Dave Smart: developer of one of the greatest dynasties in Canadian university sports and 2020 Hall of Fame Inductee

Posted: March 10, 2020

By Martin Cleary

When you think of varsity sports at Carleton University, one Ravens’ program immediately comes to mind or it should.

That would be men’s basketball.

When you think of the names associated with this 21st century national university dynasty, they are plentiful—Mike Smart, Osvaldo Jeanty, Aaron Doornekamp, Tyson Hinz, Thomas and Philip Scrubb and Eddie Ekiyor.

While these players were key to the offensive and defensive systems that produced an incredible number of wins and a scary number of provincial and national titles, the man behind the Ravens’ success is a person who never scored a single basket.

You never saw him slash and dash for a crowd-pleasing slam dunk, make a deft pass when an open lane suddenly shut down or sink a pressure free throw with no time on the clock.

His fancy footwork and barking words of instruction and encouragement for his players were restricted to the sidelines. Oh, occasionally his excitement would mistakenly take him onto the court as he would question an officials’ call with words, facial expressions and waving arms.

The man behind the Ravens’ riches was Dave Smart, the creator of the greatest sports dynasty in Canadian university major sports. He had the ultimate passion for the game and ability to recruit outstanding players, which he made a little easier each year by hanging up another national championship banner.

When the players came, they stayed and respected their leader, despite his demonstrative style of coaching. Smart used his basketball and coaching smarts to build student/athletes into young adults and form a cohesive team that could either win big or learn to escape tight situations with a smile.

There will be more smiles come May 13, when players, school officials and fans will gather to see Smart inducted in the Ottawa Sport Hall of Fame at the Brookstreet Hotel in Kanata.

More than just breaking records for this 9-time coach of the year winner

Smart was the head coach of the Carleton men’s basketball team for 19 seasons from 1999 to 2019, with the exception of 2015-16 season when he took a one-year sabbatical. That broke the previous longevity record of 16 seasons held by his predecessor Paul Armstrong (1983-84 to 1998-99). Smart was an assistant coach under Armstrong for three seasons (1996-97 to 1998-1999) before being hired as head coach.

During his time as head coach, his teams posted incredible numbers, whether it was in the win-loss column, championship titles, individual awards or win streaks.

In the past 17 years, the Ravens have won 14 U Sports national university men’s basketball championships, including seven in a row (2011-2017), which matched the University of Victoria Vikes’ record winning streak (1980-86). Smart was on board for 13 of these championship runs to the W.P. McGee Trophy (2003-07, 2009, 2011-17, 2019), missing only the 2016 Final 8 because of his sabbatical.

Smart’s basketball wizardry didn’t go unnoticed as he won the Stuart W. Aberdeen Memorial Trophy as the U Sports national men’s coach of the year a record nine times (2003, 2005, 2009, 2011-14, 2017-18). 

Reaching the national championship tournament was a significant feat, but to get there the Ravens had to face some tough opponents in the Ontario University Athletics league. In 18 of his 19 seasons as head coach, Smart led the Ravens to the OUA East or North division pennant and in eight of those regular seasons, Carleton went undefeated.

When the Ravens entered the OUA playoffs, they won 11 championships with Smart on the bench (2003-05, 2008-10, 2012-13, 2015, 2018-19).

Smart also was front and centre at the annual OUA awards ceremony, accepting 12 coach-of-the-year awards. He was the East division top coach nine times (2001-03, 2005, 2009, 2011-14), when the league honoured the best coach from the East and West divisions. When the OUA made it a full conference award, Smart was the outright winner three times (2017-19).

As a head coach, Smart’s overall win-loss coaching record was enviable. He coached 757 games, whether regular season, playoff, tournament or exhibition across Canada and in the United States, winning 656 and losing 101 for a winning percentage of .867. He ranks first among all Canadian university coaches for his winning percentage for all games and is third for number of wins.

Breaking it down, Smart had an OUA regular season record of 384-26 for a winning percentage of .937. His career conference regular season winning percentage ranks him second among all national coaches and he is third for wins.

His OUA and U Sports playoff record was just as impressive at 90-12 for a mark of .882. The Ravens went undefeated in three OUA (regular season and playoff) seasons (28-0 in 2011-12, 2004-05 and 2003-04). During their 2011-12 season, the Ravens were 34-0 against OUA and U Sports schools. He also had 10 seasons where the Ravens only lost one game against Canadian schools.

There was a time (2002-05) when the Ravens were untouchable, winning a Canadian men’s university record 87 consecutive league and playoff games.

Smart’s win-loss record against only U Sports university teams in regular season, playoff and tournament games was 591-48 for a nationally ranked No. 1 winning percentage of .925. His 591 wins against Canadian universities is ranked second nationally to the 828 victories posted by Steve Konchalski, who has spent the last 45 seasons at St. Francis Xavier.

