Monday, March 2, 2009 | This time a year ago, University of San Diego basketball coach Bill Grier turned suddenly into a hot name on the college coaching carousel.
Don’t look for him to be a hot name again during this year’s off-season though, following a fifth-place finish in the WCC regular season, unless they qualify for the West Coast Conference tournament that starts Friday in Las Vegas.
But guess what? In some ways, Grier showed he’s a better coach in an up-and-down year than he did in last year’s breakthrough season.
Last year, Oregon State saw what Grier did his first year at USD — leading the Toreros to a WCC tournament title and first-round NCAA tournament upset of Connecticut — and tried to lure him to a more glamorous Pac-10 job in his home state.
But Grier turned down the money and higher profile to remain in Alcala Park to continue what he started.
Plenty of coaches know how to draw X’s and O’s, but not many know to translate the information to players so they’re moving in sync on the floor. And even fewer have the ability to keep pieces on the chessboard effective when off-the-court problems undermine team chemistry.
Grier has shown he’s one of those rare coaches this year. He was part Pete Newell and part Dr. Phil.
A season that appeared destined to sink into a losing record has rebounded for the third or fourth time. For most coaches, it’s a challenge to snap a team out of even one losing season.
“He’s done a great job this year,” said Mark Few, head coach of 17th-ranked and WCC regular-season champion Gonzaga. “They’ve been very resilient. Their whole staff has done a great job the last two years. When they have their backs to the wall is when they seem to play their best ball.”
USD’s 58-47 loss to Gonzaga Saturday, which finished their regular season, was an example.
Despite being reduced to one point guard — Brandon Johnson was lost for the year on Dec. 6 with a ruptured Achilles’ tendon and Trumaine Johnson (no relation) left the team last week following his second suspension of the season — Gonzaga needed to rely on a defense ranked No. 1 in the nation in field percentage to overcome a first-half deficit.
“They lost a heartbreaker at Saint Mary’s (the WCC runner-up, Feb. 19), beat Pacific (Feb. 21), beat a good Portland team (third in the WCC, Feb. 26) and gave us all we can handle. He’s got a group of guys that want to play.”
But Grier struggles to find this group as the Toreros (15-15, 6-8 WCC) try to defend their WCC tournament title against eighth-place Loyola Marymount (3-27, 2-12 WCC) at 6 p.m. Friday at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas.
He handed out suspensions to senior Gyno Pomare (one game), and sophomores Clinton Houston (five games) and Trumaine Johnson (eight games). He wasn’t finished.
Pomare leads USD in both scoring and rebounding, but admits he can turn moody at times. He went through such a phase when USD’s guards weren’t getting him the ball in the midst of an embarrassing loss at Pepperdine. Grier consequently benched him in the second half.
One of the reasons Pomare wasn’t getting the ball was that Trumaine Johnson wasn’t following Grier’s game plan. Johnson ended up being suspended a second time before the next game at Saint Mary’s. Johnson never played again as he and Grier ultimately decided the following week he would leave the program and transfer after the semester was over.
“If you screw up in bad way, you got to get punished for it to learn a lesson,” Pomare said. “If you don’t, you don’t learn a lesson.”
Johnson appeared to have caught on when he played so well upon returning from his first suspension. But when he went back to his old habits, Grier didn’t look the other way, even though it meant the season could slip away.
“It’s not fun for me to have to do that (suspend players), but there are certain ways you expect guys to be in your program, to behave on the court and off the court, in the locker room,” Grier said. “And you try different things, but it gets to a point you have to suspend them and try to send a message.”
USD, by rebounding with wins over Pacific and Portland, only needs to win one game against lowly Loyola Marymount to avoid a losing record for the season. If the Toreros beat LMU, even an eliminating loss in the next game assures a .500 record.
A 16-16 record won’t make Grier a hot name. Athletic directors and fan bases won’t understand looking in from the outside that Grier was a better coach this year than last.
But he will be a hot name again. Bank on it.
He’s almost on his third recruiting class since he started at USD, meaning he’s one season closer to having a roster of players who know no other way of coaching.
“He knows the blueprint,” Few said. “Now he just has to get the right group of guys that understand he is a helluva lot smarter than they are.”
Tom Shanahan is voiceofsandiego.org‘s sports columnist. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions and an occasional writer for Chargers.com. You can e-mail him at email@example.com. Or send a letter to the editor.