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From NCAA sanctions to top of the Big Sky: Steve Smiley & Northern Colorado’s rebuild is coming to fruition

Smiley has the Bears in a position to win its 1st conference regular-season title in over 10 years

Northern Colorado v Arizona Photo by Rebecca Noble/Getty Images

Greeley, Colorado is more than just a place where bets go to die (ask Scott Van Pelt). It’s where the 3-ball goes flying, and the dreams of taking a home-state team to the NCAA Tournament are thriving.

In 2016, a young assistant coach named Steve Smiley came back to his home state to help Jeff Linder rebuild a Northern Colorado program that was in complete turmoil. In 2020, the program was in much better shape than when it was left, and had a new man at the helm, Smiley.

“It meant everything, it was an unbelievable opportunity, and one that I’m really grateful for,” Smiley told Mid-Major Madness. “To get a chance to be a Division I head coach in the state I grew up in — I’m a Colorado guy — so that made it even more meaningful.”

Beginning the journey, Smiley played and later coached at his alma mater of Northern State. There, he was a three-year starter and during his senior season, he was named the league defensive player of the year along with tournament MVP while leading the Wolves to a D-II NCAA Tournament appearance under historic coach, Don Meyer.

Meyer meant a lot to not only Smiley but legends throughout the sporting world. Former Tennessee women’s basketball coach, Pat Summit, cited him as a major influence on the development of her coaching saying, “He taught me how to teach others how to play the game. When I started coaching at Tennessee, I was 22 years old. I had four players that were seniors. And I never coached a day in my life. So did Coach Meyer help me? Tremendously.”

He held the record for most wins by a men’s basketball coach who made at least one stint at an NCAA member school until Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski passed him in 2011. But not only that, he gave Smiley his second assistant coaching job, which resulted in him writing a book on playing for the legend, “Playing for Coach Meyer.” It happened organically, and Smiley was a published book author before the age of 26.

“I realized no story had ever been written about Coach and wanted to take a crack at it from a players perspective,” Smiley said. “Ultimately, I always felt that Coach Meyer never got enough recognition for what he had accomplished in basketball on a national scale, so this was my attempt to spread the word. I knew if I waited, memory would get bad, so I dove right in.”

To make the story even cooler, Meyer had no clue that Smiley was working on this project. A year after starting the book, he gave Meyer the first copy while in town on a recruiting trip. Meyer finished it by the next morning.

“It’s without a doubt my favorite project that I’ve ever accomplished,” said Smiley.

From there, Smiley became the head coach at JUCO Sheridan College, where he went an outstanding 152-45. He thought it was time to take a step up after a couple of years though and signed on to be an assistant coach under Big Sky legend Randy Rahe at Weber State.

“When you talk about getting into Division I basketball with Weber State, and with Coach Rahe being the winningest coach in Big Sky history, you really got to learn about what Division I is about, but also what winning in Division I is about,” Smiley said.

After two seasons at Weber, Smiley joined former Rahe assistant Jeff Linder at his first head coaching job of Northern Colorado. What they entered, as mentioned earlier, was an absolute mess.

In April of 2016, the university had self-reported some academic misconduct penalties they committed to the NCAA. That resulted in three years’ probation, loss of all money they gained from their trip to the 2011 NCAA Tournament, a postseason ban in 2016-17, and a reduction of three scholarships for both the 2017-18 and 2018-19 academic years.

“On the one hand, Jeff knew we could win here,” said Smiley. “When we walked in here, we truly didn’t know how bad it was going to be.”

Only four players returned to Northern Colorado who had at least limited roles under former head coach BJ Hill, with others staying with prior commitments. It was a tough first season, but the Bears went a respectable 11-18 after all that happened.

The next season, the players began to play the way the coaches wanted, and signs really began to point up. Northern Colorado finished the season 26-12, winning the Tournament while ranking top 25 in the country in adjusted tempo. Their defense was its rock at No. 1 in the country 3-pointers attempted to 3-pointers made, along with assists-to-field goals made.

