Renaissance man & superfan

Retired prof and former Gaels coach breaks down this year’s men’s basketball team

Geoff Smith played NCAA basketball at UC Santa Barbara before joining the Gaels as an assistant coach in 1973.
Geoff Smith played NCAA basketball at UC Santa Barbara before joining the Gaels as an assistant coach in 1973.

Geoff Smith calls his love for basketball an illness. Having had knee operations at 15 and 21, he joined Queen’s to teach history and coach basketball in the 1970s.

Despite retiring in 2006, his attachment to Queen’s basketball has hardly wavered. This weekend the “Renaissance man” will miss men’s basketball home games for the first time all year.

“I’m sad because I’m going away with [his wife] Roberta, we’ve got a wonderful cruise coming up,” Smith said, who’ll be without score updates for weeks.

“We should be back for the playoffs and they should be in it this year.”

The former college player and ex-men’s basketball coach knows the team — he’s there, front row centre, at every home game.

But this hasn’t always been the case.

“[Last year] I watched two games and realized there was no reason to watch them,” he said.

The Gaels, who were 2-20 in 2011-12, were led by head coach Stephan Barrie during his first year on the job. This year’s team is 8-3, with a cast of 10 new players on the 16-man roster — a transformation similar to the one in 1982 where Smith had helped bring in 14 newcomers to the team.

“The most important thing you can do is recruit,” Smith said, which was a nonexistent practice when he began coaching Queen’s basketball in 1973 alongside legendary football coach Frank Tindall.

“[Tindall] was very hands-off,” Smith said. “He would come in and give the tip-off play, and that would be it.”

Smith took over in the 1980s as head coach. It wasn’t until ’85 when he gave up coaching and became the first to devote time to recruiting players for the basketball program.

Smith recalls the struggles of attracting talented new players to suit up for Queen’s.

“One of the problems is ­— as one of the sportswriters in town put it — if they’re smart enough to go to Queen’s, they’re smart enough to know there are better places to play basketball,” he said.

Smith described coach Barrie’s quiet style of leadership as one of the cornerstones of the team’s success.

“In my view, that’s the opposite of me. I’m the Dick Vitale of the gym,” Smith said, referring to the vivacious ESPN broadcaster.

His analysis of Barrie delves deeper: tactical and behavioural traits are outlined as imperatives to the team’s success. The players have bought into Barrie’s system and it’s paid off. According to Smith, what separates Barrie from his predecessors are his focus on the controllable factors in a game and not mulling over the odd missed shot. “Everybody touches the ball, everybody can shoot and everybody can contribute,” he said. “It’s not the ‘can’, but the ‘must’.”

He says 2004-05 was the last time Queen’s basketball was in good hands. Under head coach Chris Oliver, the Gaels were helped to their first record over .500 since the 70s.

Oliver left for Windsor in summer 2005 to coach the Lancers, who’ve had a winning record for seven seasons and counting under his reign.

Queen’s could now also earn its first winning record since 2008-09, much to the relief of fans like Smith.

“I found its been painful to watch Queen’s basketball [last year], because there’ve been so many fundamental, mental errors,” he said.

It’s that same mental preparedness that Smith prioritizes in both basketball and teaching.

“Execution, timing is everything when you’re lecturing,” he said. ‘[You need] a plan, and you have to execute it if you can or modify it if you can’t.”

“Basketball’s the same goddamn thing.”

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