Thirty-two years on the same job can offer some less-than-obvious perks.
For Oak Hill Academy basketball coach Steve Smith and his wife, Lisa, it means that they get the opportunity to attend a lot of summer weddings. “I’ve lost track,” Smith said, chuckling during a recent phone conversation from his office on the school’s campus in Mouth of Wilson in Virginia.
Of course, the answer to “how many weddings of 100s of former Oak Hill players have you attended?”, had he contemplated a minute or two longer, would have been something between a lot and a whole lot.
“We just got invitations from Nolan Smith (a first-round NBA draft pick out of Duke and now an assistant with the Blue Devils) and Tyler Lewis (a senior guard at Butler),” he said of a couple of former Warriors’ guards. “So we’ve got at least two to go to next summer.”
Smith, who spent two years as an assistant coach to Larry Davis (now on Mick Cronin’s staff at the University of Cincinnati), came into this season with a mind-boggling record of 1,026-65.
Only 65 losses in 31 seasons – he’s probably been to as many Oak Hill alumni weddings in that stretch. His teams have finished atop various national rankings nine times. He’s coached 29 McDonald’s All-Americans – and that number could grow by a couple in January – and coached 25 players (including Kevin Durant, who attended Oak Hill for just his junior year) who were drafted by NBA franchises.
Eight of his former players – Durant, Rajon Rondo, Steve Blake, Michael Beasley, Carmelo Anthony, Brandon Jennings, Ty Lawson and Troy Williams – were on NBA rosters to start this season.
But he’d rather measure those 32 years – 34, including his two-year stint on Davis’ staff – in terms of friendships rather than wins, championships and pros. Like so many teachers and coaches who have stayed in one place for very long and have impacted the people they come in contact with in a positive fashion. “When people ask me what I enjoy most about coaching, I tell them, it’s not the games or championships you’ve won,” he said. “With so many players through the years, you’re a father figure to some, as well as a coach and mentor. You’re a lot of things.”
Over the past 32 years, Oak Hill’s basketball program has developed into a fraternity. “All the old guys know about the new guys (in the program). It’s funny. They’ll argue among themselves about who had the better team. They want to know what I think but I never tell them.” He laughed. “I don’t want to offend any of them,” he said. “I’m just grateful for the chance to coach all of them.”
Smith used to teach seven classes daily but now, as the athletic director of the approximately 160-student boarding school and head of one of the most high-profile high school athletic programs in the country, he spends a big portion of his day in his trophy and memento-lined office. As on this particular Thursday morning, he spends a lot of time on the telephone on school-related business and with college coaches and media members.
And, yes, he hears from a lot of former Warriors – from NBA players to “pros” in a whole lot of varied professions. They might be just calling to say ‘hi’, to ask for some advice or to just say thanks. “I get those calls every day,” he said in the accent with a twang that speaks so succinctly to his Kentucky roots and the more than 30 years he’s spent just north of the North Carolina-Virginia border with the glow of Blue Ridge Mountains greeting him every morning.
Almost heaven – indeed.
“You get these calls,” he continued, “and it’s kind of neat that they still want your opinion. They’re a little older now. They tell you how much they appreciate the things you told them and tried to teach them – even if they didn’t think so 20 years ago. “Some of the guys you hear from, you’re kind of surprised. You didn’t think you had that kind of impact on them, say, 25 years ago. But then they tell you how much you meant to them.”
That story surprises Seth Greenberg in the least.
“Coach Smith is one of the most genuine people I’ve met and he’s as likeable a person as I’ve been around,” said the ESPN analyst and former head college coach (Long Beach State, South Florida and Virginia Tech) said with just-as-genuine enthusiasm. “His ability to connect with people, to earn their trust and forge relationships . . . it sets him apart from so many others.”
That’s what’s remained static even as high school and prep school basketball – on and off the court – has seemingly constantly evolved in those 30-plus years. “As a coach I remember I used to run about 30 different sets in my offense,” Smith said. “I was a typical controlling kind of coach, like all of us who started coaching in the 1970s were. “But now you have to give kids more freedom. You spread the floor and let the kids be more creative because they’re more athletic now. Even the bigger guys are quicker. You’ve got to let them play. And an up-tempo game is more exciting to play and watch.”
As for off the court, Smith views the abundance of transfers as more than just a college basketball trend. “What I see is there are so many guys transferring so frequently – it’s rare that you see a guy at the same school for four years,” he said, of course alluding to the programs his teams play or that he follows. “If guys don’t feel they’re being used right or they don’t like the style of play, they’ll look around and they leave.”
Of course, the Warriors are the recipients of a large number of transfers themselves, including a most notable one – including forward Billy Preston, who last week committed to Kansas and is a key element to a team many believe is the best in the country.
“We get calls from (or about) kids every daily asking about coming to Oak Hill,” Smith said. “The first I ask them is ‘why are you transferring?’ If they say, ‘because of the coach’, I’m not going to say that means we’re not going to take him. But it’s a red flag to me. What happens when the first thing goes wrong (here)? Is he going to be saying the same thing about me?”
Not that he has much to worry about. “That hasn’t happened much here,” he said. “We’ve had a few guys leave (or been asked to leave) but not many. They come to Oak Hill for a reason – they want to get better, as a player and as a student.”
Being at one place for 34 years is something beyond rare these days on any level of basketball. If a coach is successful enough so that he isn’t told that a principal or athletic director “wants to go in another direction”, it means that he’s going to have a lot of other options. Smith had those options – several of them, actually. “When I took this job, I figured I’d be ‘that guy’ (who moves onto to a college job as quickly as possible),” he said.
He had plenty of those options, but not many that he’s giving serious consideration to, since 1986. “I’m good friends with Tubby Smith,” he said of the now-head coach at Memphis, previously the head honcho at Minnesota, Kentucky, South Carolina, Tulsa and Virginia Commonwealth. When Tubby Smith was leaving VCU, he called me and told me that his athletic director wanted him to ask me if I would be interested in replacing him,” Smith said.
It was equal parts humbling and tempting – he’d only been Oak Hill’s head coach for two years. But he and Lisa and their children, Sean and Stephanie – then about 4 and 3 – were on vacation at the time he heard from Tubby Smith. He declined the offer, thinking he’d revisit the topic “once my kids were out of school,” he said.
Thirty years later, he’s still at Oak Hill and a grandfather of boys, ages 2 years and six months, and actively thinking about his coaching career coming to an end – at Oak Hill or anywhere else. “I’m not going to coach much longer – at the max, just three or four years more,” he said. “I’m not going to be one of those guys who coaches into his 80s.”
He’s floated that to friends who have a hard time taking him seriously. Why would he walk away, at the top of his game – he’s been nominated for induction into the Naismith Hall of Fame – at a program in which he gets to coach some of the very best teen-aged basketball players in the world?
“They ask me, what would you do if you quit?” he said. He’s got a ready answer.“I want to make sure I leave the program in great shape for one of my assistants to take over,” he said.
“But (upon retirement), I’ll play some golf. And I’m also going to spend a lot of time with my grandkids.” No doubt, though, he’ll continue fielding phone calls from a whole lot of members of that extended Oak Hill family of his – and attending a lot of summer weddings.