By Martin Cleary
It’s March, 2023, and Dave Smart is in his element.
There are university playoff and championship basketball games all around him on both sides of the Canadian and American border.
On the second weekend of the month, the Carleton University Ravens had just won their 17th U Sports national championship and Smart was again part of that unparalleled success. It was his third Canadian title as the Ravens’ director of basketball operations, after winning 13 men’s championships as head coach.
The following three Thursday to Sunday weekends in March were dedicated to the NCAA Division 1 men’s championship. At about the same time, the National Invitational Tournament for non-NCAA qualifiers was in full swing.
On the third Tuesday of March, the NCAA tournament was at rest. But Smart found an NIT match to feed his basketball appetite and he would later learn the true value of tuning into that quarterfinal game, which saw the University of North Texas defeat Oklahoma State University 65-59.
Smart was enthralled by the play of North Texas.
“I liked how they defended and how hard they played,” added Smart, who continued to follow the Mean Green as they won the semifinals 61-58 over University of Wisconsin and the tournament final 68-61 over the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Smart, who was so impressed by the North Texas play that he watched several regular-season games on video to get a better understanding of the team, didn’t know head coach Grant McCasland at the time.
But he was about to.
That NIT championship victory completed McCasland’s sixth season as head coach at North Texas and would be his final game with the Mean Green. A day after North Texas won the NIT title, McCasland signed a six-year contract with Texas Tech University, which is located in Lubbock, Texas.
During the past four months, McCasland filled his bench staff with young, energetic assistants like Matt Braeuer, Achoki Moikobu and Luke Barnewll. On Tuesday, McCasland added experience to his assistants lineup with the hiring of Smart, who had been connected with the Carleton men’s basketball program from 1996 to 2023.
“Dave Smart is one of the greatest coaches in all of basketball,” McCasland said in the university press release. “We are thrilled to have him as part of our program.
“Coach Smart’s ability to win speaks for itself, but his understanding of how to help people grow is what separates him. We are thankful to have he and his family in Lubbock.”
Smart, who took a sabbatical during the 2015-16 OUA season and travelled in NCAA basketball circles to develop his game, was always open to taking a big step in coaching, if the right opportunity presented itself.
“I put my name out there and had a few offers and opportunities,” Smart told High Achievers in a phone interview Wednesday. “Then I had one from Texas Tech. It was hard to pass up.
“It’s the Big 12 (conference). It’s bigger and better. It’s the best conference in the U.S. And I really like Grant.
“The assistants are an incredible group. It was a good fit for me. The assistants were super keen and good guys. I hope to tap into their energy and I hope they can tap into my experience.”
Smart, 57, has already moved to Lubbock, Texas, a university city with a population of more than 260,000, with his wife Emily and boys Theo, 13, and Gabriel, 11, who will play hockey an hour away in Amarillo for the 2023-24 season. Texas Tech University has an enrolment of more than 63,000 students.
Networking played a big role in Smart taking a big step in his basketball career.
“A couple of his (McCasland’s) close friends are close with some of my friends. He (McCasland) spoke to them and they recommended me,” Smart added. “He had me down (for a visit) and I loved his energy and how he operated.”
For 27 seasons at Carleton, including three as assistant coach to Paul Armstrong (1996-97 to 1998-99), Smart ran practices and coached games in the multi-purpose Norm Fenn Gym and the more modern Ravens’ Nest. Both have bleacher seating for about 2,000 spectators.
Smart said Texas Tech University has a $35-million practice venue dedicated to the basketball program. The games are played across the street in a 15,000-seat arena. The Red Raiders averaged 13,222 fans a game during the 2022-23 season, which is ranked No. 1 in the state of Texas and 21st nationally.
Inducted into the Ottawa Sport Hall of Fame during a virtual, televised ceremony in 2020, Smart developed and coached numerous players who became OUA and U Sports all-stars and award winners, signed pro contracts in Europe and Canada and were named to international teams to represent Canada.
During his 19 years as the Ravens’ head coach, his record for wins and winning percentage are either at the top of the list or ranked second or third.
Smart guided the Ravens to 384 victories in the OUA (ranked No. 3 among all U Sports coaches for wins), 591 wins in all games against U Sports teams (No. 2) and 656 wins for total triumphs (No. 3).
But when it came to winning percentage, Smart was ranked No. 1 across the board – 384-26 for 0.937 in OUA regular-season play, 591-48 for 0.925 for all games against U Sports teams, and 656-101 for 0.867 for all total games.
Smart’s achievements, which also earned him stints with the Canadian men’s national team and a Great Britain junior team, brought him nine OUA East Division and three OUA coach-of-the-year awards, and nine U Sports coach-of-the-year honours.
The Ravens dominated the OUA regular season, winning either the East or North division pennants in 18 of 19 seasons. For eight seasons, the Ravens were undefeated.
From 2002-05, the Ravens were unbeatable, setting a Canadian men’s university record of 87 consecutive league and playoff wins.
In the basketball off-season, Smart was an assistant coach to Jay Triano with the Canadian men’s national team from 2012-16, studied under NBA and NCAA coaches and was the Canadian men’s U18 national head coach in 2018. He also coached Ontario boys’ age-group teams for eight years and attended the 1997 Canada Summer Games in Brandon.
Smart is a diligent reviewer of game videos and an innovator on both sides of the court, giving his players an extra advantage. He emphasizes drill repetition and, if the players worked hard in practices, he promised no dryland training.
Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 50 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.
When the pandemic struck, Martin created the High Achievers “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at OttawaSportsPages.ca.
Martin can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com and on Twitter @martincleary.
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