Mr. Smith goes to Rens­se­laer

New coach Dave Smith has taken long road to RPI’s bench

The Record (Troy, NY) - - SPORTS - By Sam Blum sblum@dig­i­tal­first­media.com On Twit­ter @SamBlum3

It had been 12 years since the card in Jaymie Har­ring­ton’s hand had served its true pur­pose. Twelve years since he, and all of his team­mates had been re­quired to read from it, with its words pledg­ing loy­alty to a Cani­sius hockey pro­gram about to turn a corner.

Still, Har­ring­ton, now a hockey coach him­self, kept that card and had it read­ily avail­able more than a decade later. It was a card that then­head coach Dave Smith handed out to all the play­ers at the start of his very first head coach­ing job.

Smith had spent seven years as an as­sis­tant coach at three dif­fer­ent pro­grams, in­ter­view­ing, but get­ting passed over for mul­ti­ple head coach­ing jobs at mul­ti­ple lev­els. When he fi­nally got a chance to lead at Cani­sius, he came pre­pared to hold the pro­gram and its play­ers ac­count­able. That’s why he made those cards, and had ev­ery­one read them in front of all their team­mates.

“This guy was pre­pared,” said Har­ring­ton, a forward on Smith’s first team at Cani­sius. “He knew what he wanted to do. He had a plan in place. That’s why he got the job. And that’s why he was suc­cess­ful at the job. He was pre­pared for what was ahead.”

Smith in­her­ited a Cani­sius team in tur­moil. The pre­vi­ous head coach, Brian Ca­vanaugh, was fired in the mid­dle of his 23rd sea­son af­ter a slew of com­plaints against him. Smith had to come in and es­tab­lish his own cul­ture of ac­count­abil­ity. One that in­volved him and his coach­ing staff go­ing to class­rooms to record play­ers’ at­ten­dance.

fi­nally left Cani­sius af­ter tak­ing them to the NCAA Tour­na­ment. Now, he’s en­ter­ing a some-ways-dif­fer­ent, some-ways-sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tion at RPI. Dif­fer­ent be­cause the pro­gram has tasted the ul­ti­mate suc­cess of two na­tional ti­tles. Sim­i­lar in the state of its cur­rent fu­til­ity, coming off an eightwin sea­son. Smith took this job as the next step in a ca­reer that, at times, might have looked like it would never blos­som.

But as he steps on the bench for the first time as an RPI coach on Fri­day at Ohio State, his alma mater, he’ll do so with decades worth of prepa­ra­tion lead­ing up that mo­ment.

“Re­gard­less of who or what was here be­fore, (I want to get it to) my way and my cul­ture and my en­vi­ron­ment,” Smith said. “...I’m con­fi­dent that we can find suc­cess with it. That’s the big­gest par­al­lel. I’ve done it be­fore. There’s some fa­mil­iar­ity, which tells me there’s some sim­i­lar­i­ties... At RPI, they’ve been to the top of the moun­tain. We need to re-paint that pic­ture. We need to show our play­ers how ev­ery de­tail mat­ters.”

But be­fore Smith was the no-non­sense rule-mak­ing head coach, he was the stub­born rule-break­ing fresh­man player at Ohio State. Then-Buck­eyes head coach de­scribed it as “two Al­pha-males in the same corner.” Smith, a teenager at the time, had no is­sue tak­ing out his frus­tra­tions on the coach or his team­mates.

To­day Smith says that his stub­born­ness is “mar­ried to my be­lief in my­self.” But at that age, it man­i­fested it­self as a player who wanted to do ev­ery­thing. It man­i­fested it­self in way that led to him fight­ing with team­mates in prac­tice — one time Welsh told him he could fight, but he’d have to fight un­til Welsh told them to stop. Welsh, too, was a stub­born in­di­vid­ual.

“I set the edge. It was a hard edge,” Welsh said. “He hit that a cou­ple of times in the early go­ing. We had some one-on-one, face-to-face time that you would not ex­pect to be do­ing with a fresh­man. Nor­mally you’re just try­ing to teach that kid where to go to class.”

Now Smith says he likes to re­cruit play­ers of a sim­i­lar ilk. Ones with a stub­bor­ness born out of a be­lief in their abil­i­ties.

It’s the same be­lief that kept Smith coming back to a pro­fes­sion that seemed to have lit­tle room at the high­est level for him. Smith was passed over for nu­mer­ous head coach­ing po­si­tions. The first was in 1999, af­ter serv­ing as an as­sis­tant coach at Mi­ami (OH) for a year, the head coach­ing job opened up. In­stead of pro­mot­ing Smith, the school hired En­rico Blasi, who was two years younger. Smith stayed on for one more sea­son. At Bowl­ing Green, head coach Buddy Pow­ers left af­ter the 2002 sea­son, Smith didn’t get that job ei­ther. He said he in­ter­viewed for nu­mer­ous jobs all over the coun­try at the Di­vi­sion III level, but all to no avail.

