Dave Smart (on coaching, culture & talent)

Dave Smart knew early that basketball coaching was what he wanted to do. A fine and funky player — he led the nation in scoring, and has Queen’s University’s all-time leading scoring average — Smart didn’t even use all his years of Canadian Interuniversity Sport eligibility. He’d likely shrug and agree with the fans of his Carleton University’s chief rivals at the University of Ottawa, who’ve been known to chant, Not so Smart! Not so Smart!

He sees the game at a genius level, and never lets his players relax. (Andrew Vaughan photo, CP)

He sees the game at a genius level, and never lets his players relax. (Andrew Vaughan photo, CP)

While he may not have been an academic superstar, the man is brilliant and a relentlessly insistent mentor. You may have heard: his teams at Carleton, never previously a basketball power, were winning national championships by his fourth season after taking the helm in his early 30s, and they’ve never stopped. That first title began streaks of five straight championships, thirteen consecutive national semifinals, and ten titles in the last 12 seasons. If that number sounds familiar, it tied one of the most storied records in the history of sport: John Wooden’s UCLA Bruin teams (Abdul-Jabbar, Walton, etc.) cut down NCAA nets in 10 of the Wizard of Westwood’s last dozen campaigns. The Ravens, with a win tonight, will play for an eleventh title in 13 years tomorrow. (My rundown on the opening round of the tournament, Carleton’s 40-point win, and the only two teams with a real chance to knock them off is here.)

So, yeah. He’s pretty good, and I’ve been studying why. I’m starting to get it.And unlike, say, the University of Kentucky, the dominant American program, it’s not by massive injections of overwhelming athletic talent. While his team this year has two outstanding players in the Scrubb brothers, it hasn’t been a recruiting carousel at Carleton. A lot of athletes couldn’t stand his non-stop coaching and tree-top expectations. In a recent newspaper interview, Coach Smart offered a tribute to players on his first team — one that ended with a losing record — and thoughts on creating the Ravens milieu, in which excellence is a given, competitive greatness is required, and basketball perfection is the never-ending goal:

“We weren’t great our first year, but the culture was unbelievable and that set the tone for the rest of this time. It doesn’t matter what sport you’re coaching. It doesn’t matter where you are when you start coaching that sport. The number one thing is you have to get culture. It’s culture before talent.”

Dave Smart (b. 1966) was already coaching high school ball, very successfully, before he went to Queen’s University for an abbreviated but starry career. Passed over for the Queen’s job in his twenties, he ended up going to Carleton. 

Comments (3)

  1. Karl King

    It was a blessing for Smart to be passed over on the Queen’s job. Similar to Toronto, Queen’s students require far higher grade averages for admission than Carleton does, I would imagine, and I’m sure that would affect recruiting over the years. Just a theory, but similar to Brock (two National championships), the admissions standards may be a factor in recruiting. Thoughts?

    • There is likely truth to what you say, Captain King, and to Brock could be added Brandon, maybe some of the Atlantic schools that have won. I don’t know, but I have heard that Carleton is not the “Last-chance U” that it was once commonly thought to be.

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