MOUNT PLEASANT, Mich. – Jeff Smith has seen his coaching career take him from Michigan, to Utah, and to southern California. After 10 years away from Central Michigan University, Smith has returned home as an assistant coach with sights on restoring the Chippewas back to the top of the Mid-American Conference.
“This is a place that has a student body that has great pride in their athletic programs,” Smith said. “I was excited to come back to a place that I love and help get it going again.”
Central Michigan has always been home according to Smith. He grew up on Central Michigan basketball, going to games when he was young.
“Central Michigan University has a special place in my heart. I have a degree from here and both of my parents went to school here,” said Smith.
After playing collegiate basketball at nearby Alma College, Smith came to CMU in 1997 as a graduate assistant for the basketball team under the tutelage of Coach Jay Smith, and was a student in the sport administration program. After spending two years as a graduate assistant, Smith was promoted to assistant coach.
“The summer after my freshman year at Alma I started working basketball camps and just decided that I wanted to coach,” Smith said. “I was only 24 years old when I had a chance to be a division I assistant and I am thankful for the opportunity I had here the first time.”
While at Central Michigan from 1997-2002, Smith coached Chippewa greats such as David Webber (First Team All-MAC 2001), Mike Manciel (Second Team All-MAC 2003), and Chris Kaman (First Team All-MAC 2003). The most meaningful part of coaching is the relationships he has been able to build and maintain over the years with his former players, said Smith.
“That to me is what makes this place so special,” said Smith. “Just for example, Mike Manciel is an assistant coach at Detroit Country Day and I just had the opportunity to see him the other day. Tim Kisner is coaching Lake Superior and I got to coach against him this year, and Jon Borovich will be here next week and he is an assistant at Northern Illinois.”
Looking back over his 19-year coaching career, the individual moment that stands out the most was climbing the ladder and cutting down the net after winning the 2001 MAC championship. The Chippewas recorded the program’s sixth 20-win season, and first since 1986-87. The 2000-01 season was highlighted with wins at Purdue and Drake, and sweeping rivals Western Michigan and Eastern Michigan.
When being offered the opportunity to come back to Mount Pleasant after spending time at Oakland University, University of Utah, and University of California-Riverside, Smith welcomed the invitation with excitement and surprise.
“When I left I never really envisioned I’d be back,” Smith said. “But I knew Coach [Keno] Davis’ background and the way that he wanted to play. I knew he was the sort of person that would do a great job here of reinvigorating and breathing life back into this program.”
Smith has coached three conference champions (CMU 2001, Oakland 2005, Utah 2009), and has made two NCAA Tournament appearances (Oakland 2005, Utah 2009). When reflecting over his past teams, Smith points out the current Chippewas’ ability to play together.
“What I really like about this group is that they really enjoy playing with one another. Coach Davis has done a great job of getting them to understand what it means to play together as a team and to be unselfish.” said Smith. “When you look at six freshmen in the playing rotation, what I am most excited about is the direction that we are going.”
The Chippewas have given merit to Smith’s excitement, reaching eight wins faster than the past nine Central Michigan squads. The student body has taken notice, packing the inside of McGuirk Arena by an average of 400 more fans per game than last season.