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I Spy Someone making a difference.

Chaucey Ispy

I Spy: Assistant coach is smokin'

by Russell Alston Bookmark and Share
Sarah Smoak cuts down a basket after Duke won the ACC tournament in 2012.
Sarah Smoak cuts down a basket after Duke won the ACC tournament in 2012.

Sarah Smoak’s fire for basketball was intensified by her grandfather, a former assistant men’s basketball coach, Army Col. Tom Rogers.

“I’d watch basketball game films with him, go to games and practice with him,” she says. “I basically grew up in a gym and have always loved the game.”

That love for the game led Smoak to various coaching duties at Peace College, Duke University and now, assistant women’s coach for the Coastal Carolina University Chanticleers.

At Duke, her duties ranged from organizing recruit communications, on-campus recruiting and scouting opponents, to overseeing the program's marketing efforts and developing program relations in Durham. This made Smoak a perfect fit for her other current position: recruiting coordinator for CCU’s women’s program.

Smoak says she was attracted to the CCU position because it offered her a chance to work with Jaida Williams, CCU’s head women’s basketball coach.

“I had no intention of leaving Duke,” she says, “but when the opportunity to work with Coach Willams at Coastal was offered, I came with her. I’ve always admired her passion and love for the game. Working on her staff is a dream opportunity.” When Smoak was hired in May, Willams said the women’s program was thrilled for Smoak to join the CCU family.

The opportunity to create and build a program also helped with Smoak’s decision to leave Durham. She says the coaching staff is thinking big with its vision for CCU’s women’s program. Key to this is working on “building a tradition of excellence with championship standards on and off the court.”

Take the month of July, for example, which Smoak calls the evaluation period. It’s when recruiters hit the road to attend tournaments and scout potential signees.

“We’re on the road for 14 days,” she says, “watching game after game after game from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. straight, no breaks, in these huge convention centers with more than 150 teams.”

Stops included Washington D.C., Atlanta, Nashville, Chicago and more. At these tournaments, recruiters are given a 100-plus page “program” listing all the teams, players, bio info, stats and more information. Neon-colored stickies jut out of sections of one of Smoak’s tournament guides, indicating games watched and players who may be considered a prospect for CCU.

After the evaluation period is what Smoak calls the “personal relationship” period.

“That’s my favorite,” she says. “That’s when we go out and visit recruits at their schools and in their homes. It’s about getting to know them as people, them getting to know us and developing a relationship. It has to be a good fit both ways.”

When not on the road scouting, Smoak attends to her assistant coaching duties. Workouts are from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. Coaches then meet at 11 a.m. to compare notes and other assignments, ensuring the entire staff is on the same page. There are also one-on-one meetings between coaches and players in their position group. Smoak doesn’t make it home some nights until past 8 p.m., and when she does, she works on ways to improve the next day’s practice.

“It never stops,” she says. “But that’s what’s great about this job. It’s not even a job, it’s a lifestyle; it’s a passion…you throw yourself into this, and you get it back. It’s not just emptying yourself; I’m fufilled because of what I do. I can’t imagine doing anything else.”

Free time for Smoak is a rare occurrence, but she finds time for visits with her family during recruiting trips near the Durham-Raleigh area, where her parents still reside. “I’m huge on family,” she says. “They’ll be down here for plenty of games.”

When she does enjoy a rare free day, The Market Common or the “quiet and chill” setting of Surfside Beach is her destination. Settling in with a good book is another way Smoak relaxes. She cites philosophy, books about winning coaches and leadership as her go-to genres. Her favorite novel, however, is “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho.

Remaining active is important for Smoak as well. She earned her bachelor’s degree in exercise physiology in 2006 at Lynchburg College. During her years in Lynchburg, Smoak lettered every year as the Fighting Hornets point and shooting guard. She still hits the court every now and then, even if she claims she’s retired.

“I’m not fast anymore, so it’s frustrating,” says the 29-year-old. “It’s when your mind wants to do something your body can’t do. If you’re competitive, it just kills you.”

Still, Smoak will get on the court with some of her players for a quick game. She does have one caveat, however. “If I’m not going to beat them, I do not play them. I hate to lose.”

As a former guard, Smoak works closely with the team’s guards during and after practice. The close relationship with her players is something she cherishes most. It’s a perk of being an assistant coach, in her opinion. So Smoak has no desire to be a head coach anytime soon.

“I love being an assistant. I love doing the unseen work, and being an assistant you have a really strong relationship with your student athletes. My players bring me joy, and working under coach Williams will make me a better person and coach. I love where I am right now; this is where I’m supposed to be.” 

Related Photos

Sarah Smoak cuts down a basket after Duke won the ACC tournament in 2012. Coach Sarah Smoak instructs CCU basketball players at an early morning practice. Sarah Smoak isn't short, but some of her players dwarf her. CCU Assistant Basketball Coach Sarah Smoak works on paperwork at her desk in the HTC Center.
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