Smithpeters brings juco mindset to Mizzou
In July of 2019, when Dennis Gates left his assistant coaching position at Florida State to take over as the head coach of a floundering Cleveland State program, one of his first calls went to Kyle Smithpeters. Gates asked Smithpeters, then the head coach at John A. Logan College, to join his staff as an assistant coach.
Smithpeters told Gates no. It had nothing to do with Gates; speaking to reporters Tuesday, Smithpeters raved about Gates’ leadership and vision. But he saw the situation Gates was walking into — taking over a program that had gone a combined 40-89 across the prior four seasons and had just three scholarship players a month before classes started — and decided it wasn’t worth the risk.
“God bless him, he took an unbelievable leap of faith in taking that job,” Smithpeters said. “I hate to say I chickened out, but it was one of those things nobody really knew what was going on.”
Of course, Gates succeeded in turning around the Cleveland State program, leading the Vikings to an NCAA Tournament berth in 2020-21 and a Horizon League regular season title last season. That, in large part, prompted Missouri athletics director Desiree Reed-Francois to turn to him after the school parted ways with Cuonzo Martin following last season.
Once again, Smithpeters got a call from Gates. Gates told him there wouldn’t be a third chance to join his staff. Smithpeters didn’t need another one.
“If I didn’t take this opportunity, I just really didn’t know what else I was going to be waiting for, to be honest with you,” Smithpeters said. “Because I turned down a whole lot of opportunities. I just wasn’t going to do it (again). I was going to be there forever.”
While the timing finally felt right for Smithpeters to leave Logan after 10 years as the Volunteers’ head coach, Gates believes it’s also the perfect time to hire a coach who cut his teeth in the junior college ranks.
On the surface, there might not appear to be many similarities between basketball in the SEC and the NJCAA. Smithpeters noted that, at Logan, he had a staff of about three assistant coaches and a few student managers. Gates introduced a staff of nine on Tuesday. Now that he’s at Missouri, Smithpeters quipped, “I'm not having to worry about laundry and budget's a lot different and we're not eating McDonald's as much anymore.”
Yet as high-major college basketball becomes increasingly transient, it’s starting to look more and more like the junior college system Smithpeters is used to, where players stay at one place for a maximum of two seasons Missouri is proof of that. Next year, for the second season in a row, the Tigers will return only three players from the season prior.
“To be brutally honest with you, with the evolution of the game and how it’s changed, we’re all juco coaches now,” assistant coach C.Y. Young said. “The day where you can count on a kid for four years, it’s over. Like carrying your Blockbuster card. So now we’ve got a very successful junior college coach who has that perspective of constant turnover, the relationships that it takes.”
At Logan, Smithpeters said, he wanted his players to leave after one year. That meant they were academically eligible and able to play at a higher level. He succeeded in that goal. More than 50 players progressed from Logan to a Division I school during his tenure. One, Jay Scrubb, got picked 55th overall in the 2020 NBA Draft, making him the first junior college player to be drafted since 2004.
As a result, Smithpeters generally had to replace six to eight players each offseason. Yet he led Logan to 20 or more wins in eight of his final nine seasons there — with the one exception being an 18-5 campaign during the COVID-shortened 2020-21 season. He won the Great Rivers Athletics Conference coach of the year award eight times.
“If he can recruit and develop 50 guys in two years or one year at John A Logan, and all these high-major schools feel comfortable knowing that they can help them win games at a high level, he should have been an assistant coach a long time ago,” Gates said of Smithpeters. “Or even a head coach at a mid-major institution.”
The primary lessons Smithpeters said he learned from having to put together a new team virtually every season were being patient and learning how to evaluate chemistry. A lot of coaches, he said, get antsy and fill spots too soon. He’s learned that “you can have an enjoyable summer but a miserable season, or you can have an unenjoyable summer but an enjoyable season,” meaning it’s better to be short-handed or still gelling as a team during the offseason than it is to take the wrong players earlier in the recruiting cycle. Gates appears to have bought into that philosophy, as Missouri still has two vacant scholarships on its roster, which he said Tuesday he plans to fill.
Smithpeters also said there’s an art to finding the right newcomers. Getting a roster to mesh can be tricky when it’s comprised of guys who have never played together, so coaches have to be especially diligent in assessing the character of players and how they will fit in with one another.
“It’s all about the mix, it’s all about the personalities coming together,” he said. “So many times I’ve seen coaches just rush to fill spots, and you look up in the fall, you start seeing it, like, man, that’s not what I thought it was going to be. Do your homework. That’s one thing I think coach Gates has been very adamant about, making sure we take the right people with the right mentalities and the right abilities. That’s what is going to allow you to be successful.”
Smithpeters said he hasn’t tried to “rock the boat” with too many new ideas during his first three weeks at Missouri. But Gates is confident he’ll be an asset to the staff. When he was looking for assistant coaches, Gates said he wanted “guys who have displayed creativity, resourcefulness throughout their careers.” Few candidates would fit that description better than Smithpeters.
“There’s been some unbelievable junior college coaches cut their teeth before they became Hall of Fame coaches,” Gates said. “… Not only has NJCAA allowed student-athletes development, it’s allowed coaches development. Allowed them to be very resourceful as they’ve been a head coach, assistant coach, counselor, academic advisor. Everything under the sun. I’m excited to see what Kyle has in store. I think he’ll be a future head coach.”