University of North Carolina Greensboro’s Director of Basketball Operations was once the epitome of Gonzaga Basketball. Kyle Bankhead went from a redshirt walk-on to a senior starter for the #3 ranked team in the nation. Undersized and unrecruited, Kyle played in the NCAA Tournament four times as a player (including a Sweet 16), participated as an assistant coach (when San Diego, yes WCC San Diego defeated UConn) and now returns as an administrator. He also was possibly the most accurate 3-point shooter in Gonzaga history.
As a lights-out shooter for Walla Walla High School in 1999, he led his team to the Washington 4A State Championship against the favored Ferris High School of Spokane. Walla Walla won 55-39 with Bankhead scoring a game high 25 points. He was named his conference’s MVP, State Tournament MVP and later was named as 1st team All-State. Despite his accomplishments and obvious shooting skills, the barely 6’ 175 lb Bankhead didn’t get any interest from D-1 schools. Luckily, he’d attended several basketball camps at Gonzaga and developed a relationship with GU assistant Bill Grier.
Grier convinced Kyle to walk-on at GU, a decision that turned out to be extremely beneficial to both parties. After redshirting his first year, Kyle spent his first two seasons backing up Dan Dickau and Blake Stepp. He was a true three-point specialist, shooting 51% from the arc as a freshman on 73 attempts. His shooting prowess coupled with a high basketball I.Q. and an impressive 3 to 1 assist to turnover ratio allowed him to earn scholarships his last two years in the program and start 48 games.
As a starter and team-leader his senior season, Kyle shot an incredible .547 from three. The number was good enough to lead the nation by a wide margin except the record I found on sportsreference.com required at least 2.5 shot attempts per game, Kyle had 2.4. Not getting enough shot attempts is understandable when you consider he was playing alongside Blake Stepp, Ronny Turiaf, Cory Violette and Adam Morrison. If you want to see proof of his leadership both on and off the floor, go to YouTube.com and look for a old ESPN special called The Season: Gonzaga Basketball. Cameras follow the team through part of the 03-04 season showing Kyle firmly establishing himself as team leader.
The story most vividly illustrating his dedication to the team is from his sophomore year prior to the NCAA Tournament game against Wyoming. During the pregame meal, food lodged in his throat and wouldn’t go up or down, despite the trainer trying the Heimlich maneuver. He was rushed to the emergency room where the doctor on duty told him he’d have to be sedated so they could insert a scope. Sedation would mean missing the game, so Kyle refused and a specialist was found who put his current patients on hold to perform the procedure without anesthesia. Blockage cleared, Kyle went on to go 2 for 3 from deep, one of the better Zag performances in the disappointing loss.
Upon graduation, Kyle had a brief stint playing in Germany but soon returned to Gonzaga where he served as administrative assistant/video coordinator. In 2007 GU assistant Bill Grier was hired by the University of San Diego Toreros as head coach and he hired Kyle as a full-time assistant. That season, the Toreros led by Brandon Johnson, Gyno Pomare and Rob Jones finished third in the WCC, but defeated Gonzaga in the WCC tournament held at USD’s Jenny Craig Pavilion. In the opening round of the NCAA tournament, #13 USD defeated #4 UConn. This was USD’s high-water mark before the program became entangled in the Brandon Johnson game fixing scandal. The coaching staff and program were cleared of any wrongdoing, but the team would never return to the glory of their first season. Bill Grier and Kyle were fired on 16 March, 2015.
Kyle’s next job would be as head coach of the Sunrise Christian Academy in Wichita, Kansas. Sunrise Christian recruits elite high school players from around the world and the country who hope to raise their profiles and earn D-1 scholarships. Their most notable alumni is Buddy Hield who went to Sunrise from the Bahamas before moving on to Oklahoma and currently the Sacramento Kings. Kyle coached 13 current D-1 players during his two years at Sunrise and had a 26-13 record his final season. It was during that final year he met the head and assistant coaches from UNCG while they were on a recruiting trip.
Kyle hit it off with UNCG’s coach Wes Miller and both had similar ideas on how to build a basketball program leading him to be hired as UNCG’s Director of Basketball Operations before the current season. Apparently, something is working since UNCG has only two previous Tournament appearances, the last being in 2001.
After eight years of coaching against the Zags in San Diego, Bankhead has plenty of experience trying to defeat his old coach and his old team. Remembering how tough the Toreros used to play the Zags when he and Grier were coaches, I’m sure he’s been instrumental in UNCG’s game prep. If the Zags do win, I’m sure Kyle will be disappointed. I’m also pretty sure I know who he will be pulling for in the next round.