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‘Challenge of the perception’

Newly hired USF basketball coach Brian Gregory said one of his biggest obstacles will be overcoming how the program is currently viewed. ORACLE PHOTO/JACKIE BENITEZ

Brian Gregory knows he’s entering a difficult situation as he takes over as head coach of USF men’s basketball. 

The Bulls haven’t had a winning season since they won 22 games and qualified for the NCAA Tournament in 2012. 

Coupled with its on-court problems, USF also faces potential sanctions from the NCAA from alleged academic fraud and could see more of its players transfer before the season begins.

“I think first and foremost, you have the challenge of the perception of the program,” Gregory said after his introductory press conference at the Sun Dome on Wednesday. “We’ve been through a tough year. Whenever you do that, it’s a difficult situation for the players. So I’m spending time with them so they know they can trust me and know I’m here for them and I want to help them get over last season.”

With the 50-year old coach facing a difficult rebuilding process, he said one of the biggest factors in taking the job was the sense of commitment he received from the school.

USF signed Gregory to a six-year contract that will pay him $6.58 million over the course of the deal. He will start out making $1 million next season, and his salary will escalate to $1.13 million in the final year of the contract. 

“What I was looking for was an experienced head coach with high integrity, a championship background, a program builder and a coach who develops and graduates players,” athletic director Mark Harlan said. “Brian Gregory checks all those boxes.”

Gregory made it clear that one of the program’s shortcomings that he’s focused on correcting is the lack of local recruiting in recent years. 

Junior forward Malik Martin was the only scholarship player on roster last season who is a native Floridian, and he was originally recruited to USC out of high school.

Gregory said he’s already reached out to local high school coaches and welcomes them to come watch any of his practices. 

“We have an incredible recruiting base to recruit from,” he said. “Our footprint of our university has been undervalued and underutilized in the recruiting process. That must, and will, change. 

“It has to. There’s too many recruits coming out of this area, and for us not to have a presence, for us not to impact recruiting in the state of Florida, we have to do a much better job than that.”

But while Gregory faces the tall task of changing the perception and recruiting of USF men’s basketball, he’s also simultaneously trying to keep the current roster in tact. 

Though the Bulls did not have a senior on roster last season, they’re looking at losing several key players from the 2016-17 team. 

Leading scorer Geno Thorpe has chosen to simply graduate early rather than play his senior season. Following Thorpe’s announcement, sophomore forward Luis Santos decided he would transfer from the school.

Mere hours after Gregory was introduced on Wednesday, freshman forward Malik Fitts became the next Bull to make plans to leave town, as he told the Tampa Bay Times he is requesting his release from the school. 

“I’ve had individual meetings with every player, and I’ve also had a total team meeting,” Gregory said. “We’ve completed one weight workout and we’ll do some individual skill stuff. 

“When it comes to the message I’m sending it’s, ‘OK, you’ve just went through a very difficult situation. First and foremost, I’m proud of how they handled themselves, and their competitiveness especially toward the end of the year was impressive. In talking with the guys, my door is always open. We need to spend some time together before decisions are made. Let’s get in the gym and work out, and see if South Florida is still the fit for you.’” 

Despite the uphill battle facing Gregory and whomever he chooses to add to his coaching staff, the former coach of Dayton and Georgia Tech said his past experiences give him confidence. 

“When I went down to Georgia Tech, I had never recruited a single player from the state of Georgia, and our first recruiting class had four players from Georgia, and I think it was a top-20 recruiting class,” Gregory said. “I’ve been schooled under the best when it comes to recruiting.”

When he took over as the coach of Georgia Tech in 2011, he inherited a team that had won just 13 games the year prior and had a history of just two winning seasons in the six years before his arrival. 

He struggled to build the program for four seasons, but eventually broke through for a 21-win season in 2015-16, only to be fired at the conclusion of that season. 

Gregory spent the following year as a consultant for Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, who he said is one of his best friends. Izzo gave Gregory his start in coaching in 1999 when he hired him on as a graduate assistant. 

Four years later, he was hired as the coach of Dayton, where he would lead the Flyers to two NCAA Tournament berths and an NIT Championship before heading off to coach the Yellow Jackets. 

Entering his third head-coaching gig in 18 years of coaching basketball, Gregory said that while he understands rebuilding the program will take time, he’s not paying attention to what’s happened at USF in the past. 

“To be honest, I’m not really interested in why things haven’t worked out in the past (at USF),” he said. “I know that if we do things according to our game plan, we are going to be successful. I think that while there have been glimpses of success, but maybe not sustainability, and that’s what I’m looking to do.”