For more than three decades, Kyle Smith has helped young men make the transition from adolescence to adulthood through the game of basketball.

He doesn’t see himself as a parental figure or a big brother. His role is more similar to that of a guide, ushering student-athletes to the summit of self-empowerment.

WSU men's basketball coach Kyle Smith
WSU men’s basketball coach Kyle Smith (Courtesy KREM)

“Being around 18- to 22-year-olds for 33 years helps you get a good idea what it’s like being a young adult,” Smith says.

Smith sees tremendous value in transparency.

“My mindset has always been that opting-in is key” he says. “It’s not so much selling a program to a student-athlete; it’s saying, ‘Here’s who we are and what we’re all about.’”

Smith is well known for his stats-based approach to the game of basketball, which has seen dividends in his short time leading WSU’s men’s program, particularly on the defensive side of the ball.

Last season, the work he and his team put in paid off significantly for a program that hadn’t seen a .500 or better record since the 2011–12 season. His inaugural 16–16 season included significant wins over an Oregon team ranked eighth in the nation and a sweep of the University of Washington Huskies.

At WSU, the focus now is on building up players through solid coaching and maintaining the momentum that helped secure highly touted prospects like Andrej Jakimovski and Carlos Rosario.

“We’re looking to become more efficient offensively,” Smith says, noting significant strides last year in defense and rebounding. “It’ll be a bit of a reboot this year with six new guys, and it always takes time to jump from high school to the Pac-12.”

The loss of CJ Elleby to the NBA draft—a dynamic scorer who created opportunities across the floor—is a challenge Smith is looking forward to.

While his time in Pullman has been brief, he’s already grown accustomed to the ever-present Cougar Spirit. Whether it’s a free cup of coffee or someone waking him up from a nap on an airport bench to say, “Go Cougs,” it’s an environment where Smith and his family feel welcomed and supported.

“I’ve never been around an alumni base that’s so loyal,” Smith says.

As ever, the goal for this year is to make it to post-season play. That’ll require strong outings against conference opponents eager for the same thing. For now, he’s looking forward to having his players back in the gym and seeing how much they’ve been able to improve in spite of the challenges posed by the ongoing public health situation.

“Everything that is being done is to protect the health and safety of each individual,” Smith says. “We have a young team so it will give us a chance to bond and grow together.”