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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Gary Smith- The Defensive Coach w/ 132.4 Points

Top Scoring Teams

132.4  Redlands, 2004-5
126.5  Denver Nuggets, 1981-2
126.2  Grinnell, 2003-4
122.4  Loyola Marymount, 1989-90

Something I have always enjoyed in coaching was the opportunity to “network” with other coaches. I have enjoyed the relationships with other coaches, I guess it is sometimes a form of group therapy for us.

Last year I decided it was time for my team to get back to what we had done well in the ‘90’s- pressure defense and fastbreak basketball. I read and watched everything that Coach Arseneault has produced- books, instructional tapes, clinic tapes, practices, and games. Then I got connected with Coach Porter at Olivet Nazarene. I exchanged many emails with Coach Porter, and then went and spent a day with Coach Porter.  All of these experiences were invaluable.

Then somehow, I don’t remember exactly how, I got connected with a coach in California. Gary Smith was invaluable to me last year. After a game, I could email to him a problem we were having, and he would provide me with great ideas.  I had no idea who he was, I just knew he was respected in “Run & Gun” circles, and he was really sharp. I finally got to meet him this past October when we were both at the Grinnell basketball clinic.

Gary Smith coached at the University of the Redlands for thirty-six years where they named the basketball court for him. After retiring there, he went and worked as an assistant coach at Grinnell College for one year. Today he is a consultant for high school and college teams. He is a “defensive minded” coach. No one knows more about pressure defenses than Coach Smith. The irony is that this “defensive minded coach” coached the team that scored more points than any other college or NBA team.

What was your highest scoring team?
Our highest scoring team '04-'05 averaged 132.4 points per game.  We are not aware of anyone who has averaged over 130 per game at any level of basketball anywhere in the world so at least we can say we were the first to average over 130. 

Were you always an "uptempo" coach, or was it something you went to later in your career?
At the beginning of my career it took me 2 or 3 years to find the way I wanted to play and that was to compete with an emphasis on an aggressive pressure defense.  I was influenced by Bob Kloppenburg  (small college coach in southern california then assistant at UNLV during their big run and then with the Seattle Sonics when they set the NBA record  for turnovers created and steals).  From the early or mid 70's and up pretty much to the "system years" we switched all screens and denied all or nearly all passing lanes.  Our reputation was definitely based on our defense.  It was difficult for most teams to run a normal attack against us.  We were very deliberate on offense (5-6 passes or more) and our scores were in the 40's 50's and 60's most times up to the 90's.  We included some trapping with the switches and we, at times, used the Amoeba half court defense.  Our objective was to "control" the way the game was played by a deliberate offense and a defense that would take a team out of their normal structure.  So in many ways, perhaps you can see, where this is not so different from "system" ball and gaining "control" of the way the game is played.  In '89-'90 we went to the LMU up tempo game combining this with our switching denial defense and pressed using 9-10 players regularly.  We did that for 5-6 years winning 3 National Scoring Championships and then  reverted back to a more deliberate offense because of our talent.  Then in '02-'03 we went to the "system".

Coaching in California, how much was your style influenced by Wooden and Westhead?
John Wooden was a huge influence on the way I coached, the way I taught (basketball and my theory and activity classes within our department) and the way I lived.  From progressive teaching to emphasis on detail to structure practice plans and on and on he was a large influence on the way I/we tried to do things at Redlands.  I got to know Paul Westhead during his run at LMU and saw a good number of his practices at LMU the year before we started running that approach.  I studied his approach in detail for a year or more before adopting it in '89-'90.  It was / is a great way to play and still love it.  As a pure fast break when done with ultimate speed it a thing of beauty -- more so I think that the Grinnell offense BUT the Grinnell System is a total package (with the shifts, depth and half court trapping) that is even more exciting.

You had some teams at Redlands that put up just incredible numbers. In the college world, there have been some great scoring teams like the UNLV teams of the '90's. How were your teams able to take it to another level?
I think we differed from some other high scoring teams in the following ways:
a- the back end of our press was extremely aggressive, more so than most any team I've seen -- we used a 6-0 safety and a 6-5 safety but both were very good at covering space and anticipating -- thinking two plays ahead and were not afraid to make mistakes through gambling -- this was THE MAJOR factor I think.  Because of their play were we able to keep the pace extremely fast -- creating turnovers and yes, giving up some lay ups to the opponent.  The 6-5 safety was very quick off the floor and blocked some shots so this added a nice dimension.

b- On our made baskets we turned around right where we were and picked up the near man rather than running to spots and then picking up the near man.  We assigned a player to be UP on the ball (when we were in one of our UP Presses) and we assigned a player to the safety position (because those two guys had bought in totally to what we wanted and were great anticipators) -- the other defenders turned right where the were -- pointed at the man they were picking up and we were in the press.  We used this method first against a conference team that inbounded the ball very quickly, we were just too slow getting to them to stop the inbound pass regularly and like many good teams when they inbounded the ball where they wanted it they had excellent floor spacing and their "structure".  By using the near man concept we were able to get into lanes much better and our  denial presses  (UP deny,  Off deny) became much more effective.  By denial pressing we scrambled the court and to varying degrees dismantled the opponents structure making the whole situation much more chaotic.  We liked this approach and continued to use it vs. all opponents. 

