The predicted other shoe dropped today as men’s basketball assistant Steve Smith had his contract non-renewed following his exposure on FBI wiretaps discussing payments in the recruitment of Zion Williamson. Most Clemson fans were upset by Coach Smith’s allusions to the football program, ambiguous as they were, because messing with the football program will make you persona non grata in a hurry. Most assistant coaches work on year to year contracts, so the timing of this made it easier to let Smith go without the possible issues of settling a termination.
This, in my opinion, is a real blow to the program even if no sanctions or anything else arise from whatever went down with Coach Smith on the recruiting trail. I’ve had the opportunity to meet Coach Smith and his wife and must say that they could not be nicer people. I had a chance to see behind the curtain a bit and saw just how close he and his wife were with the members of the team. Losing Smith is a blow as he was undoubtedly the top recruiter on the staff. Coach Brownell is already facing a tremendous challenge heading into next season with fan discontent rising after the failure of last season’s team to make the NCAA tournament despite returning four senior/graduate starters from a Sweet 16 team. Coach Brownell now has to replace a key member of his staff as the ultra-important spring/summer AAU period is underway. Who knows how many key targets for the staff have relationships with Coach Smith which now must be re-established with a new staff member?
Unless you are firmly in the anti-Brownell camp, looking for the bottom to drop out and for a change to be made, you have to hope Brownell can make a home-run hire of a guy who can not only really recruit well (and legally), but can also help shore up some of the talent evaluation issues I think have existed during the Brownell era. Most of the wheeling and dealing in collegiate staff hiring for basketball happens during the Final Four, though it is unclear how much Coach Brownell would have been looking for future candidates at that time when he wasn’t anticipating making staff changes. It is likely he has a running list much like Dabo does in football for inevitable movements with the staff, such as the departure of Lucas McKay.
Ultimately, Clemson fans have to hope that Smith is the only real casualty of this investigation. It certainly strikes a blow to one of the supposed strengths of Coach Brownell, which is running a clean program. In all reality, there are very, very few truly clean programs at the major levels of revenue sports, but it would be extremely ironic for Clemson to suffer for a recruit it didn’t even get, especially if Duke University remains unscathed.