San Francisco Chronicle

USF’s confidence in Gerlufsen rises quickly

- By Connor Letourneau

As associate head coach Chris Gerlufsen sat next to USF athletic director Joan McDermott on the team charter March 18, he struggled to process what she was telling him.

Just hours earlier, the Dons had lost to Murray State in overtime in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Now, somewhere over the Midwest, McDermott was overloadin­g Gerlufsen with informatio­n:

His boss, Todd Golden, had accepted the top job at Florida. Instead of conducting a search, McDermott wanted to promote Gerlufsen.

It would be quite the undertakin­g. USF’s two firstteam All-WCC selections, Jamaree Bouyea and Yauhen Massalski, were out of eligibilit­y. Guard Khalil Shabazz was weighing whether to return for one last season, turn pro or transfer to a higher-profile school. Some of the Dons’

other key players also would consider their options in the wake of Golden’s departure.

But after watching Gerlufsen closely this season, McDermott was convinced that he could build off USF’s first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1998. In his more than two decades as a college assistant, he establishe­d a reputation as a “grinder”: the type of coach who scoured the globe for overlooked recruits, compiled strong scouting reports and pored over video.

Since joining Golden’s staff last summer, Gerlufsen has been an underrated force behind the program’s improvemen­t. Team dinners at his house fostered camaraderi­e among a new-look roster. A savvy offensive mind, Gerlufsen helped Golden incorporat­e more ball screens and lowpost feeds so the Dons could be less reliant on jumpers.

On more than a handful of occasions, Golden turned over his timeout huddles to Gerlufsen, who went 8-5 — with a win over USF — as Hawaii’s acting head coach in 2019. Bouyea and Shabazz credit Gerlufsen for helping them blossom into one of the WCC’s top backcourts.

By elevating him to the Dons’ top seat so quickly, McDermott gave the program better odds of keeping its remaining core together. This was the blueprint McDermott followed three years ago when she promoted Golden after Kyle Smith left for Washington State.

“We could have done a search, but we knew Chris would be the guy we would want to hire,” McDermott said. “For continuity in the program, we felt strongly that Chris was the right choice. He’s a worker, always has been.”

Over the past 24 years, Gerlufsen has helped build programs in such basketball outposts as Chestertow­n, Md.; Georgetown, Texas; Charleston, S.C., and Hartford, Conn. His goal was always the same: lead a Division I team.

In summer 2000, at age 23, Gerlufsen packed all his belongs into a U-Haul van and made the 19-hour drive from central Texas to southeaste­rn South Carolina for a graduate-assistant position at the Citadel. Never mind that the job was a downgrade in title from his assistant-coaching gig at Southweste­rn University.

Finally, after years sweeping floors and washing jerseys at Division III schools, he could say he was on a Division I staff. That level had been a dream of his since his days tagging along with his father, former UMass head coach Ron Gerlufsen, to the Minutemen’s practices and games.

“From a very early age, I was at gyms all the time,” Gerlufsen said. “I just loved everything about it: the competitio­n, the friendship­s, the grind.”

Even though he wanted to follow his dad’s career path, Gerlufsen made a point not to lean on Ron’s connection­s. After leading Randolph-Macon College in rural Virginia to two NCAA Division III tournament­s, Gerlufsen graduated with an economics degree and returned home to Philadelph­ia, where he spent the summer stocking shelves at a liquor store.

Washington College, a Division III school along Maryland’s Eastern Shore, had offered him a graduate-assistant job paying $1,500 for the season. After a few months there, he burned through all the money he saved from the liquor store and racked up some credit-card debt.

That experience helped set the tone for much of his career. Despite modest wages at relatively obscure programs, Gerlufsen became obsessed with finding under-recruited players.

The Citadel, where he spent six seasons (2000-06), came with certain challenges. Given that few Division I-caliber prospects want to attend a military school, Gerlufsen explored every avenue possible.

By the time he landed at San Diego in 2015, he was an accomplish­ed internatio­nal recruiter. During a couple of scouting trips in Europe, Gerlufsen befriended Golden, then USF’s associate head coach. The two would talk late into the night about basketball philosophi­es, recruiting and family.

When Golden asked Gerlufsen last year to leave his leadassist­ant job at Hawaii for a similar position with the Dons, Gerlufsen hardly hesitated. In one of their first conversati­ons as coworkers, they joked that they would help end USF’s NCAA drought, then Gerlufsen could replace Golden as head coach once Golden got a seven-figure offer elsewhere.

“Little did we know,” Gerlufsen said, “that’s exactly what would happen.”

Florida signed Golden to a six-year, $18 million contract last week. Though Golden guided USF to only one postseason appearance in his three seasons, the Gators understood the challenges of bringing a winner to the Hilltop.

Antiquated facilities. A top-heavy conference. Limited fan interest in a pro sports market.

To make sure this year wasn’t an aberration, Gerlufsen must do something no WCC head coach has done in decades: carve out a consistent spot toward the top of the standings alongside Gonzaga, St. Mary’s and BYU. That starts with convincing Shabazz to come back and unearthing some gems in the transfer portal.

“Chris is someone we all trust and love,” forward Josh Kunen said. “We had a whole year full of amazing experience­s with him. If anyone can keep them going, it’s him.”

 ?? Christina Leung, / USF Athletics ?? Chris Gerlufsen, USF’s new head coach, helped the Dons reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1998.
Christina Leung, / USF Athletics Chris Gerlufsen, USF’s new head coach, helped the Dons reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1998.

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