Tuesday, March 27, 2007 | Maybe someday the University of San Diego will play basketball at this level:

The Toreros will be annual contenders for the West Coast Conference title and a bid to the NCAA tournament.

They will turn out college all-Americans and NBA draft picks.

They will fill their 5,500-seat Jenny Craig Pavilion and occasionally schedule a major program to travel to San Diego and play at the Sports Arena to accommodate a crowd of 12,000-plus.

That’s the magic that Gonzaga created in Spokane, Wash., the past decade during the Bulldogs’ rise to national prominence. USD has hired a Gonzaga assistant to bring a similar success to San Diego.

Bill Grier, after 16 years as an assistant at Gonzaga and the past eight as head coach Mark Few’s No. 1 assistant, is leaving the real thing to try and build Gonzaga South at Alcala Park.

Grier, 43, was introduced Monday as USD’s new coach. He succeeds Brad Holland, who was let go after 13 years and only one NCAA tournament trip when the Toreros won the 2003 WCC tournament.

“It didn’t happen overnight at Gonzaga,” Grier said. “It took some time. We didn’t sprinkle ‘Zag dust and it appeared. Each year we got better and the program appeared.”

Jud Heathcote, the retired Michigan State coach who guided the Spartans to an NCAA title in 1979 with Magic Johnson, has been following Gonzaga’s rise from mid-major to national power since he retired 10 years ago to Spokane to be near family and grandchildren.

Calling Heathcote Gonzaga’s biggest fan wouldn’t be fitting, but he’s certainly the sharpest basketball mind sitting in the stands. One sure sign of Heathcote’s respect is when he offers praise followed by biting humor. Grier has earned that level of respect.

“Bill is ready to be a head coach,” Heathcote said. “Bill is very personable. He’s very well liked by other coaches. His players like him and boosters think he’s a good guy. And if you ever meet his wife, who is a striking woman, you’ll see that he overachieved there, too.”

Grier says he will bring much of what he has learned at Gonzaga under Dan Fitzpatrick, Dan Monson and Few.

He got his start under Fitzpatrick and was promoted to a full-time coach by Monson. The Bulldogs began their run of nine straight NCAA tournament appearances under Monson in 1999 when they reached the Elite Eight.

Grier could have followed Monson to Minnesota the next season, but he stayed with Few at Gonzaga. The Bulldogs have won eight straight WCC regular-season titles and won the WCC tournament title, with its automatic berth, seven of the last eight years.

USD Athletic Director Ky Snyder said he was looking for a coach that could bring similar success to Alcala Park.

“We want to be competitive at the University of San Diego in all sports that we play,” Snyder said. “Our vision is to win conference championships without sacrificing academic integrity. This is a conference of runs. Loyola Marymount went on runs in the 80s, then it was Santa Clara, then it was Pepperdine and now it’s Gonzaga. We want to make the next run ours.”

Grier says the Toreros will play the same up-tempo style with a motion offense and multiple defenses. He plans to recruit internationally as Gonzaga has, but he also wants to recruit in San Diego and the Los Angeles area.

Although this is Grier’s first time as a head coach, he is believed to have withdrawn his name from pursuing recent openings at Colorado and University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Such is the regard he held for the job at USD.

“I’ve had chances to go to other places,” Grier said. “For me to leave Gonzaga, it had to be a very good fit for me. I think we all share the same vision here.”

That vision is USD as Gonzaga South.

Tom Shanahan is voiceofsandiego.org’s sports columnist. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions. You can e-mail him at toms@sdhoc.com. Or send a letter to the editor.

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