As USC’s interim basketball coach, Bob Cantu has a modest record of 4-3 — a mark that looks a lot better considering that the Trojans were 7-10 when Kevin O’Neill was fired and Cantu promoted about a month ago.
Before the switch, USC not only was losing more than it was winning, it was doing so by scoring an average of 64.4 points per game.
Since Cantu has taken over, the Trojans are averaging 72 points per game — a scoring figure they surpassed only twice with O’Neill.
Guard J.T. Terrell says Cantu has taken “the leash” off the team. Point guard Jio Fontan says the mind-set changed to “run first.”
Cantu, 38, says he’s not quite sure where he developed his coaching philosophy. He only knows he has done it the hard way.
He grew up in Paso Robles, played on the high school team there, and by the time he arrived at Cuesta College he realized he was good enough to coach but not to play.
“I don’t remember exactly the first day I coached,” Cantu says. “But I started at the lowest level. I coached my freshman team when I was still at Cuesta. I moved up to junior varsity, then assistant varsity, then as an assistant at Cuesta.
“I was recruiting, I was game-planning, I was coaching, I was selling tickets, I was doing [public relations], because I loved the game.”
Before USC hired him in 2002 — then-coach Henry Bibby brought him in to run his camps — he was an assistant at Sacramento State, where he recruited lower-level Division I players.
“I just tried to broaden my horizons every year,” Cantu recalls. “I tried to network. I saved every phone number, talked to any coach — high school, college — that I could, gave them my card. I would do anything to get to the highest level.”
One of the people Cantu met was Damon Archibald, who was on the USC staff as an assistant coach in 2000. In 2002, Archibald recommended Bibby talk to Cantu.
“Bob was persistent,” Bibby says. “Listening to him talk basketball, I knew he had other things he wanted to do, move up the ladder. He wanted to be a coach.
“Pretty soon I created a position where he could be a recruiter. He got upset with me the day I told him to do that because he told me he wanted to coach. But he’s organized and he had an innate feel for talking to people.”
“And luckily for him, when I got fired he wasn’t a coach. He should thank me for that. It saved his job.”
In his tenure at USC, Cantu has worked for Bibby, interim coach Jim Saia, Tim Floyd and O’Neill.
When Floyd came to USC after coaching in the NBA, he said he wanted to keep someone on the staff who was familiar with West Coast recruiting and basketball.
“That was Bob,” Floyd says. “I learned after I kept him that he was very organized and persistent. If you gave him a task, he completed the task no matter what.”
Floyd also gave Cantu a chance to be a floor coach. And when Floyd was fired, new coach O’Neill kept Cantu and his recruiting contacts and knowledge of USC.
Cantu said he preferred not to talk about the recruiting of O.J. Mayo while he worked for Floyd. That recruitment earned USC a self-penalty from the NCAA.
“I’m proud of recruiting Nikola Vucevic, Taj Gibson — he’s doing well — Nick Young, DeMar DeRozan,” Cantu says. “I’m proud of all the guys I’ve recruited.”
Bibby, a Memphis Grizzlies assistant, noted how unusual it was for someone to last 12 years at one school under so many head coaches.
“Most people want their own guys,” Bibby says. “But you also want someone stable in the program who knows the ins and outs, knows the kids who’ve come and gone. I think all the coaches who have been at USC have made a great decision in keeping Bob. Twelve years, he knows the program, he bleeds cardinal and gold, no one knows more about the West Coast than Bob Cantu. He’s seen all the great coaches out there, knows how to recruit against all those great coaches. I think it would be a mistake not to give him the job permanently.”
But the job is not about being organized. It is about winning and filling a Galen Center that has stayed mostly empty under O’Neill and even in the last seven games under Cantu.
“Do I want the job?” Cantu says. “Of course. So I have to win. We have to play our best. We have to play a style people enjoy. We have to get people to come out. We have to do well in the Pac-12 tournament. If we get farther than that, great. Then, we’ll see.”
Cantu has at least eight more games in his audition, starting Thursday night at Stanford. There are seven conference games to go, and then at least one in the Pac-12 tournament next month in Las Vegas.
Could the interim coach lead USC into the postseason?
“We’ve got the talent,” post player Dewayne Dedmon says. “Now we’ve got the style. So why not us?”