c- Our shifts were extremely short :35 to 1 min.  we scripted 17 or 18 players normally and did not double shift our best players until late in the season and then seldom.

d- Our schedule did contribute to the opportunity to average over 130 in that we did not have many weak opponents.  One conference opponent (who we played two times) and one non conference opponent would be considered weak but the one non conference opponent we played on their floor and they led us at halftime as I remember, fortunately for us.  The rest of our schedule was vs. teams that were solid opponents for us.  The night we scored 172 was against a local team that had beaten our conference champion the previous season and the night before our game had beaten a team from the highly regarded mid Illinois D-3 conference. 

e- I don't want to sound self serving here but I was to the point in my career and with the developing system where I wanted to see how far we could go with this thing.  We never spoke with the team about setting the record until the papers picked it up later in the year, we just sold the system as an all-out approach -- nothing half way.  I was influenced by the T.S. Elliot quote "you will never know how far you can go until you've gone too far" -- a runandgun  post from a Coach from Hawaii brought that to my attention. 

f- While we did have some people who could score what did have was a very aggressive defense and a good understanding of our roles.  A 6-8 post player who prided himself in setting screens and rebounding and pressuring the ball OB.  Our point guards were smart rather that overly athletic.  Our 6-5 point was an excellent passer who perfected finding our shooters on cross court passes to fade spots and another point who was a coaches son with great court and game sense and a third who was tough and aggressive.  A good mix.  Our defense, though, was the thing that gave these point guards the opportunities to deliver in the open court and in a game  with chaotic yet structured PACE!

g- There are undoubtedly other factors but those are the ones that come to mind at the moment.

As great as your teams were at scoring points, from my conversations with you, I think you would consider yourself a defensive coach. I know from our previous conversations that you could talk for days about pressure defense. What was your defensive scheme with your high scoring teams?
My answers to the first question probably address our "scheme" adequately.  Everything was  based on PACE    relentless PACE.  We differ from Grinnell in that we do use more than one or two presses.  We use UP-Inside-out (forcing a short corner catch on the inbound) /// UP Deny /// OFF Deny /// SHORT  turn the OB defender around to help deny /// UP Stay where we don't trap the first pass in but force the dribble and then trap from behind.  We did encourage creativity from our players within each of those presses so as not to become predictable.  Within each of those there were so many adjustments or tweaks that I can't begin to remember or discuss them all.  In the half court defense we made adjustments also.  We played the pass to the corner in a couple of different ways.  We made adjustments (as discussed in the clinic at Grinnell) for those teams who were very good at spreading the floor and delaying the game.  We combined UP  to SHORT or UP to OFF in some presses and in some OB Sides and OB Unders.  As to when to make the changes it was more than anything a seat of the pants decision.  The last year at Redlands we saved more things for conference play than normal and used a 2-1-2 press with one of our platoons than might be considered a semi fake press. 

It had to be a great experience working with and for Coach Arseneault for a year. What are a few of the many things you learned during that year?
The year with Coach A was terrific.  We are opposites in some ways -- he is  much more gifted on the offensive side of the ball than I and I spend much more time with the defense.  From Coach A I learned about role playing and getting shots for your best player (s), SCRIPT and SHIFT preparation (huge input here -- he is so creative in this aspect of the game), adjusting the system to the opponent with little or no overload on the players, simplicity (particularly on defense), motivating primaries and role players, new and creative ideas for practice preparation and planning, and on and on.  In many ways I wish I had that opportunity to spend the year with him 10 years earlier so I could have applied much of that to my own teams.  It would not have affected my emphasis on defense but it would have been extremely helpful. 

Coach Aresenault always talks about making basketball fun. Obviously he has made it fun with his style. But I think what gets lost in the shuffle is how competitive he is. Would you agree with that assessment?
Without a doubt Coach A in VERY COMPETITIVE.  He can be fierce and intimidating with his team and with individuals at times and yet caring and carefree at other times. 

Despite your championships and your 100+ scoring teams, did you run into people who were offended because you were not doing something they did not fully understand?
Definitely....  I think we all do.  I was able to do it at Redlands because I'd been there a long time and had earned a degree of respect and most importantly had tenure!!!  Various e-mails from fans, some opposing fans and a couple of writers were negative and described me and the system as out of touch with reality.  Most of our fans just loved the style and the crowds on the road were one of the most amazing aspects of the experience.  When word got out that the "circus was coming to town" the crowds (on the road particularly) were much larger than usual.  Yes, people don't really understand the objectives. Parents often don't understand it.  Being so nontraditional was a challenge but one, at that stage in my career, that I enjoyed.  I had always enjoyed being a little different but this took that notion to the extreme.

All the best to you and your team,
I think Coach Smith and I share some feelings about refs!


  1. Great interview. Two of my favorite coaches, talking hoops, love it.

  2. Very interesting. It's great to get to know more about this style of basketball, and how there's a method to the madness.
    Coach Smith's "the circus is coming to town" line caught my eye. I remember as a sports writer using that term in an advance story on Grinnell coming to play Knox. Later that year, the NY Times did a feature story on Grinnell and referenced my "circus coming to town" phrase in their article.

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