Cory Van Dyke 08/26/2020
The Coaching Journey - Steve Smiley Northern Colorado
It was supposed to be a standard, joyous occasion in front of a handful of supporters and local media. Steve Smiley was being introduced as the new head coach for the University of Northern Colorado.
He sat in the center of the dark gymnasium with the logoed backdrop, socially distanced from the university president, Andy Feinstein, to his right, and athletic director, Darren Dunn, to his left. The only other people present are the video crew and Smiley’s family off in the distance. This is the reality of a coaching hire in the middle of a pandemic.
Smiley estimates it may have been the first virtual introductory press conference across the nation. While the circumstances were unlike anything Smiley could have planned or imagined, it was still the fulfillment of his goal to become a Division I basketball head coach.
“I think my why is that I just love to [coach],” Smiley said. “If I didn’t love to do it, then I’d certainly do something different. It’s a fun profession, but it’s time-consuming, it’s stressful, and you can never turn the faucet off. I think going through all the different levels, I’ve been at NAIA-DI, NAIA-DII, NCAA-DI and DII, junior college, and at all those levels I always loved where I was at. I just think when you find something you enjoy doing and you can make a profession out of it, you just go for it.”
Like Smiley alluded to, it’s been a long and arduous journey to this point where he’s preparing to lead the Bears into battle. A journey that’s spanned across nearly every level of college basketball. And one that might not have come to fruition if not for a brief stop in Laredo, Texas.
After a standout playing career as a point guard at Northern State, Smiley headed south to Texas A&M International to get his MBA. Head coach Tarvish Felton fielded a small staff, so Smiley figured his services could be useful as a volunteer. It ended up being the launching pad into a coaching career.
“Probably about a week into it just being back on the court, working out players, and being around it, it just clicked with me that what I really wanted to do is coach and be in the game,” Smiley said. “I would say that was the first moment for sure that I knew I wanted to coach.”
Once he completed his MBA, Smiley found himself back at his alma mater in Aberdeen, South Dakota. It was here where he became an assistant coach under the same larger-than-life figure who coached him a couple years prior. Don Meyer, one of the winningest college basketball coaches of all-time with 923 career victories, welcomed Smiley back with open arms.
Meyer’s reputation preceded him. It’s the reason why basketball luminaries like John Wooden, Dick Bennett, Morgan Wootten, and Pat Summitt made the trek to South Dakota for Meyer’s annual basketball camps.
“Coach Meyer is probably pretty good if all these titans of the game are coming up to our very small town in the middle of nowhere to share the game because of coach Meyer,” Smiley said. “When you were a player and he was a coach, you just got your head down working. Like anything else in life, when you have a chance to sit back and reflect on it, you think, ‘Wow, that was an unbelievable time.’”
It was a time where Smiley dealt with the demanding and rugged expectations, but also immense love from Meyer. While Smiley had to earn a living as an admissions rep for the university in the midst of coaching, he was continually learning about the game of basketball and life under the watch of Meyer. It’s why after two years as an assistant, he was prepared to make the jump to a head coach at the junior college level.
“I had the itch that I really wanted to be a head coach,” Smiley said. “It’s what we all want to do and it’s just so hard to do. You have to get really lucky. I had the itch to do it. I was looking for different junior college jobs in the state of Wyoming. It has very good junior college basketball and for me being from Colorado and my wife is from Wyoming, it made some sense if we could ever get tapped into that.”
Fate or not, the Sheridan College job opened, and Meyer just so had a deep bond with long-time Sheridan legend Bruce Hoffman. It opened the door for Smiley and he took care of the rest, using his energy and business skills to become the right man for the job.
“I think what Sheridan was looking for was the youth and I think also going back to my degree of getting an MBA, part of the Sheridan job you have to be the athletic director,” Smiley said. “For me with my business background, sales, marketing and all that different stuff, that really was appealing to the college and Sheridan in that capacity. It’s just funny how that all works.”
Over the next six seasons, Smiley commanded a winning program, going 153-43 with four North Sub-Region 9 titles. Those seasons that Smiley and Co. didn’t win the title? The Bruins finished as runner-up.
Still, the wins and losses were great, but menial in the big picture. Smiley’s impact extended far beyond the results on the court.
“[Junior college is] a tremendous level,” Smiley said. “I think people think, ‘Oh, it’s just junior college basketball. Everyone either has bad grades or kids have gotten in trouble.’ And that couldn’t be further from the truth.
“Some of the kids that I’m still closest to years and years later are probably kids that I coached in junior college. It’s their first two years in college. They really need a mentor at that point in time because they’re young. I would just say the relationships you build at that level are truly life-changing.”
All good things must come to an end, though. It was time for Smiley to make the jump to the Division I level, even if it meant taking a step back into an assistant role. That’s exactly where he landed at Weber State under the Big Sky’s all-time winningest coach in Randy Rahe.
In 2016, Smiley transitioned to Northern Colorado as the associate head coach under Jeff Linder. Each step along the way, toughness was ingrained in Smiley’s brain as a key cornerstone under both Rahe and Linder. He saw how a team adopts the personality of its head coach. Little by little, Smiley was being molded into a Division I head coach.
“Probably the best way to learn a head coach is to do it, but six years [at Sheridan] and especially when you’re so insulated geographically, you don’t have a lot of time for that professional development that you would like to have,” Smiley said. “When you have a chance to step back and work for people, the key is ‘who are you working for?’ I was lucky to work for two tremendous coaches.”
And so when Linder left Northern Colorado for the University of Wyoming job, Smiley was the obvious choice for those in command of the search. Over the last four years with the Bears, Smiley was a big piece of the program that won 20 or more games in the last three seasons including a program-best 15 Big Sky victories in 2018-2019 and 2019-2020.
Now, he’s tasked with leading the Bears through all the uncertainty due to COVID-19. Smiley is still one to borrow a trick or two from Meyer. Equipped with a similar type-A personality, he keeps his many lists handy and plans each week in advance.
"[Meyer] really burned in our minds that you have to be organized, you have to have some vision,” Smiley said. “He was adamant that you had to plan your week on Sunday night, so you walked into that week knowing what you were going to do. … I think that’s one thing I took away from him as a player and coach that people don’t realize that I use to this day every single day.”
Assistant coaches have different relationships with their players than the head coach does. It’s one of the key hurdles that Smiley will have to maneuver in his first year on the job.
“I’m very close with a lot of them and a lot were guys I recruited two years prior to them even arriving to campus,” Smiley said. “The relationship is always there and they’re mature to know the role will change, but who I am won’t change. All I know is how to be me.
“It does take time to view a person in a different role and a different light. It’s definitely a challenge. We’re just working on that on a daily basis and I think it goes back to a respect level and a trust level. Our players know ‘Are you competent in the knowledge part of it?’ and then ‘Can we trust you?’ That’s a big piece of today’s athlete.”
It’s a different position in a unique and challenging year for Smiley. Nothing is being done the way it was in the past with some team’s being able to practice and others nowhere close to that point. Even his introductory press conference was anything but normal. Still, in the midst of all the unpredictability around him, Smiley’s goals are unwavering.
“My goal is to continue to be good at what I do and stay in the profession to impact lives,” Smiley said. “Just really take it a day at a time and one practice at a time and one game at a time. I know right now I’m having a blast and just looking for ways to try to continue to get better.”