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Ex-UNLV coach seeks breakthrough NCAA bid at Southern Utah

Southern Utah coach Todd Simon is coming back to Las Vegas this week to try to add one more elusive line to an ever-growing resume of accomplishments at the small Cedar City school.

Three victories in three days in the WAC tournament at Orleans Arena would give the Thunderbirds their second trip to the NCAA Tournament and first since 2001. That journey begins with a quarterfinal matchup against Utah Tech at 8:30 p.m. Thursday.

“It’s kind of the last thing on our checklist,” said Simon, 42, who is in his seventh year on the job. “We had two winning seasons in 18 years, and now we’ve had three straight 20-win seasons and we’ve won a regular-season title. We’ve kind of done everything except get to that tournament, so it’s a big deal for us. It’d be a huge milestone.”

While an NCAA berth would be a new experience for Simon, winning has become quite routine. Third-seeded Southern Utah (20-11), in its first WAC season, is one of just five schools in the west with 20 wins in each of the past three seasons. During his time as an assistant and then a head coach at Findlay Prep, Simon’s teams won more than 95 percent of their games and were the top team in the country on four occasions.

He then moved on to Dave Rice’s staff at UNLV and was named the interim coach when Rice was fired during the 2015-16 season. The Rebels were 56-43 during his time on staff, and his recruiting efforts helped land several star players. However, the school decided to move on from Rice and his staff.

“It was disappointing we couldn’t get it flipped,” Simon said. “Not personally, but for Dave. We couldn’t get it going quick enough. I think those years now probably stand the test of time a little better. I’m proud now looking back, but it was a learning experience. My kids were born in Las Vegas. I love Las Vegas, so I don’t look at it negatively at all.”

Simon quickly got the reins to his own program at Southern Utah, though it was one without much success to build on. After winning six games in his first year, he took the Thunderbirds to a postseason berth in year three and then secured a winning campaign in 2019-20.

That’s when the program took off. Simon went 20-4 in the COVID-impacted 2020-21 season and captured the Jim Phelan national coach of the year award.

“I think what was cool was people understood where we came from and what we built,” he said of the honor from fellow coaches. “I think people are seeing this isn’t an easy job. It’s cool to see on a national level the respect level for what we’re doing.”

He’s done it the only way he’s ever really known, through hard work and building relationships. That’s particularly helpful at a school with a limited budget.

“We can lead the nation in relationships,” he said. “I can’t lead it in NIL (name, image and likeness licensing), and I can’t feed them more granola bars, but we can care about our guys a lot.”

It’s what has made him such an elite recruiter throughout his career. Simon didn’t play the game at a high level and didn’t have many connections when he started down this career path, so he just hit the pavement. From his time as a JV high school coach in Michigan, to a volunteer assistant gig at Pepperdine and finally to Lon Kruger’s UNLV staff as a video assistant.

“I just kind of worked and worked, and if you do a good enough job, the next person asks you to come and work,” he said.

That proved to be a good decision for the powers-that-be at Southern Utah, who found themselves a budding star coach seven years ago. Even Simon is a bit surprised looking back at his program’s trajectory.

“In hindsight, I look back and wonder what I was thinking,” he said. “We averaged 4½ Division I wins over a four-year period. I think deep down, I just wanted the ultimate challenge, and probably like our team, it was an irrational confidence that we were just expecting to win.”

One of the top questions Simon gets asked is when he will take a job at another school, but he said he never wanted to make what he saw as a lateral move. As he saw it, why not just keep building Southern Utah into the best mid-major job around.

That’s especially true with four kids under 12. But the offers will keep coming in, and at some point, Simon is likely to eventually take one.

Even then, the objective will remain the same.

“When I was in my 20s and we were winning rings every year at Findlay, my goal was regardless of the level I was at, I wanted more rings than John Wooden,” he said. “But now I don’t even know where those are. I realized what I love is seeing small fish become big fish. It’s fun to see young men grow up and what they get to accomplish in their lives.”

Contact Adam Hill at ahill@reviewjournal.com. Follow @AdamHillLVRJ on Twitter.

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