Dur­ing his ten­ure as a Mer­cy­hurst as­sis­tant, he went to the head coach, Rick Gotkin, and told him he was go­ing to fo­cus on his youngest daugh­ter and fo­cus on help­ing Gotkin at Mer­cy­hurst.

“It took a lit­tle air out of the bal­loon, if you will,” Smith said. “I’m not go­ing to try so hard. It’ll come, I was pas­sion­ate. I didn’t doubt my­self, and Coach Gotkin re­ally gave me a lot to do there, a lot of re­spon­si­bil­ity.”

While Smith didn’t doubt him­self, he didn’t pur­sue op­por­tu­ni­ties with the same vigor that he had in the early stages of his coach­ing ca­reer. When the Cani­sius job opened up, Gotkin stuck his neck out to make it hap­pen for Smith. He reached out to John Mad­dock, an as­so­ciate ath­letic di­rec­tor at Cani­sius at a time when a lot of peo­ple were throw­ing their hat in the ring for job.

“He is a smart man,” Gotkin said. “I think if Dave Smith was run­ning your com­pany, you’d be suc­cess­ful. His or­ga­ni­za­tional abil­i­ties, the way he can com­mu­ni­cate. He re­ally brings out the best in peo­ple. He’s a very con­fi­dent guy and he knows ex­actly what he wants to do. The big­gest ob­sta­cle that I thought Dave would have is that there are just not a lot of head coach­ing jobs in col­lege hockey. But the op­por­tu­nity was able to present it­self.”

Trevor Large was hired on to Smith’s staff at Cani­sius at the start of the 2014. Just two weeks in, the Golden Griffins fell be­hind 3-0 af­ter the first pe­riod in a game at Army. Large re­mem­bers think­ing to him­self, “this is go­ing to be a good gauge of ‘What is Dave Smith like as a coach? Is he calm, is he yeller? How is this go­ing to go?’” Large says he’ll never for­get the in­ter­mis­sion, walk­ing in, cu­ri­ous to see what would come next.

“Dave said, ‘We can’t play for them.” It was very calm. His mes­sage was very calm to the team. I can tell you that they ap­pre­ci­ate that. We played bet­ter in the sec­ond and third pe­riod. But he un­der­stands how to con­nect with peo­ple. He un­der­stands how to con­nect with play­ers. They are go­ing to play for him, and he’s go­ing to push them forward.”

Cani­sius went on to score six of the next seven goals and win that game, 6-4. Large is now the head coach at Cani­sius, tak­ing over in Smith’s ab­sence but hav­ing learned a lot from his men­tor of three sea­sons.

When Smith talks about a cul­ture change at RPI, he knows it might bring anx­i­ety with it. Seven play­ers from last year’s team who had el­i­gi­bil­ity to re­turn aren’t on this year’s ros­ter — mostly by Smith’s choos­ing. An RPI as­sis­tant of nine years was fired, too. Many of the play­ers that are left have dif­fer­ent roles and re­spon­si­bil­i­ties. Cre­at­ing change in a fig­u­ra­tive sense have meant tan­gi­ble changes to the per­son­nel on the ice. When Smith first got the job, he had a five-minute meet­ing with his two as­sis­tant coaches and was up front and hon­est. He said he didn’t re­ally know ei­ther of them, but that he’d take some time to get to know them and “go from there.”

Smith has made changes. They weren’t easy. There’s a new as­sis­tant coach, only 10 ju­niors and se­niors and 19 fresh­men and sopho­mores. Smith doesn’t know if his team will com­pete with the best in the ECAC. But his suc­cess won’t be mea­sured by this sea­son. He’s just go­ing to use ev­ery­thing he’s learned from ev­ery step in his ca­reer to start the process of turn­ing RPI into the hockey pro­gram that it used to be.

“To much is earned, much is ex­pected. I’ve earned this op­por­tu­nity, and I’m ex­pected to give them my best,” Smith said. “I’m here to help them. And that obli­ga­tion, I think, is what comes when you’re a head coach.”

SAM BLUM - SBLUM@DIG­I­TAL­FIRST­MEDIA.COM

First-year RPI coach Dave Smith, left, and the Engi­neers will open their sea­son Fri­day night for the first of two games at Ohio State.

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