Herb Sendek walks across Santa Clara’s campus from his Leavey Center office to the iconic Mission church and stops for a moment at his favorite landmark. It’s a special spot for a brief respite from the fundamentals-focused basketball preparation with his Broncos.
While Sendek is busy rebuilding men’s basketball at Santa Clara, Damon Stoudamire and Terry Porter have brought some serious NBA pedigree to coaching in the mid-major West Coast Conference trying to get their programs on track. Add to the list of new faces first-year San Francisco coach Kyle Smith, fresh off an impressive six-year run at Columbia.
The league, still largely unheralded despite its decades-long run of postseason success, is suddenly boasting some high-profile coaching names to go along with the old staples of No. 14 Gonzaga’s Mark Few and Randy Bennett at 17th-ranked Saint Mary’s, which might have one of its best teams yet after a 29-win season . The Zags and Gaels shared the WCC regular-season crown last season and are picked by the coaches to go 1-2.
“I have a very healthy respect for the West Coast Conference and I really believe it’s on the verge of exploding,” said Sendek, back on the bench following a year away after his dismissal at Arizona State . “Clearly you have the top tier that has been dominant for the last many years but you also sense a renewed commitment from the other schools to be even more competitive. It’s a terrific basketball league.”
In Portland, Porter sometimes points to examples of NBA players emerging from the WCC to make big impacts at the next level.
Smith, who went 101-82 at Columbia with a Collegeinsider.com Tournament title and 25-10 record last season, is hardly new to the WCC yet now takes on a storied program determined to be a regular contender again. A former top assistant under Bennett at Saint Mary’s who also worked at San Diego, he has connections to several programs and most of the other coaches.
“I coached in the league for 17 years and I’ve always thought it’s really the one league I know, so I think it’s a great time,” Smith said. “Over the last five years you’ve had three programs that have emerged and they’ve been good, they’ve kind of gotten to the top, and it looks like some other programs are really trying to regain some of their past glory and make it interesting. I think they will, and I think it will be healthy for the league with these new coaches. It’s a big investment trying to make the league better.”
Porter rarely speaks of his own playing experiences while chuckling and noting, “they’re so young” and won’t remember him anyway. Rick Adelman has stopped by Pilots practice to provide “another set of eyes on things,” and Porter speaks to his former coach with the Spurs, Gregg Popovich, on occasion for any tips on starting something new and building a system — and family atmosphere.
“It’s personal core values and me being on championship-caliber teams sharing what do we hold true and what helped us be successful,” Porter said.
Smith’s ties to Bennett are just a start in the close-knit conference.
Porter’s son, Franklin, played for Bennett in the suburban East Bay hills of Moraga.
Bennett is thrilled to see the WCC generate more attention with all the change.
“I knew Terry because of Franklin. He’s just a class act,” Bennett said. “I’ve known Damon Stoudamire since he was about 15 and always considered him a really good guy, and a guy that’s a friend. I’ve known Herb and have a lot of respect for him as a coach. We’ve gotten to know each other because he’s been out West. Obviously Kyle, I have a long history with and a really good friend.
“All four of them I know, it’s pretty cool that way … good, talented people. It’s going to help the league. The league’s going to get stronger.”
Sendek’s own coaching tree is strong: He has watched 12 of his former assistants or other staff members become Division I head coaches. He has found a good fit.
“I do feel refreshed,” he said.
All of the new coaches are realizing challenges with starting fresh.
Porter accepted the job right before his players took finals, then they went their separate ways for the summer. So he has spent much of the preseason finding a groove.
“Being around them and talking about some of our team identities and trying to build some of those things, it was something we’ve had to get into a little bit later,” he said. “The guys have really embraced it.”
New Golden State Warriors top assistant Mike Brown played at San Diego for Bennett and also knows Smith, Few, Porter and Stoudamire. Brown’s allegiances will stay in Southern California with the Toreros and coach Lamont Smith, an ex-USD player and another former Saint Mary’s assistant.
Brown is eager to watch Bennett — who has been turning up at Golden State practices this fall — face off with good friend-turned rival Kyle Smith.
“This is a big-time conference,” Brown said. “This conference is not an easy conference. It will be interesting to see how both those guys do. I’m sure they’ll do great. I’m glad I’m so close to be able to pop in and catch a game. It’s going to be a fun year for the West Coast Conference.”
The WCC sent three of its then-eight teams to the NCAA Tournament in 2008 for the first time then again in 2012 once BYU joined the 10-team league.
“The coaching and the turnover this year has changed dramatically but you still have the two major staples in Mark and Randy,” Porter said. “It’s going to be fun to see the conference get after it.”