As Hill’s players began to graduate and the scholarships came back, Linder and Smiley really began to hit the Colorado recruiting market. They’ve almost all stayed under Smiley, with the first key pieces coming in the 2018-19 class, spearheaded by then Big Sky Freshman of the Year, and current Bear, Bodie Hume.

“We really have stayed true on the emphasis to try and get those kids (from Colorado),” Smiley said.

During his first season in Greeley, Hume averaged 10.8 points and 4.3 rebounds per game. His most impressive game was against Linder’s current employer, Wyoming, where he dropped 23 points and blocked six shots.

Since then, it has only gone up for Hume as he averaged 13.9 points his sophomore season and 15.9 during his junior season. In the final games of his junior season was where he really shined, as he scored 30 points in both Bears Big Sky Tournament games.

He’s carried that into this year, shooting 63% in Big Sky play from inside the arch good for third in the league.

Against in-state rival and one of the best mid-major teams in the country, Colorado State, Hume matched his career-high with 30 points as Northern Colorado just barely lost to the Rams. Later in conference play, he scored 25 in the Bears’ first game at Idaho’s brand-new ICCU Arena.

Another player who played his first games in 2018-19 but was a part of the 2017-18 class was Matt Johnson II, another Colorado dude.

Johnson went from holding a limited bench role in his freshman season to one of the top 100 most used players in the country at No. 85 in percentage of minutes played.

Last season, he ranked 179 in the country in 3-point percentage. This season he took a little step down but is still one of the better shooters in the Big Sky. His play from deep has helped make it attractive for high-major caliber shooters such as Daylen Kountz and Dru Kuxhausen to play at Northern Colorado.

Kountz is the Bears “major contributor” on Ken Pomeroy’s rankings. While averaging 19.5 points per game in his second season in Greeley, the Denver kid and Colorado transfer is an immaculate 42.4% from behind the arch. That is good for 92 in the country.

He may be having an amazing season, but historically the best 3-point shooter that the Bears have is in his first season, McNeese transfer Kuxhausen.

“We knew the way we wanted to play was so predicated on shooting,” Smiley said. “We got lucky that before McNeese State he played for two different schools, both those schools head coaches are my two assistants.”

His first season at McNeese, Kuxhausen shot 45.8%, knocking down a Southland record 125 treys. That all was good enough to have him finish third in the country in 3-point percentage.

He followed that with an impressive 40% mark, ranking in the top 35 of the country.

Now in his third Division I season, Kuxhausen is shooting 43.2% from deep. That includes an impressive 7 of 14 game against Big Sky preseason favorite Southern Utah.

A player who could’ve gone to any school he wanted more-than-likely fell right in the lap Smiley.

“(I told him) we don’t need to oversell the fact that we shoot a lot of 3s,” Smiley said.

The last key piece of that initial 2018-19 team was big man Kur Jungkuch who does not only rank in the top 25 of defensive rebounding percentage but also effective field goal percentage.

Although he’s not from Colorado, Jungkuch has been an excellent addition and seems to be getting better and better every season. Through 16 games this season he has six double-doubles, just shy of averaging one per game. Jungkuch is truly the Bears glue piece and a key reason for their success.

Because of him, the Bears rank in the top 100 in offensive efficiency, while only scoring less than 70 points three times this season. They currently sit in near the top of the Big Sky with Weber State in what is basically a tie for first (Northern Colorado is 5-1 in league play, Weber is 7-1 happening to have less games postponed so far), a league they haven’t won the regular-season title of since 2010-11. That was also the only season they made the NCAA Tournament, the ultimate goal for Smiley.

“Honestly, it (making the NCAA Tournament) would mean everything. It would mean everything for our school,” he said.

On Thursday, they will host Weber State, Smiley’s former employer. Both teams have one loss at the top of the Big Sky and whoever is victorious will stand alone.