Mr. Smith goes to Rensselaer
New coach Dave Smith has taken long road to RPI’s bench
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.”
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.