Coach Tom Smith’s legacy will always be that he’s part of a rare group to win over 600 games, but that’s only part of the reason why his tenure lasted 25 years at Western in a profession as cutthroat as coaching college basketball.
It’s a game where even the legends are often forced out early. According to Smith, the reason for being able to survive at one place while most others can’t all boils down to his ability to get along with people.
“I haven’t had more than two or three meetings with an athletic director or a president,” Smith said. “So I’ve never been in their office asking for anything or fought with them. I think that has made it possible to survive six athletic directors and three presidents.”
“That’s the most difficult thing to do is can you get along with six different personalities that come in here and are the boss and three different presidents that all may have different ideas,” Smith said.
That’s a luxury that he didn’t have when coaching at his alma matter Division I Valparaiso, a place where he played basketball and was elected into the Hall of Fame last season.
The school was D-I in classification only as the team traveled by van and had very little money to spend on trips recruiting the type of talent that it takes to build a winner.
Smith’s passion was coaching basketball and he was tired of fighting for so many things that didn’t have to do with playing the game to get the program up to the standards that would allow it to be successful at the D-I level.
“When I came here one of the things I made my mind up about is I was not going to fight those things,” Smith said. “I wanted to coach my players. I wanted to have the relationship with my players that I think I’ve had over the last 25 years. I didn’t want to fight administration. I took what I had and didn’t get into the other things.”
Smith became the third ever head coach at Western in 1988 when the school was in its last season in the NAIA. The success started immediately as the Griffons made it all the way to the finals of the District 16 playoffs.
The very next season in the school’s first year as a member of Division II, Smith led the Griffons to the MIAA regular season and tournament championship and a birth in the NCAA tournament. He has coached the Griffons to 11 NCAA tournaments, five MIAA regular season titles and four MIAA postseason championships as well as being named MIAA Coach of the Year three times. 12 times he coached Western to a 20 plus win season.
Besides a few exceptions, Smith always went to the junior college ranks to find his players. He credits his three assistant coaches for recruiting the players over the years.
He built a reputation for being able to lose key players off of good teams while finding a way to keep winning with new talent who had no prior experience on the court together.
“I think most coaches and people would say the ability to change my team and bring in four or five new guys every year and still be successful,” Smith said. “I think that was probably my biggest attribute.”
He had athletic players and gave them the freedom to do what they could do as opposed to always running a set offense. Something that he thinks most people have a bit of a misperception about.
“Its kind of funny because I’ve read so many things that we are a real uptempo team and we’re not,” Smith said. “Freedom is one thing and I’ve been successful here many years giving a lot of freedom.”
“We aren’t really a great fast break team even in the good years,” Smith said. “The thing that surprises most people is that we are a lot more disciplined than fans think we are. Some of that is stereotyped into the type of players we have.
This is something that Smith admits hasn’t brought the same type of success the last six or seven years as it once did even though his teams have still been competitive. Senior guard James Harris wants to do everything he can to send Smith off on a winning note in his season coaching the game that’s been a part of his life since day one.
“We are trying to get him a ring before he leaves and we want one just as bad as he does,” Harris said. “He’s a real cool guy. He gets on you, but all he’s doing is trying to challenge you as a man. I respect him as an individual and as a coach.”
When Smith came to Western, he never imagined that it would be the last job he would take in his career. He thought that he would bounce back up to D-I. He was offered head coaching jobs there quickly after winning right away at Western.
But each time he thought about leaving and making the jump, he started to see all the same red flags that he saw while running the Valparaiso program for eight years. That and he had a good thing going.
“I enjoy the quality of life that goes along with Division II,” Smith said. “Just the freedom to be able to do what I wanted to do – to coach — and I didn’t have to teach a lot or do a lot of fund raising. There were not a lot of other demands on me other than my coaching.”
Athletic Direct Kurt McGuffin believes that Smith has made the job an attractive one for whoever takes over and expects there to be plenty of candidates to choose from.
“You may see it at the very top levels, but you don’t see it this level much and to do that is pretty special,” McGuffin said. “He’s won a lot of games and has a lot of players that come back and he’s a neat guy. He’s done everything I’ve ever asked and that anybody before me has asked.”
As for his retirement, Smith doesn’t know exactly what he’s going to do yet. Basketball has always been his thing and he doesn’t hunt, fish, play much golf or have any hobbies. His love for the game won’t change and he will enjoy watching MIAA games more than the stress of coaching them.
“I would really like to be able to watch games without a dog in the hunt,” Smith said. “I think it will be more fun with some popcorn and a coke and just watch the game and enjoy it.”