USC associate head coach Bob Cantu’s office, nestled in the corner of the athletic pavilion attached to the Galen Center, remains a shrine to the recent success of the men’s basketball program.
Jerseys of first-round NBA draft picks Cantu coached at USC, including DeMar DeRozan, Taj Gibson and Nick Young, adorn the walls, as well as pictures from historic moments, such as the 2009 Pac-10 basketball tournament championship.
“I am running out of wall space,” Cantu said. “I will have to take something down for Nikola [Vucevic’s] jersey once the NBA season begins. I will need a new office if we keep getting draft picks.”
Longevity is not usually a term associated with collegiate assistant coaches, but Cantu’s reputation for working behind-the-scenes to recruit, developing and mentoring players has helped him to remain at USC for 11 seasons — a period that has spanned four different head coaches. He is the longest tenured men’s basketball assistant or head coach in the Pac-12.
“I do not have a secret,” Cantu said. “I just work hard and try to do a great job every day.”
Over the years, Cantu has developed a strong affinity for the program and the school, something he eagerly expresses when stressing the benefits of attending USC to recruits.
“[Cantu] loves USC,” USC coach Kevin O’Neill said. “He really believes in the place, so it is not like he is in sales. He can sell it from the heart.”
Cantu and the Trojan coaching staff credit much of their recruiting success to eschewing the practice of targeting as many players as possible.
“I recruit less guys harder,” Cantu said. “I try to lock-in on a guy or two that we really want.”
One of the recruits Cantu focused on was Alexis Moore, now a 6-foot-2 freshman guard at USC. Moore began speaking with Cantu during his sophomore year of high school in 2009 at Long Beach Poly.
“He made me feel welcome and as though I was already a part of the family, even though I had not committed yet,” Moore said.
As the recruitment process progressed, Cantu and Moore communicated once a week. Cantu would talk about classes available to USC students, Moore’s role on the team and even the prevalence of beautiful women on campus.
“Literally anything a kid could want, he talked about,” Moore said. “If there was beach-front property in Colorado, he probably could have sold it to me.”
Cantu learned the art of recruiting as an assistant coach at Cuesta College in San Louis Obispo, Calif., where he attracted players to a program with facilities that paled in comparison with those at most Division I institutions.
“It is nobody’s dream to go to a junior college,” Cantu said. “The key is to be consistent and persistent, but not pushy.”
After his tenure at Cuesta College, Cantu spent a year and a half at Sacramento State before coming to USC.
When Cantu arrived on campus in 2002, USC was not a simple sell to basketball recruits. The Trojans still played at the antiquated Los Angeles Sports Arena and had only appeared in the NCAA tournament twice in the previous 10 seasons.
USC, which now plays in the Galen Center, has competed in the NCAA tournament the last four years it was eligible for postseason competition.
“[USC] has always been known as a football school, but I think we have been able to show that we are able to compete at a high level in basketball,” Cantu said.
Cantu is more than just a recruiter. He frequently works with perimeter and post players in practice, and even filled in for O’Neill as head coach during the semifinal game of the 2011 Pac-10 tournament against Arizona when O’Neill was serving a suspension.
“[Cantu] would be a great head coach,” O’Neill said. “He has earned an opportunity. He is a guy who should really skip the low or mid-major level, and start at a high-major job.”
Cantu has received head coaching offers, but is patiently waiting for the right opportunity.
“I feel I am prepared to be a head coach,” Cantu said. “The opportunity really has to be the perfect situation because I really enjoy being at USC and working for [O’Neill].”