Florida Gators

Florida Gators

A Golden State Gator Tale

Chris Harry /Senior Writer Athletic DirectorScott Stricklin and his men's basketball search committee got plenty of positive intel in the vetting process of San Francisco's Todd Golden. ShareGAINESVILLE, Fla. —Scott Stricklin was watching the late NCAA Tournament game on television Thursday night when his cell phone buzzed. The Florida athletic director saw it was from a fellow AD and current member of the tournament committee he knew was sitting courtside in Indianapolis for the first-round barnburner between No. 7-seed Murray State and 10th-seeded San Francisco. The game was headed to overtime. The texter commented on the high-level of basketball being played, but also how impressed he was by the two "big-time" coaches leading their teams. If Stricklin and the Gators had their eyes on one of them, the message said, the UF program was going to be in good shape for the future. As it turned it, the Gators did indeed have such eyes. In fact, a couple members of Stricklin's search committee were in attendance at Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indy and charged with watching a certain coach work the sidelines. Were it not for a couple missed free throws and failed defensive stops late, Todd Golden would have have been locked in Friday on preparing his University of San Francisco Dons for a double-Cinderella date against giant-killer St. Peter's in the NCAA Tournament's second round and a chance to advance to the "Sweet 16." Instead, Golden spent the morning gathering his thoughts and the afternoon — following a long flight back to the West Coast — gathering his players to break the news that he was heading to Florida. In Golden, 36, the Gators landed an energetic up-and-comer with a unique basketball background that spans not only the United States, but also a stint overseas that, in time, provided entree' to the Southeastern Conference. His references used terms such as "energetic" in his approach to the job, "personable" when dealing with players and families, and "innovative" relative to preparation and game-day tactics. "As we called around people kept saying, 'Hey, the guy at San Francisco is really, really good,' and the more we talked and the more information we gathered, the more that was confirmed to us," Stricklin told FloridaGators.com Friday. "He checked all the boxes, from the relationship factor — which I believe is really important — to embracing the cutting-edge analytical piece, which to me shows an active mind and someone who wants to figure out and invest in trying to be different than others."Golden agreed to terms on a six-year contract with UF brass mere hours after the 10th-seeded Dons fell 92-87 in overtime against seventh-seeded Racers in opening-round play of the East Region. He becomes the 20th coach in program history and replacesMike White, who went 142-88 over seven seasons, with four trips to the NCAA Tournament, before bolting last weekend for the vacant post at Georgia.The conversations with Golden and the UF search committee, Stricklin said, were natural, easy and free-flowing. The subject was poised, polished, confident and excited about the challenge. Just as importantly, he understood the expectations. "We talked a lot about that. That's not just Florida basketball, that's Florida athletics," Stricklin said. "All our coaches have that stress and that pressure. The sports that have a little more profile, like football and men's basketball, you've got to have a really grounded approach in life to handle that well. You've got to know who you are and you can't look at outside influences to confirm how you feel about yourself. So when you go through this process, you look for someone with a high level of emotional intelligence, the way they treat others and what their empathy factor is like. I think those things lead to someone being able to handle the high-profile nature of those positions. Todd is a guy who is very well-rounded and has something to him. High character, high integrity, high substance."With a good resume, also. At USF, Golden was 57-36 over three seasons and guided the program to its first NCAA berth since 1998 — and its first at-large bid in 40 seasons. The Dons went 24-10 during the 2021-22 season and finished fourth in the West Coast Conference, but still managed to become the third league team to punch a ticket into the NCAA field. Their KenPom.com advanced metrics showed an offense that ranked 41st nationally, 20th in defensive efficiency, and 81st in pace of play against the 75th-toughest schedule, with non-conference victories over Nevada, Arizona State, Davidson, UAB and UNLV. USF played its final two games of the season (a loss to Gonzaga in the WCC semifinals and Thursday's NCAA defeat against Murray State) without its top post player after 6-foot-9, 240-pound Yauhen Massalskii, who averaged 13.5 points and 9.4 rebounds, suffered a season-ending knee injury in the league tournament. Massalskii was one of six foreign players on the Dons' roster, with the international pipeline something Golden intends to keep active as coach of the Gators. "I'm just incredibly proud of our team. This group made history this year. First time in 40 years, best team at USF in 40 years, first time making the tournament in 25," Golden said at the NCAA post-game podium in Indy early Friday morning. "Obviously, fell a little short, but I told our guys in the locker room they should be incredibly proud. It was a heck of a run. They did something a lot of other people couldn't do, and this was a special group. It's going to be tough to not be able to coach these guys, this team anymore." What his first team at Florida will look like remains to be seen. Like the rest of Gator Nation, the UF players learned of the Golden hire early Friday afternoon as the news began to break on social media. After a day off Thursday, the Gators (20-13), under interim coachAl Pinkins, came to the practice facility and began working toward Sunday's second-round National Invitational Tournament game at Xavier(19-13). After practice, they met with Stricklin, who updated them on the situation and asked that they reserve judgment on the incoming coach (and hold off on any decisions about their future) until each has a chance to speak with Golden in person. "They'll just need to do their best and hang in there," Stricklin said. "We wouldn't bring him here if we didn't think he was someone who could do great things and be a really important part of their lives." Golden will have his own story to tell them. A native of Phoenix, Golden was a walk-on who worked himself into a three-year starting guard at St. Mary's on two NCAA Tournament teams under longtime Coach Randy Bennett and went on to play professionally for two seasons in the Israel Basketball Premier League. That was where he met and played in the backcourt for Bruce Pearl, who between his coaching stints at Tennessee and Auburn was charged with leading Maccabi USA men's basketball that won a gold medal at the 2009 Maccabiah Games. Golden returned to the U.S. and tried his hand in the business sector as an ad salesman in the Bay area. It didn't take. "I like that part of his story," Stricklin said. "He was out there grinding."But Golden missed basketball and in 2012 returned to the game as an assistant under Kyle Smith, a former St. Mary's assistant who had become head coach at Columbia in the Ivy League. After two seasons, Golden went to Auburn and reunited with Pearl in his first season with the Tigers. He started out as director of basketball operations, but after one season was promoted to a full-time assistant coach."An unbelievable eye for talent," Pearl would eventually gush about Golden, who targeted a pair of lightly recruited three-star guards on the recruit trails of southern Georgia. Four years later, Bryce Brown and Jared Harper were leading the Tigers to the 2019 SEC Tournament championship and first Final Four in school history. By then, though, Golden was in his fourth season reunited with Smith, who left Columbia for USF. The Dons posted three straight 20-win seasons under Smith, who was wooed away by Washington State at the end of the '19 season. USF athletic director Joan McDermott didn't spend much time or venture too far in her search for a successor. Golden was 33 when he became a head coach for the first time. "It's time for Todd to take this program to the next level," McDermott said at the time.He went 22-12 his first season, 11-14 during a COVID-ravaged second campaign, and guided the '21-22 squad to the program's most victories since 1981-82, which was the last season the Dons' reached the tournament as an at-large team.Golden's teams are known for their up-tempo style of play, but also for how hard they play. His background as a walk-on who made himself into a Division-I starter is reflected in what he demands of his players, starting with "being elite" in areas that do not require talent; like effort, fight, passion and intelligence.As for his coaching philosophy, it's heavily influenced by analytics. As a player, Golden used to calculate plus-minus differentials for his team's various lineups in his head and in real time while on the floor, then relay ratios to his coaches. Now as a head coach, Golden has an assistant who oversees all analytics and uses the data to make strategic moves and adjustments, some of which can only be viewed as non-conventional. Two examples: * USF was up just two points in a game with 22 seconds left. Instead of playing straight up for the stop (and risk a potential tie or giving up a go-ahead 3-pointer), Golden ordered his team to foul a poor free-throw shooter away from the ball on the possession. The player missed the front end of a one-and-one. San Francisco won the game.* In another game, the Dons fouled a 36-percent free-throw shooter with 11 seconds to play to get an additional possession — get this — at the end of the first half. With 11 seconds left, the shooter made one of two free throws. USF hit a 3 at the halftime buzzer. He's different. And then there's his communications skills. Obviously, they're important on the recruiting trail and in the locker room, but Golden also will be asked to take a higher profile in the community and help reenergize the Florida fan base. He enthusiastically accepted.

I'm grateful for the opportunity to lead one of the nation's premier men's basketball programs. My family and I can't wait to get to Gainesville!! #GoGators https://t.co/ibhvN8Miwd

— Todd Golden (@CoachToddGolden) March 18, 2022There will be questions as to Golden's relative anonymity — as well as his background as mostly a West Coast guy — and why the Gators didn't pursue a bigger name to take over a program still held prisoner (in a good way, of course) to the sky-high expectations created by icon and future Hall-of-Famer Billy Donovan. To those folks, Stricklin borrowed a quote from, of all people, a hockey legend. "Wayne Gretzky used to say you don't skate where the puck is, you skate where the puck is going to be," Stricklin said. "I think Todd is going to be a big part of the future of college basketball. His ceiling is incredibly high and he fits the model of coaches who have come in and won championships. [Baseball's]Kevin O'Sullivan had been never been a head coach before.Tim Walton and 'Mouse' Holloway [softball and track, respectively] had never been coaches at this level. And neither had Billy Donovan. Those coaches fit a profile; young, hungry, innovative and good with people. I think Todd Golden's values align with what works and what is successful at the University of Florida." Stricklin's cell phone was buzzing again Friday afternoon. A lot about Florida basketball was. Print Friendly Version

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