At The Top of the Hill
Head coach Steve Smith gives SLAM a inside look at his famed program.
by Franklyn Calle
There isn’t much around. Just grass and hills. No malls. No movie theaters. No fast food restaurants. Basically nothing. But these isolated hills lying on the borders of Virginia and North Carolina have been home to many of the NBA’s most prominent players. This is where they spent their winters, working out in a small gym in the middle of nowhere.
On the Appalachian Mountains is where Carmelo Anthony and Brandon Jennings decided to continue their high school education when they realized they needed to escape their environments if they wanted the chance to accomplish their dreams. This is where Rajon Rondo, Marcus Williams, Ty Lawson, Eric Devendorf, Stephen Jackson, Jeff McInnis and Jerry Stackhouse, among others, sharpened their game before taking it to the next level at big time collegiate programs. Even Kevin Durant and Michael Beasley spent some time of their high school careers in these hills, although both transferred out. This is where almost every high school basketball athlete only dreams to play. Welcome to Oak Hill Academy.
You may be asking yourself what would attract so many prospects to such a boring place to spend their high school years? Is it the nice, quiet environment? Nope. Is it the tradition? Ummm, yeah it could play a factor. But in reality it comes down to one man. How about the man who is responsible for building the rich tradition that gladdens the school? The one that has helped send over 115 players to Division I programs since taking over the basketball program 24 years ago. The one that has had over 16 players graduate from his school and end up in the NBA during his tenure. Overall Oak Hill has had 20+ players reach the NBA. And two more are on the way in Lawson and Jennings, whom are projected to get picked in the first round of this year’s NBA Draft. His teams finished the season ranking 5th or better every single year since ’97-98. In the ’92-93 season, his team held Bristol John Battle H.S. to only 8 points for the whole game.
Meet head coach Steve Smith. He has led Oak Hill to seven national championships and six runners-up. Has an overwhelming 758-45 record at Oak Hill. As you will read in the interview, it is not easy to coach a team full of all-stars. But Smith has been able to — year in and year out — get his players to play together despite all the individual offensive talents and egos. A 30+-win season is just another regular year at Oak Hill. Smith is very picky in who he lets inside his program. Just ask Kevin Garnett, who tried transferring to the powerhouse two summers in a row. Smith interviewed Garnett and his mother twice in his office, but Smith felt Garnett wouldn’t make it at the small school. There’s no such thing as recruiting at Oak Hill. Smith gets calls from kids of all over the country on the daily basis during the offseason interested in transferring. During the 2005 offseason Smith kept a log of all the kids who called. That list eventually totaled over 225 players. Staggering right?
The school has very strict policies such as no cell phones, no cars, no earrings, no personal Internet connections and such, but that doesn’t scare away prospects from transferring in. They know that by going to Oak Hill, they are putting themselves in a good position that helps them not only to become better athletes, but also become better students with a greater chance to qualify for college. Smith recently sat down and spoke to SLAM, giving us an inside look at his program.
SLAM: Describe a regular day at Oak Hill for the student-athletes.
Coach Smith: The day is pretty much mapped out for them. They have practice at 7 a.m. and school starts at 7:50. They go to classes all day until 3:05 and have practice after school ’til about 5 p.m. They have dinner at 5:30. They have study hall from 8 p.m. ’til 10 p.m. and then it’s lights out at 10:30. Then we have Saturday morning classes. So they pretty much have to go to school six days a week. Sundays we go to church on campus. It’s mandatory. We’re a Southern Baptist Church so they have to go to church on Sundays. We’re a boarding school so they all live on campus. It’s not a military school but it’s very structured, very organized, very regimented and usually it makes you be successful in the classroom as well.
SLAM: How isolated is Oak Hill from everything else?
Coach Smith: The school itself is really its own community. Mouth of Wilson is a really small dot in the road. I wouldn’t even call it a town. It’s only about three pages of a phone book (laughs). And those houses are spread out a little bit, so it’s rural. On campus the school has about 18 buildings. We have a campus store and a schoolbook store. Sometimes the kids will be in campus for about two or three weeks without ever leaving campus. Mouth of Wilson is in the Virginia and North Carolina border. The house where I live in, it’s actually in North Carolina and it’s about three miles from campus, so we are right on the state line in the southwest part of Virginia. The closest large city is in North Carolina and it’s about 75 miles away. We have some small towns about 15 to 20 miles away from us where you can go to a restaurant or catch a movie. But in Mouth of Wilson itself, there is no fast food, no traffic lights, really nothing. We sit on a hill just like it says Oak Hill and we have about 150 year old oak trees growing all over campus. It’s real pretty, it’s real beautiful, but it is very rural.
