Southern Utah University’s seniors aren’t the only ones moving into the next stage of their life as this semester concludes. Former men’s basketball head coach Todd Simon announced he would be leaving the Thunderbirds to coach for Bowling Green State University on March 15. Having “graduated” from SUU after seven years, Simon will leave behind an unforgettable influence on the program.
Like the student-athletes he mentored, Simon used his time at SUU to learn and develop. He grew as a coach, instructor, husband and father during his time in Cedar City. As he walked out the door, Simon realized that even though he initially traveled here with the intent of growing SUU’s program, the school has helped him grow in his own life.
A game changer
During his reign as coach, Simon entirely shifted the culture of SUU basketball. His first season with the team yielded only six wins while piling up 27 losses. He realized that he would have to turn the program around quickly if he wanted to succeed as a college coach.
“We knew it was going to take a little time,” Simon said. “The first year, there was a learning curve and the process had to begin. Then, we built the foundation year by year, and hopefully, it’s built to last now that we’ve strung a lot of winning seasons together.”
Turning the struggling team into winners proved to be a difficult task and required far more than just Simon’s coaching abilities. The head coach, along with the athletic department, began working to build a team that would draw more fan attendance. With more support, Simon would have more resources to improve on the program and pull together a team that could make championship runs.
“The program wasn’t having success on the court when we got here, and we needed to really engage the community and get people excited about basketball again. That was certainly a challenge,” Simon said. “Learning how to win and playing good basketball was the next step. We had to modernize the program and catch up to speed with our competitors.”
As Simon’s plan began to unfold, the program flourished, gradually growing into an increasingly more victorious team. During his last three years with the Thunderbirds, men’s basketball racked up at least 20 wins each season. Despite a move from the Big Sky Conference to the Western Athletic Conference in his final year, he led his senior-heavy team on a furious run at the championship to earn second place.
In transitioning to Bowling Green, Simon plans to use the same vital concepts from his time in southern Utah to develop a new program.
“I think our system will translate and apply, so I want to use it at Bowling Green,” Simon said. “I think the lessons we learned in building Southern Utah will help me build faster there, and I think with experience you learn a lot of lessons.”
His time at SUU helped him hone his coaching skills and garner a reputation for winning, but the leader expected success on more than just the court.
Simon wanted his student-athletes to triumph as much in the classroom as they did while executing his gameplans. While excelling on the court would help the players win in the moment, Simon knew that what they learned would stay with them for the rest of their lives.
The importance of academics was instilled in him from an early age. He attended college at Central Michigan University on an academic scholarship that few others received. His wife was a valedictorian and English teacher. His connection to education showed him that success means more than simply winning. For any athlete, learning and growing is just as critical.
“I view my role as an educator as much as a coach,” Simon said. “We have to teach the game and teach fundamentals by taking an educational approach to it.”
By approaching his team as a teacher rather than simply a play caller, Simon developed the minds of his athletes along with their bodies. While he didn’t necessarily have to, he also took on the responsibility of holding players accountable in the classroom. He insisted players maintain scholarly standards regardless of their physical talent.
“We’re 33 for 33 in graduating guys that have finished their senior year here,” Simon said. “I’m going to leave it in their hands from here, and I think we’re in a good place now.”
His teaching impacted more than just his athletes. Former sports information director Bryson Lester worked with Simon from the day of his introductory press conference through the 2020-21 season when his team earned the title of Big Sky regular season champions. In that time, Simon helped Lester become more familiar with the game of basketball.
“Todd is someone I consider both a mentor and a friend, along with someone I’m hopeful I’ll cross paths with again professionally. I learned an incredible amount from him in the time I was able to spend with the men’s basketball program, and I’m so grateful for everything he’s done for me,” Lester said. “I’ll carry fond memories of our lunches together and how much I learned about the game of basketball during those. I wish him nothing but the best at Bowling Green and am now a huge fan of the Falcons.”
He’s off to Ohio, but his habits won’t change. His time at SUU set in stone methods of teaching that he’ll continue to use as long as he coaches.
Education can make a world of difference, but the key to Simon’s team didn’t lie on the court or in the classroom. What shaped his program was the concept of family.
A family man
Simon’s connection to each individual player was a foundational principle of his program. He trusted his players to live up to their potential and accomplish all they could in life.
“The key to being a successful coach isn’t just having good players,” Simon said. “It’s having good relationships with those players and getting the most out of them. Having a disciplined program that believes in one another is kind of our secret.”
When Dee Barnes transferred to play for the Thunderbirds, he quickly recognized the welcoming environment that Simon had created. Now a fifth-year senior, Barnes won Sixth Man of the Year in the WAC.
“Coach Simon has had a huge impact on me, not only as a player but as a young man,” Barnes said. “Coming to Utah, I had no family here, and from day one, he always made me feel welcomed. He always checks in to make sure we’re taken care of and to make sure our families are well. I’ll always appreciate what he has done for me and the success we had together.”
Simon’s strong sense of family formed from his closeness with his own wife and four children. They would regularly support him at his games and consistently proved to be his biggest fans. Simon’s heartwarming moments with his family offered fans of the Thunderbirds a view at the loving culture he built in his home, his program and his community.
“I have a very tight-knit family, and I love everybody in the program like family. I want the best for them, and I want to help them be the best they can be. I care about them genuinely,” Simon said. “I want them to see the love I have for my family, and hopefully, that will translate to their lives when they have families of their own.”
His family played a huge factor in the decision his wife and he made to travel across the nation to Bowling Green.
“It’s a new challenge, but most importantly for us, it’s close to home,” Simon said. “Our families will be two hours away in Michigan, so that gives our kids an opportunity to spend more time with cousins, grandparents, aunts and uncles.”
Although Simon has looked out for his SUU family for seven years, he couldn’t pass up such a perfect opportunity to provide his immediate family more time with their loved ones.
Simon’s “senior quote”
I’m so appreciative of the SUU students and their support. They really lift this program up with their passion. I’m appreciative of the SUU and Cedar City community for welcoming us and making us feel at home by letting us grow our family here for seven years. It’s an important part of our lives and always will be. We’re very grateful for that.
Story by Kale Nelson
Photos courtesy of Todd Simon
This article was originally published in March 2023 edition of the University Journal.