Q&A With ... RPI Coach Dave Smith
Rensselaer recently hired Dave Smith, formerly of Canisius, as its new head coach. The process including the use of a hiring search firm, something that is regularly done for basketball and football, but not normally for hockey. The process also raised the ire of hockey alumni, who felt they weren't being included in the process and were concerned the school wasn't devoting the proper resources to the sport anymore, and they made their voices heard in a local newspaper article before the hire was made.
But Smith said he is very comfortable with how things were handled, and going forward with the Engineers.
CHN: Are you comfortable that RPI is committing the resources necessary to hockey?
Smith: I reached out to a lot of people, internally and around college hockey and around the ECAC. And the feedback that I got was ... I was very confident that RPI is positioned financially and emotionally for a big-time commitment.
CHN: The other curious thing was about the process. A big topic of conversation was the use of a hiring search firm that isn't common for hockey. So how was the process?
Smith: After the season, I got a call from the search firm. I asked what this was all about. Not only what is this all about, but who are these guys (Parker). And I quickly found out that they're in the top of the profession in the search business and they're extremely respected. And I said, "OK, that's a good first step." Along the way what was confirmed to me, the depth that they were inquiring about me — not just to me, but to people that have been around me, and around our program, and even when I was an assistant, the level of people they spoke with — they knew exactly what Dave Smith stood for, who I was, what was good what wasn't good. And I believe RPI entered into this relationship with the confidence knowing all of those things as well. So I was very happy with the inquisitive search firm, because for me — and some people could say I wasn't the lead horse out of the gate — but for me, without that exhaustive search, I might not be in this position. Because often in this business we say, "Man, if they could just get to know me. If they would just understand where I've been and what I'm doing." So I do believe that exhaustive search was beneficial to me.
CHN: Yeah because people will say, "Who are these guys, what do they know." But it sounds like they did their homework, which has to be comforting.
Smith: Absolutely. They did their homework and then did their homework on the homework. It was comforting because there's lots of — if you look hard enough at anybody's track record, you can find some negatives. And I've got them the same as everybody's got them. And they identified those, but they also identified the positives. The things we were able to do at Canisius, the things I did before Canisius, two NCAA tournaments with Mercyhurst. Even my role on championship teams as a player.
CHN: Obviously you're not naive, you know the name of a prominent alum was out there as a leading candidate. As alums tend to be very protective of their own, there's probably a lot of them wishing he got the job. So what can you say to them, and what do you plan to do going forward, to embrace them and win them over?
Smith: Yeah, it's important. I think what happens is, we recognize the first place any program turns is the people that played within the program, and there becomes an affiliation, an attraction, a relationship with those people. And for me, I can't tell them what I'm going to do, I just want to have little victories today. I just want to be open and honest with the alumni and share with them my thoughts and ideas. So I think all of the people I've spoke with — and we've had conference calls and we've identified who some of the leaders of that group are — and what I've found is, yeah they love their own, they love the alumni, but they love the hockey program. And whether it's Dave Smith as the head coach or somebody else, those people bleed the cherry and white of RPI. And that's what they want the most.
CHN: So some of those people who expreessed their sentiments publicly, it's not like they're against you or are going to be in your way or anything? You feel confident they are ready to embrace you?
Smith: I really do. The people who were quoted in those articles — and I did read the articles, and they were concerning, until I found out it's really very much passion driven — but I've spoken to almost all of those people. As I would be, they are supportive but in a wait and see. But a lot of those questions were directed at the administration, and that's a question I've been able to answer. The administration and the school is very committed, and I'd like the alumni in turn to remain committed. So I think we're walking forward together with that mindset.
CHN: Like you said, what you say you're going to do doesn't matter, you have to go do it. The proof is in the pudding. But do you have some first steps in mind. When you come into a new situation what are some of the first steps you have to deal with? Besides moving, I guess.
Smith: Yeah, actually the moving will come much later. Right now, it's getting to know the people, getting to understand where we have been as an RPI hockey program. Because the "what" is what brings the emotion, but the "who" is what gets it done. So right now let's understand where we're coming from, but let's connect with the who, which is the stakeholders of the program, which is the alumni, it's the people on campus ... and most importantly, spend some time with the players.
CHN: So, it's always a little touchy when you leave somewhere because they feel jilted that somebody left them, so to speak. But obviously you had great experiences at Canisius, but this is something you want to do for your career, and nobody should begrudge you for that. But how do you toe that line and give you thanks for where you've been and make sure they know it's appreciated.
Smith: Well, that started almost immediately when I got the first call from the search firm. It was open and honest communication with the stakeholders at Canisius. I even met with my team there and said, "I'm going to RPI on a visit." The only way I know how to operate is open and honest. So I had the trust with the president and the athletic director, I had multiple meetings with them, they wanted to get me to stay, they tried to get me to stay, they reinforced their commitment to the Canisius hockey program. And I believe we have left it in a really great place. But at the end of the day, this was a decision to come here what was best for me and my career, but also what was best for my family. I moved into between my two daughters who are in college, one is in New York City and one's in Rochester, New York. So this was so good across all platforms. And even just recently, I got a nice email from our president who expressed his sincere appreciation for what we do, but also his excitement for me to embark on a new chapter. So I feel like from the president through the athletic director to Trevor Large to Scott Moser to the players, everybody has been very supportive. A lot of tears. A lot of friends and a lot of relationships, the players, the coaches across campus, but they've been great.
CHN: You can go knowing you left it in a decent place. That's a good thing.
Smith: Yep. Trevor Large, who I feel is ready to be a head coach, he can continue on with that positive culture. And Scott Moser, those guys are locked and loaded and ready to go. They're very invested in the program, and as you said, I believe it's in a very good spot — not only with a young, good hockey team that finished first in the regular season, but behind the curtain is in a very strong position and ready to maintain excellence. And that makes me feel good — not only are they a good team but the setup behind the curtain is very good right now.