No more excuses for USD athletics

Since leaving the comfortable confines of Division II, the University of South Dakota has managed to find excuses (many of them legitimate) to explain the Coyotes’ relative lack of success in football and basketball.

The Division I transition was grueling. They didn’t have a true conference. The DakotaDome is no good for basketball. Their athletic director left. Joe Glenn needs time. Dave Boots left them high and dry. They haven’t yet “figured out” the Summit League tournament yet. The Jackrabbits and Bison had a head start. And so on.

Some of these obstacles were overcome by time, as the Coyotes reached the end of their transition and joined the Summit League and Missouri Valley Football Conference to find the same competitive footing as SDSU and NDSU.

Other milestones were achieved by perseverance, as athletic director David Herbster continued the work of the departed David Sayler to get fundraising to a point where groundbreaking could occur on a new basketball arena, which will upgrade the entire athletic complex and usher in a new era.

Now that the promise of better facilities can be used in recruiting and boosterism and the Coyotes are well-entrenched in their respective conferences, the time for excuses is over. The only currency to be accepted moving forward is victories.

Herbster and president Jim Abbott are well aware of this, which make the past few weeks even more meaningful when it comes to positive milestones for the school down south.

The triumph of the USD women’s basketball team at the Summit League tournament was a landmark leap, ending the Jackrabbits’ stranglehold on the event and all the fawning publicity that goes along with it.

The fact that Amy Williams’ team then went on to present a respectable challenge to second-seeded Stanford in the NCAA tournament bodes well for the program as it tries to cut into the Jacks’ supremacy and stir future excitement in Vermillion.

Publicity does wonders for recruiting, especially within the state, so Williams has to be pinching herself when she considers what that March surge meant for her mission.

On the men’s side, recent events are even more momentous, though the Coyotes once again struggled through a difficult regular season and a quick Summit tournament exit.

The interim period after Boots’ bizarre exit last September was predictably unpredictable under rookie head coach Joey James, who was put in a tough situation. But USD made the right choice to start fresh and undertake a national search for a new leader.

This was a new process not only for the Coyotes but the state as a whole when it comes to men’s basketball, opening up a Division I job and seeing what kind of talent shows up. By most accounts, USD scored big by landing Craig Smith.

The Nebraska assistant has been the right-hand man for Tim Miles, helping to rebuild programs and find success during earlier stops at NDSU and Colorado State. He also had a head coaching stint at Mayville State and was a graduate assistant at Northern State, so he has regional ties as well.

Also in the running was Tom Billeter, who has D-I experience as an assistant and has steadied the Augustana program, and Ryan Miller, the Mitchell native whose recruiting connections made him a tempting choice to bring in top-tier talent immediately.

But when it comes to forging a program philosophy and providing energetic leadership as USD prepares to move into its new arena in 2016, the 41-year-old Smith was the right choice.

His salary of $185,000 is less than SDSU’s Scott Nagy ($200,000) but nearly 35 percent more than that of USD football coach Joe Glenn, further evidence that Herbster and Abbott realized the gravity of this hire and were ready to pull out all the stops.

Smith didn’t sing the fight song like Glenn did at his triumphant press conference, but he sounded like a coach who is convinced of his ability to seize the moment and restore pride among Coyote Nation.

“I firmly believe we’re going to make a major, major splash in Division I basketball, and certainly the Summit League, in the very, very near future,” the Minnesota native told media and fans Monday.

It will be good for the league and for the in-state rivalry if Smith can deliver on that promise. He needs to mix current players and fresh talent to find a level of consistent quality and mental toughness that hasn’t existed since the D-I move.

This is big boy basketball, whether we like it or not, and the new coach is realistic enough to know that nothing short of program-changing success will be tolerated. In Vermillion, at last, the era of excuses has come to a close.