Commentary

Columbia's new Lion is ready to roar

New coach Kyle Smith believes he can be successful in the Ivy League

Updated: May 5, 2010, 7:35 PM ET
By Kieran Darcy | ESPNNewYork.com

Smith
Smith

The latest addition to the New York City coaching fraternity was introduced on Wednesday morning: Kyle Smith, the new men's basketball coach at Columbia University.

"When we started our search, we looked for a basketball coach who had strong leadership skills, an excellent basketball mind, and successful recruiting experience," said Dr. M. Dianne Murphy, the athletic director at Columbia. "Kyle possesses all three."

Staggeringly, 11 Division I schools in New York and New Jersey have changed coaches in the past five months. The carousel has just now stopped spinning. Rutgers will introduce its new coach, Mike Rice, on Thursday. And Hofstra -- which was conducting its second search of the offseason, after Tim Welsh resigned on Monday following his DWI arrest only a month after accepting the job -- announced on Wednesday afternoon that Mo Cassara is its new coach.

Smith, 40, an assistant coach at St. Mary's College (Calif.) the past nine seasons, faces one of the more daunting challenges in college basketball. Columbia hasn't been to the NCAA tournament since 1968, the only year the school has ever finished first in the Ivy League. And he's inheriting a team that finished tied for fifth (5-9) in the eight-team conference last season, with an overall record of 11-17.

When we started our search, we looked for a basketball coach who had strong leadership skills, an excellent basketball mind, and successful recruiting experience. Kyle possesses all three.

-- Columbia director of athletics
Dr. M. Dianne Murphy

Smith seems aware of, but undaunted by, what lies ahead of him. "I know I have a lot to learn, a big learning curve, but I think we'll get there," Smith said. "I don't see any reason why Columbia can't be good."

Smith does have some reason for optimism -- namely, the example recently set by former Cornell coach Steve Donahue.

For many, many years, Penn and Princeton dominated the Ivy League. From 1968 through 2007, either Penn or Princeton won the league title and represented the conference in the NCAA tournament every year except two seasons when (Brown, 1986) and (Cornell, 1988) won the league title.

Cornell, under Donahue, finally broke the chokehold and won the Ivy the past three seasons. This year, the Big Red advanced all the way to the Sweet Sixteen, before falling to No. 1 seed Kentucky.

After that achievement, Donahue made a leap to the ACC, accepting the vacant coaching position at Boston College. Donahue offered Columbia head coach Joe Jones a job as his top assistant at BC. Jones, who hadn't been able to turn Columbia into a consistent winner in seven years at the helm (86-108 overall, 39-59 in Ivy League play), jumped at the opportunity. That left the Columbia job open. After an extensive, three-week search -- more than 150 candidates applied for the position -- Smith was the choice.

"What's going on in the Ivy League right now is exciting," Smith said. "I always thought you could do it, and Stevie proved it. … The league has opened up in a sense. If you have the right infrastructure as far as administration support, [and] you know what you're doing coaching-wise and recruiting-wise, I think you can get good."

Having been an assistant alongside head coach Randy Bennett at St. Mary's, being an underdog is nothing new for Smith. The Gaels have always been overshadowed in the West Coast Conference by rival Gonzaga, which has garnered a national following. But St. Mary's has had great success as well. The Gaels advanced to the Sweet Sixteen in this year's NCAA tournament, knocking off No. 2 seed Villanova University in the process. Smith played a major role in that success, running the team's offense and coordinating all its recruiting.

"[Kyle] will be very successful," said Bennett. "He has been a huge part of what we've done [at St. Mary's]."

Also, fittingly, Smith's idol is a New York sports figure, and an underdog of sorts as well: former Knicks coach and current ESPN broadcaster Jeff Van Gundy.

"[Van Gundy] is an upstate New York Division III point guard, who made it to the highest level as a coach," said Smith, who is a Texas native but was a point guard at Division III Hamilton College in upstate New York. "We have a similar background, and it's inspiring to see someone achieve those heights."

How high can Smith take Columbia? It remains to be seen. It took Donahue seven years to break through and make an NCAA tournament at Cornell. Patience is necessary. But Smith's goal is clear: To hang an NCAA tournament banner at Levien Gymnasium.

For what it's worth, it was 80 degrees and mostly sunny in New York City on Wednesday. We'll soon find out if Smith took more than the weather from California with him.

Kieran Darcy is a staff writer for ESPNNewYork.com. He can be reached at kieran.d.darcy@espn.com. You can also follow him on Twitter.

Kieran Darcy is an ESPNNewYork.com staff writer. He joined ESPN in August 2000 after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, where he played four years of JV basketball.
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