Liberty coach Katie Smith on being a lifelong Buckeye and her leadership style
New York Liberty coach Katie Smith is constantly trying to improve her game, though her "game" has evolved. While playing at Ohio State, she set a Big Ten career record of 2,578 points before graduation in 1996. She went on to join the WNBA and became one of the most decorated players in the league.
But after a celebrated 17-year career, it was time to reflect, time to grow. Like many former athletes, Smith wondered what was next. She knew she loved ball, but figuring out where and how to apply her sporting skills in the real world was quite the conundrum.
espnW caught up with Smith to discuss her path from star college hoops player to WNBA legend to head coach.
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length.
On her time at Ohio State
My first year on campus was fantastic. We had five freshmen on the team, and we had an impressive senior class. I don't think we were ranked at the time, but we got out there and started winning.
Then things started snowballing. We played Virginia on national television, and they were a powerhouse at the time, and we beat them. The team ended up being in the Final Four during my freshman year. It was special.
Balancing academics and sports
I put a lot of pressure on myself. I was my high school's valedictorian and a star athlete, so you don't want to fail or stumble. I had to prioritize. I had to balance basketball and school. I tried to do equally well with both. I knew it was the foundation for what I would do in the future. But that didn't mean I didn't enjoy dorm life because I did. Even if it was just playing pickup, I had social outlets.
Transitioning from college life to the WNBA
I started thinking about what was next during my senior year, and all of the sudden the ABL and WNBA are beginning, and it's just like, yeah ... I want to do that. I still had it in my head that I was pre-med and that I'd become a dentist -- my father's a dentist -- so I applied to dental school and then deferred. And of course, fast-forward 17 years, and I'm still playing basketball. Life took off. So in that respect, it wasn't a transition, as I was still doing something I genuinely loved.
Leaving the basketball court (kind of)
For me, the most significant transition was moving on from playing ball. I had to brainstorm and ask myself, "What do I like?" I had always played basketball. I also wondered what else do I like? And how do I transfer my sports skills to the real world? It was a "what now?" moment. When I knew, I was nearing in on my last years in the WNBA, I started reading "StrengthsFinder 2.0," then I took one of the quizzes that indicates what career path you should follow. That quiz sort of jogged me.
I was able to weigh my options, and I decided to go back to school for dietetics. I got my master's degree in medical dietetics, which is nutrition. I didn't quite figure out how to use it, but I wanted to have an added skill set just in case basketball and coaching didn't work out. I always wanted to have something to fall back on. However, I've been lucky enough to stay in the game, though originally, I didn't want to coach.
Defining her career path
Part of my internal debate was that when you play ball, you're always traveling, and I knew if I decided to coach, it would be the same thing. Initially I wanted a path where I didn't have to be on the road all the time. However, I still wanted to be around basketball. So when my former coach, Bill Laimbeer, asked me to play in New York and then move over to coaching in a year, I said, "Sure! Let's do it." It was partially procrastination and partially that I still wanted to do this. I had to learn the ins and outs of coaching -- and now, four years later, I'm a head coach. It was a wild journey. I always encourage people to keep their minds open.
On transferable sports skills
Working with people, especially in a team unit, is helpful. You learn how to utilize the best in people to get that universal win. It also teaches perseverance. As an athlete, you've endured injuries, been cut and taken other critiques, and you still keep plugging away. It makes you comfortable with losing and winning and figuring out just how to get things done. Overall, being an athlete teaches discipline. You learn how to stay the course.
On her leadership style
I'm an action leader. How I work and treat people and [what I] demand of others is exactly what I ask of myself. I demand in myself, so I can demand in others.
Also, I'd like to build a legacy in coaching. What I did in basketball was great, but it's over. I'm a coach now and want to be the best at it. I want to grow with the Liberty and win a championship. I want to push myself to be like Dawn Staley and Geno Auriemma. I want to be in those same sentences. I'm on the ground floor now, but I'm working on it.