By: Keller Sherman
Featured Image Courtesy of Ronda Churchill, Associated Press
CEDAR CITY, Utah — One of the greatest eras in Southern Utah basketball seems to be coming to an end. It was inevitable that one day, Todd Simon would leave Cedar City for a bigger opportunity. This happens to every coach that does as impressive a rebuilding job as Todd Simon has with the Thunderbirds. Many believe that he is already deserving of a gig at a Power 6 conference program. Simon’s departure in itself is not the big shocker here, rather, it is where he is going. The Mid-American Conference in which Bowling Green competes is on par with the Western Athletic Conference in terms of prestige on the hardwood. Both are traditionally one-bid leagues to the NCAA Tournament. Therefore, the job is not considered to be much of an upgrade compared to where Simon currently is at SUU.
How Simon Got Here
Simon goes out as one of the greatest to do it for the Thunderbirds. He took over a program that had gone 28-90 in four years under its previous coach, Nick Robinson. Robinson had led SUU through its transition from the Summit League to the Big Sky Conference. He had coached the Thunderbird’s first four seasons of the Big Sky era. He was fired after the 2015-16 campaign and that’s when Todd Simon arrived. Simon had most recently served as the interim head coach at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. He coached seventeen games for the Runnin Rebels going 9-8. UNLV opted not to remove the interim tag from Simon and so he moved his family 2.5 hours up Interstate 15 to Cedar City.
A Rocky Start
Rome wasn’t built in a day and Simon’s rebuilding job took time to bear fruit. Simon went 6-27, 3-15 in Big Sky play his first year in charge. The 2017-18 campaign saw a 13-19 record, but a disappointing 5-13 mark in the Big Sky. Simon took the Thunderbirds on a cinderella run of sorts in the Big Sky Tournament that season reaching the semifinals. That was the first of three straight appearances in the Big Sky semifinals for Simon. 2018-19 was the first year SUU finished at .500, a mark that was surpassed in the 2019-20 campaign. As everyone is all too familiar with, the 2019-20 season saw an abrupt end due to the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
A Conference Crown
The 2020-21 season was the first great year under Simon. Under a weird schedule as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Simon guided the Thunderbirds to a Big Sky regular season title. During this run, SUU’s move to the Western Athletic Conference in time for the 2022-23 season was announced. While the regular season crown was great, the Thunderbirds still failed to reach the Big Dance. SUU was upset in the Big Sky Tournament semifinals by Montana State 77-80 in overtime. The Thunderbirds were picked to repeat as regular season champions in their final season in the Big Sky. They fell just short of that finishing second in the standings behind the same Bobcat team that beat them in Boise the year prior.
Getting Over the Hump
The Thunderbirds had a great opportunity to end the Big Sky era with a tournament title. Unfortunately, the woes in Boise continued as they fell to Portland State in the quarterfinal. This snapped a streak of three consecutive appearances in the Big Sky semifinals. Moving to a conference with traditional mid-major powers like Grand Canyon and New Mexico State, could Todd Simon make some noise here? Picked ninth in preseason polls, Simon more than exceeded expectations as he had largely done in his tenure with the Thunderbirds. SUU finished 3rd in the WAC and made a run to the championship game in the tournament, a first for the program under Simon. Unfortunately, SUU failed to make the Big Dance for the first time since 2001 falling 84-66 to Grand Canyon in the tournament final.
Where to Next?
Simon did not quite get the Thunderbirds to the Big Dance, but that does not take away from his accomplishments. According to WAC Hoops Digest on Twitter, Simon will not coach the upcoming College Basketball Invitational. Rather, associate head coach Flynn Clayman will assume interim duties. He is expected to be a candidate for the full-time head coaching position with the Thunderbirds. Some sources are even listing him as the favorite to be Simon’s replacement, but either way, this is going to be a crucial decision. Doug Knuth just became athletic director for the Thunderbirds back in December and he faces an important hire. Who will continue the high standard set by Todd Simon? Knuth must answer this million-dollar question.