November 15, 2018

Lesson Planning for the Future of Oakwood Athletics

Steve Smith, or Coach Smith as he prefers to be called, brings decades of experience as an athlete, coach, administrator, and mentor to his new role—Director of Athletics and Physical Education—at Oakwood School. A self-described “lifelong advocate and participant in athletics,” Coach credits his father Fred Smith, who played collegiately at Hawaii and was selected in the NBA draft, for instilling a love of sports in him. “He put the basketball in my hands at age two,” he recalls.

This early start propelled Coach Smith towards a successful playing career of his own, from the College of Marin and Dominican University of California on to summer pro-am leagues. He says, “On my summer league team I played with Jellybean Bryant, Kobe Bryant’s dad, and Pooh Richardson in the infamous Baker League in Philadelphia, which is one of the most famous professional amateur summer leagues in the country.” He made the team after a tryout with Sonny Hill and played well, but sustained an injury in 1988 that kept him from continuing his playing career. He adds, with humility, “I also wasn’t good enough to satisfy my own personal goal of being a professional basketball player. I like to say that I was vertically challenged, but when you look back at it, I just wasn’t quite good enough. And that’s when I started coaching. And then, I fell in love with coaching.”

In 1990 he became an assistant coach with Dominican College, but five games into the season, the head coach left and he took over the role, a position he held for the next seven seasons. From that experience, Steve learned how to turn a team around. He says, “The first years were rough, and I learned a lot. We used to play San Francisco State, UC Davis, all of those schools, and we were getting beat regularly by 40 and 50 points. But the competitor in me figured out how to get an advantage, and we did. By the time I ended my tenure at Dominican, we were winning games, beating San Francisco State, and were competitive with UC Davis and UC San Diego.”

In 1997, Coach Smith was recruited from Dominican to coach the Phoenix Mercury of the WNBA. This marked the beginning of his journey as a coach on the professional level, which took him from Phoenix to LA—where he coached the Sparks with Orlando Woolridge—then on to Detroit, back to LA, and on to his most-recent assistant coaching job with the Connecticut Sun.

During a break in his WNBA career and in stretches where he coached for the Los Angeles Sparks, Steve also served as coach and Athletic Director at Windward School, a 7–12 independent school in Mar Vista. During his time as the girls’ basketball coach, he took the team from a national ranking of approximately 3000 to the being the third ranked team in the country. From those teams, 19 athletes went on to play collegiately, and he proudly reports that two of his former players are currently in the WNBA. In addition, “Every single one of those students has a college degree, and many have their master’s. They are doctors, they’re lawyers, they are playing professionally. And, during my 16-year tenure at Windward as Athletic Director, over 130 kids went on to play collegiately in various sports and various divisions. It’s just very rewarding seeing the success of your students and players.”

This lifelong commitment not only to athletics, but to individual athletes, is central to Coach Smith’s vision for Oakwood Athletics. Of the many things he hopes to focus on here, one of the most important is to maximize athletic potential. He sees the promising futures in our students and believes it his job to make those a reality: “We need to ask an important question: are we getting the most out of our kids? Is our method of coaching and teaching dynamic and inspiring to get the best efforts out of our kids?”

Coach Smith draws parallels between academic excellence and athletic performance, saying that Oakwood students, “are at a school with high academic expectations, where they are already competing in the classroom for grades and staying focused for long periods of time to be inspired and do their best. We want to make sure we are tapping into the skillsets we know they have.”

Another parallel between the classroom and athletic field is Coach Smith’s beliefs in the crucial role that coaches play in a child’s life. “Great coaches run a practice like teachers run a classroom: with a lesson plan. You have to have a practice plan, and you have to have a vision where each and every kid on the team is going to improve from day one to day whenever. People become better coaches once they understand that you can’t have gaps in your lesson plan. And, my philosophy is to stick with it, even for five to seven minutes, whether or not we get it right. Over a duration of time, we’re going to improve, but you have to be okay with it not being 100 percent. Just know that you are going to get there. You want your teams performing at their best toward the end of the year, so you have to be patient as a coach and understand there are going to be mistakes.”

In the short time he’s been at Oakwood, Steve has already understood one of the defining characteristics of our school is how students embrace each other for their individualism. He says, “This is a nurturing environment that promotes kids being able to articulate their own voice and thoughts. There are certainly some other schools that also do that, but there are not a lot of schools that actually empower the kids to articulate their own voices in the manner that Oakwood does.” He hopes that this respect for individualism can extend also to athletics: “If a kid decides that they want to excel in a sport of choice and chooses to put extra time into that sport, I think that that student is going to be embraced and encouraged here for that choice by their classmates.”

After attending his first Town Meetings at the secondary campus, Coach Smith noted, “I think it’s an excellent platform for them to get up and to promote whatever cause it is that they are passionate about. And, I’d like to see more of our scholar athletes charging faculty to start coming out to support them. What I love about Oakwood and schools of this size is that you do have scholar athletes that participate in many different things other than just athletics. And, in doing so, hopefully that can also help to get members of the community to continue to support each other by attending a debate competition, going to the play, going to a choral performance. And, at the same time those students who might not be part of an athletic team come out to support their friends that are playing in games. And once that starts to happen, that’s when the magic starts in terms of friendships that are built to last for the next 40 years. And, I’ve seen it happen. It already happens here at Oakwood and we want to continue to embrace that and make these things even better.”

Coach Smith’s office is at the Secondary Campus, but his vision for Oakwood Athletics embraces the Elementary Campus as an integral part of the program. He would like to create opportunities for our youngest students to begin their Oakwood Athletics journey early and uses this analogy: “You know how Major League baseball has the Major League team, but they have triple A, double A, single A? We’d like to create a similar situation.” Using our girls’ basketball program as an example he says, “Angel Hardy is the girls’ varsity basketball coach. But she should also be able to start developing kids from the elementary school on up, so by the time that those kids get to 9th grade, they already have the basic fundamental skillset to compete at the high school level. That, then, allows our varsity coach, who I would call the program lead of girls’ basketball, the opportunity to be creative and to be able to teach them similarly to the transition to an AP class. Once you get into high school, now it’s AP. This allows the teacher to have that creativity to be able to push those kids to a whole new level.”

He’s happy to feel the support of so many elementary parents as well. “I see at the elementary school a really passionate parent base supporting their games and definitely wanting the entire school to know about their successes and about what’s happening down there. And that’s a good thing. We, as parents, want to see our kids happy. And whatever makes them happy makes us happy. And as a parent, if you have your child in a school where you really love the academic philosophy of the school and the character building of the school, you would like to have the best of all worlds. And if part of that world is your child’s motivation through athletics, you’d like for that to be on par with everything else.”

We are very happy that Coach Smith has joined Oakwood and has so quickly become a valued member of our community. His expertise, enthusiasm, and dedication to obtaining the best outcomes for our students are appreciated. We look forward to his leadership and to the next great era of Oakwood Athletics.