University of San Francisco's new basketball coach, Todd Golden (Photo/Courtesy USF Athletics-Christina Leung)
University of San Francisco's new basketball coach, Todd Golden (Photo/Courtesy USF Athletics-Christina Leung)

USF taps Jewish coach, former Haifa player, to lead hoops program back to glory

University of San Francisco head basketball coach Todd Golden was sitting in his corner office at War Memorial Gym, known to USF students as “the Hilltop,” and tapping on his phone last Friday morning.

Golden, a former Maccabiah Games gold medalist, two-year pro for Maccabi Haifa and college point guard at Saint Mary’s College in Moraga, was ordering an Uber for one of his players who was arriving back on campus after summer break.

“Hey buddy. You’re going to have to walk a little bit. I’ll request it and text you back,” he said over the phone.

A freshman? “No,” Golden said. “European.”

Helping players get situated on campus — including recruits from Australia, Finland and Belarus — is just one of many responsibilities now under Golden’s purview, as the college game becomes increasingly global. In March, he was promoted to head coach from an associate position, making him the second-youngest head coach in Division I men’s basketball.

And he’s just 34.

Golden, a dual Israeli-U.S. citizen from Phoenix who grew up playing pickup at the local JCC, said he has no trouble remembering his bar mitzvah Torah portion: Bereshit.

“In the beginning,” he said with a smile.

It’s a fitting allusion now for Golden, who’s looking to usher in a new era for USF basketball. He says the team is on the right track, posting winning seasons for the past three years. But his vision for the future of USF basketball is not just to be good — it’s to be great.

“I tell people this all the time, and they think I’m crazy,” Golden said. “But I want USF to be the No. 1 team in the country.”

Many fans don’t remember the glory days of USF basketball when the team was perennially one of the best in the nation. The Dons — named after Don Francisco de Haro, the first mayor of San Francisco when it was still a pueblo in Mexican territory — won national championships in 1955 and 1956, a time when even prisoners at Alcatraz reportedly tuned in to the games on the radio. The team was led by then-Oakland resident Bill Russell, a center who would go on to win 11 NBA championships with the Boston Celtics and become one of the greatest players of all time.

Though the Dons were regulars in the NCAA tournament in the ’60s and ’70s, a cheating scandal in the early 1980s led then-president Rev. John Lo Schiavo to shutter the program. The team hasn’t been the same since; it has made the NCAA tournament only once, in 1998, losing in the first round.

Today Golden and USF president Rev. Paul J. Fitzgerald pride themselves on recruiting not only good players, but good students. “We had a 3.35 team GPA this past year,” Golden said. “That’s just unheard of, really.”

A number of factors made it possible for Golden to take the helm at USF. “A lot of things had to fall into place for this to work out,” he told J., sitting at his desk wearing USF-branded Nike athleisure wear, just paces from the gleaming gym located in the Sobrato Center, named after the family who donated $15 million for a renovation. “But this was always the vision.”

(Left to right) USF President Paul J. Fitzgerald, basketball coach Todd Golden and Athletic Director Joan McDermott (Photo/Courtesy USF Athletics-Christina Leung)
(Left to right) USF President Paul J. Fitzgerald, basketball coach Todd Golden and Athletic Director Joan McDermott (Photo/Courtesy USF Athletics-Christina Leung)

Former head coach Kyle Smith, Golden’s mentor who gave him his first coaching job years ago at Columbia University and brought him onto the USF coaching staff in 2016, accepted a job at Pac-12 powerhouse Washington State University in March, creating the vacancy.

“Kyle did an amazing job getting the right people in the program, both in terms of players and coaches. The heavy lifting is done,” Golden said. “Now the challenge for myself and our staff is to recruit better talent while maintaining the integrity of the program, in terms of the culture and the types of kids that we have here.”

Golden, whose 3-year-old son goes to Marin Day School at Congregation Sherith Israel (he also has a 1-year-old daughter), had a successful playing career himself. He was a walk-on (unrecruited) at Saint Mary’s his freshman year, then earned athletic scholarships for the remaining three years. His senior season he shot 46 percent from behind the three-point line, was second in the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio (a marker of efficiency for guards), and helped lead the college to a 25-7 record and a trip to the NCAA tournament. He had help, he says, from a diminutive freshman point guard from Canberra, Australia, named Patty Mills. Mills would go on to a successful career and an NBA championship with the San Antonio Spurs.

“Obviously when he got there I moved over to the shooting guard position,” Golden said. “Because his talent demanded that opportunity.”

Golden said he never dreamed of playing professional basketball. “I wasn’t highly recruited. But as my career went on I started having success,” he said. After college, he received interest from Maccabi Haifa in part due to a rule by the Israeli Basketball Premier League requiring two Israeli players on the court for each team. Because he was Jewish, Golden could easily acquire Israeli citizenship and provide roster flexibility.

“Having me on their team was like having an extra American,” he said.

Golden played for two seasons with Maccabi Haifa. In between, in 2009, he helped lead Team USA to a gold medal at the Maccabiah Games in Tel Aviv, playing under head coach Bruce Pearl, of Auburn University in Alabama. Years later, Pearl would offer Golden his first coaching job at a major Division I program. “I would not be here today if I didn’t go on that trip,” he said.

Of moving to Israel at 22 straight out of college, Golden said it was an “incredible life experience.”

He said he remembers the enhanced security at shopping malls, and the first time he saw soldiers carrying semi-automatics when he first arrived in Haifa. “I’m like, holy smokes,” he said.

“I had some really special Israeli teammates on our team, who were really awesome about helping me get comfortable over there,” he said, “having me over for meals, introducing me to folks. The experience of living over there is one that I’ll never forget.”

In an interview with J., Father Fitzgerald, as he’s called on campus, said Golden is an “amazing young man” and a natural fit for the head coaching job after spending three seasons as an assistant.

“He has a great basketball mind,” said Fitzgerald, a fan of the game who remembers watching Golden during his college years. He cited Golden’s “tremendous emotional intelligence” and said he “exudes a kind of warmth,” helping him in recruiting efforts and in building rapport with players.

Golden’s relationship with players has paid off. After Smith announced he would be leaving as head coach, not a single player left the Dons, as some college athletes do during a coaching transition. Golden took that as a good sign.

“That’s the best indicator of them being at least satisfied” with the school’s decision.

Earlier this month, USF released its schedule for the upcoming season, which includes tough non-conference games against Stanford, UC Berkeley and Arizona State, and against conference juggernaut and national title contender Gonzaga in Spokane, Washington. The Dons lost two starters who graduated last year, 6’8” forward Nate Renfro and point guard Frankie Ferrari, who recently signed with the Utah Jazz. Golden says the team will be “different” this year, but believes it will still be a contender in the West Coast Conference. Guard Charles Mineland, a junior who averaged 15 points per game last season, and 7-footer Jimbo Lull will have to step up.

“I think we’ll be pretty good,” Golden said. “I really like our team.”

“Some guys who didn’t have as big a role as last year are going to be asked to step up, and take on more responsibility,” he said. “I think we have the coaching staff in place to lead these guys the right way. I’d be disappointed if we don’t have a successful season.”

Still, Golden’s vision for the Dons extends well beyond the 2019-2020 season. He’s looking to rebuild a dynasty the Hilltop hasn’t seen for decades.

“Can it be done? Yeah,” he said of becoming one of the top programs in the country. “Is it going to be incredibly difficult? Sure.”

“With the momentum that we have,” he said, “two, three years out, I’d like this program to be a perennial NCAA tournament team.”

Gabe Stutman
Gabe Stutman

Gabe Stutman is a J. staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @jnewsgabe.