Carleton University athletics should thank Queen’s University for having Smart as its legendary head coach

The 53-year-old Smart, who was born in Kingston, attended Queen’s from 1991-92 to 1993-94 and earned a B.A. in sociology. At the same time, he was the star player on the Golden Gaels’ basketball team, setting a school record for career points per game average at 24.7. He also holds the single-game record at 43 points.

In his second year, Smart was the top scorer in Canadian university basketball with a 29.4-point-a-game average, a first for a Queen’s player. He was selected as a first team OUA all-star in all three seasons.

So when Smart graduated he had a certain status in the Queen’s basketball community. When the head coaching position became vacant after the 1993-94 season, he put his name forward. Before attending Queen’s, he had coaching experience at the high school and club levels.

The Queen’s selection committee, however, passed on Smart’s application for the men’s basketball job.

Smart, who coached Nepean High School to a city title and berth in the OFSAA provincial high school championship, returned to Ottawa and connected with Carleton, where he joined the Ravens men’s basketball coaching staff of head coach Paul Armstrong. After serving as a recruiting coach in 1996-97, he became the No. 1 assistant coach for the next two years.

When Armstrong retired following the 1998-99 season because he didn’t want to be a career coach, Smart applied for the job and was successful.

His first season on the bench wasn’t an indicator of what was in the future. Sporting a 14-player lineup, which included seven rookies and three second-year players, the Ravens finished third in the OUA East division at 11-9 and were bounced by Laurentian Voyageurs in their only playoff game.

But the 2000-01 season was an eyeopener for the Ravens, going 21-1, winning the OUA East division pennant and capturing four of six playoff games, including the national consolation final for fifth place. The dynasty had started.

“Dave was the obvious choice at the time (for head coach),” Armstrong said. “The one thing he brought to the table was he was a basketball junkie.”

When Armstrong spoke with then Carleton athletic director Drew Love about Smart, he went out on a limb and “boldly predicted he would win one national championship. We both agreed.” If Smart had heard that, he might have upped the prediction to winning one after another.

An innovator on both sides of the court

The story goes that by the time Smart had reached age 30, which was about the time he joined the Ravens’ coaching staff, he had coached 2,000 basketball games. Smart was a vital part of the Ottawa Guardsmen, Kingston-Addington Guardsmen and girls’ programs. It was not uncommon for him to coach nine games in one weekend. 

Smart joined the Ravens with an undisputed love of the game and knowledge of all its facets. And he never stopped learning. When he wasn’t overseeing the Ravens, he also was an assistant coach under Jay Triano with the Canadian senior men’s team from 2012-16, studied under NBA and NCAA coaches, and was head coach of the Canadian U18 national team in 2018 and Great Britain men’s U20 squad in 2012.

Knowing the game and producing a winner year after year also made recruiting somewhat easier for Smart. But still he seemed to be everywhere. The players knew him and he certainly knew the players, whether he was coaching community teams or working with the Ontario boys’ teams for eight years as either assistant or head coach, including the 1997 Canada Summer Games team.

“He was a players’ coach,” Armstrong added. “He loved the players and would do everything for them. He was hard on them, but they respected him back.”

If you watched Ravens’ basketball games either from the stands or on TV, you would occasionally notice a passionate Smart at the team bench, whether he was sending messages to his players or critiquing the officials.

“But he always was under control. Some coaches lose it, but when he talked to the ref, he knew his limits,” Armstrong said. “I’d bet you he only had two technical fouls (in his career). If he’d go after one of the guys (players) and he didn’t respond, he’d take them off and talk to him there.”

Smart also was a diligent video reviewer and was an innovator on both sides of the court, giving his players that extra advantage.

“He’d watch film like you don’t understand. With technology now, he’d email players five clips on how Brandon would run it’s pick and roll,” he added. “At midnight, he’d still be up thinking about how to defend the University of Ottawa ball screen. It’s a blessing and a curse.”

Drill repetition was a key part of his practices and if the players worked and scrimmaged hard, he promised no dryland training. Smart also convinced the players to stay in Ottawa year-round so they could practice, work at Carleton summer camps and build team unity.

But after more than two decades of building and maintaining a superpower basketball program at Carleton, Smart stepped down as head coach nine days after winning his 13th and the school’s 14 national title in 2019. Carleton rewarded Smart by making him the first director of basketball operations for the men’s and women’s programs, which also gave him more time with his young family.

Not only is Smart getting familiar with a brand new job at Carleton, but also he’s taken another management role as the first general manager of the Canadian Elite Basketball League’s expansion Ottawa Blackjacks. The league runs May through August.

Time to see if he can build another dynasty, but this time as a GM.

Dave Smart will be inducted into the Ottawa Sport Hall of Fame as part of the class of 2020 on Wednesday, May 13 at the Brookstreet Hotel in Kanata. Buy your tickets before they sell out.