San Diego Hires Lamont Smith as New Head Coach


Just over two weeks after firing Head Coach Bill Grier, the San Diego Toreros have found their replacement in former Toreros player and current New Mexico Associate Head Coach Lamont Smith. While Smith was not among the rumored top candidates, his connections to USD, the West Coast Conference, and the region in general certainly fits the profile of what the Toreros were expected to be looking for in the new hire.

Smith brings a wealth of experience as an assistant for a number of schools, but this will be his first opportunity in a head role. He was twice named the Defensive Player of the Year for the Toreros during his time as a player from 1994-99, and he went straight into coaching upon graduation when he spent time as a Graduate Assistant for Saint Louis.

His most notable experience as it relates to the WCC comes from spending 2001-07 as a member of Randy Bennett’s staff at Saint Mary’s. The two knew each other from their time at Saint Louis, and Smith was at SMC during their turnaround as they developed into a WCC contender. He also spent a year as Kerry Keating’s top assistant at Santa Clara. No doubt Athletic Director Ky Snyder liked Smith’s WCC experience, especially him being a part of the turnaround at another WCC program.

Smith’s most nationally recognizable experience came from four years at Arizona State after leaving Santa Clara. While Smith was there, the Sun Devils reached the NCAA Tournament in 2009, and Smith had a role in developing Pac-12 Player of the Year and current NBA star James Harden. Player development was likely a big reason why the Toreros are bringing him in.

More recently, Smith spent a year at Washington under Lorenzo Romar, the coach who hired him as a Graduate Assistant back at Saint Louis. He will come to USD after spending the past two seasons as the Associate Head Coach at New Mexico. After being a top defender during his time as a player, Smith continued to stress defense as a coach. The Lobos were one of the finest defensive teams last season under Smith, and he will inherit one of the better defensive teams in the WCC in San Diego.

This hire checks off many of the boxes that were expected to appeal to the Toreros. Smith likely comes at an affordable price since this is his first top job in his career. This was important as it’s been reported that Grier’s salary was subsidized by Pat Kilkenny, the former Oregon Athletic Director who is a close friend of Grier. That UT-San Diego article has some great information about how Kilkenny is supporting the salary of a number of coaches right now, and his Oregon connections are possibly what kept Grier from leaving USD for Oregon State after one season after he led the Toreros to the NCAA Tournament and an upset of UCONN in the first round, the program’s only NCAA Tournament victory to date. That extra money likely left with the departure of Grier, so there was less salary available for the new hire.

With a less than lucrative salary on the table compared to some top jobs, the next priority was someone with USD and WCC ties who could bring their experience and passion to the conference. All the rumored top candidates had ties to either USD or the San Diego community, and Smith certainly fits that mold. He played for the Toreros, and he spent a number of years coaching in the WCC including helping turn around the Gaels. The Toreros are hoping he can bring some of that success to San Diego and turn them around next.

Smith also has strong ties to the region through his coaching experience. He is well-regarded as a recruiter, and those ties will be key to bringing in quality players to turn around the program. Grier never quite got any momentum going with recruiting, so this hire appears to address that directly. Smith is young at 39, a former player, and has ties to the region. It’s a good fit because he can appeal to young players and develop relationships with guys. We are seeing that turn around programs at schools like Pepperdine and Portland where Marty Wilson and Eric Reveno are great personalities and highly regarded by their players. And Smith has experience with this already after watching Bennett bring in guys at SMC who turned into stars.

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In many ways, coaching experience is secondary here. People will question the fact that he’s never had a top job before, same as Grier when he was hired. But San Diego needs a player’s coach, someone the players like and want to play hard for. Grier was regarded as more of a strategist, and his recruiting likely suffered from an inability to get close to players. Smith should not have that problem.

But that being said, San Diego is taking a gamble on a rookie head coach. The UT-San Diego has some information about the hiring process including an alleged attempt to woo Columbia Head Coach and former USD player Kyle Smith that fell through because of a large buyout required to get him out of his current job. The Toreros are likely reaching for a risky hire based on his personality and WCC experience in hopes that talent and potential will trump a lack of experience.

This hire can go either way. Smith might not be up for the task leading to more lean years for the program. Stars Johnny Dee and Chris Anderson are gone, and there will be a lot of pressure on Smith to recruit well while also sustaining the marginal success of recent seasons. But if he can bring in the right players, the program could easily see a quick shift in the right direction and start to become a quality mid-tier team with the potential to take the next step like a Pepperdine or Portland.