probably fill the role of recruiting coordinator, and could also have an international focus. “It’s a little fluid,” Smith said.
It’s no surprise that Smith went to Phelps and Shaw to start his staff. On the StatChat podcast with Colgate assistant Dave Klatsky last November, Smith expressed a desire to start with teachers over recruiters when taking over a program:
“One of our slogans I’ve drilled in is, ‘Worry about the ones you have, not the ones you don’t.’ The rest of the 350 (teams) put so much effort into recruiting and chasing their tail, that you forget the ones that you’ve just signed, that you’ve told them it’s going to be a great experience. So, you gotta make sure that you’re servicing them, and that takes time and energy and thought. And that’s pretty work intensive. So, starting (a program) up? I want coaches.”
Part of that is related to Smith’s “Nerdball” system of attempting to quantify every action in games and practices and then using data to drive decisions. Smith notes that when he went to Columbia, none of his assistants were familiar with the system of hustle stats that had been shaped during his time at Saint Mary’s working with Randy Bennett. When taking over a new program, part of the job is committing to Nerdball as a program and convincing the players to buy in — not always the easiest sell.
“It’s hard. It’s hard for me to do — it’s hard for me to commit to ‘we’re doing this,’ ” he said, clapping to emphasize each of the last three words.
Having the right assistants makes that a little easier.
Phelps has been with Smith at his last two jobs, including the transition of taking over San Francisco. He played at North Carolina and won an NCAA championship under Dean Smith before going on to brief stints in the (now-defunct) CBA, the NBA, and then a long career overseas before retiring in 2010.
Smith said this about Phelps via news release:
“Derrick Phelps will be an integral part of our program’s development here in Pullman,” Smith said. “His knowledge of the game as a former NBA player and overseas professional will be invaluable to our young men. He has been the backbone of our program sharing his wisdom and leadership at our previous institutions.”
Shaw, meanwhile, is the quintessential “coach’s coach.” He was incredibly successful the past four seasons at his alma mater, twice being named GNAC coach of the year and leading the Wolves to a 31-2 record and No. 1 ranking. Before that, he served a two-year stint on Bennett’s staff, and before that he was with Lorenzo Romar for nine seasons at Washington. He spent the five years before that with Kelvin Sampson at Oklahoma.
Put simply: The guy knows his way around high major basketball, which would seem to be an important asset for a head coach that has lots of coaching experience but none at the high major level.
Smith said this about Shaw via news release:
“We are very fortunate to have Jim Shaw in our program,” Smith said. “He brings experience as a successful Pac-12 assistant, having been a part of five Pac-12 Championships during his stints at Oregon State and Washington. ... His experience and winning pedigree will help lead Washington State back to prominence in the Conference of Champions.”