SLAM: Have there been players that just haven’t been able to make the transition to this kind of environment?
Coach Smith: Well in 24 years, I have only had two players ever come into my office and say ‘You know what coach, I don’t think I could do it,’ but once they get here, in a couple of weeks I think they get use to it and they keep busy everyday as you can see from our schedule. We’re a co-ed school so they can socialize with other students on campus. Obviously is not like college because we have students from grades 8th to 12th, so they are always chaperoned, always supervised, the basketball players stay very busy with their weight training, basketball, their academics, and everything else that goes on in campus. I think that keeps them very busy and away from being homesick. I’ve had two kids come in and one of them stayed and the other one left. So in my 24 years here, I’ve only had one kid leave because he was homesick. They know they have to keep their grades up, whether it is to play in this basketball team or whether it is to get some college scholarship opportunities that they don’t have at home. And then they live with their teammates. They dorm together. One of my assistants lives with them. They all go through the school year together, they get really close. After high school, a lot of them will play against each other in college and have friendships that they have developed for life.
SLAM: Can you break down the eligibility rules at Oak Hill?
Coach Smith: It’s not a school that is completely functioning around the basketball team. It’s a school first then a basketball team second. Not like schools that are popping up now where they have a team first and then they make up the school. We’re a straight high school. We go by the Virginia high school rules. No fifth year kids, no over-age kids, no repeaters and no post grads. You have to be eligible where you come from to be eligible over here. We travel and play all around the country and we go by the Virginia rules, that way we don’t have any problems with the states we play in. I don’t want to have any problems where a kid could play one game but can’t play the next game.
SLAM: Some people would automatically assume that it can’t be hard to coach a team full of all-stars. Can you break down the challenges in coaching a team like that?
Coach Smith: It’s getting tougher with kids nowadays changing. I’ve taken a team full of all-stars and you get to coach them and you got to get them to play together. And then there are all the different egos, but you just have to get them to be on the same page. I think the biggest part of my job is to get them to play together. I think that’s something I’m really proud of. Most of the comments I get from people who watch us play and college coaches, they always say ‘Hey, you really do a good job in playing together.’ But I think that part of it is the fact that they all live together. They all become very close; they form a bond. And then you have the emphasis of the coaches and my ability of being here 24 years. It’s something I emphasized since day one. I think it’s real important. If they are averaging what they averaged at home or try to average then we wouldn’t be much of a team, but, obviously, we don’t allow that to happen here. But if you check our stats through the years, we almost always have three or four guys in double figures. We don’t usually have 20-point scorers. This year our leading scorer averaged 15. So I think all the guys know through practice and just the way we talk to our players that they have to give up a little something to make the best team we could possibly have. They all have to sacrifice and put the team first and if we win then I think the individual awards will come to those guys and they will get accolades and make the McDonald’s team. I never had a kid make an all-star game and an All-American team because he averaged 35 ppg or whatever. They make it because they are good players on a good team. Everyone knows who Oak Hill is, and you don’t have to score 30 ppg to help us win. You just have to play as a team. You’ll get enough exposure with the schedule we play.
SLAM: When Brandon Jennings first decided that he was headed to Europe instead of college, what did you think of it? How did you feel he did out there?
Coach Smith: I thought if he could handle it mentally, being away from home and being in Europe, then I knew it would be a good move for him. I know a lot of people looked at it differently and saw that he was the first guy to do it. Now I’m reading in the internet that a couple of college players are heading to Europe. But with Brandon, how do you tell a guy to not make a million dollars? Being 18 years old and making over a million dollars this year. Had he gone to Arizona, I don’t know if that would have helped him any more than what he did in Europe. I think he gained a lot of trust with the NBA people, at the least the scouts I’ve spoken to. They’ve told me that now they saw him in situations where some nights he played a lot, some nights he barely played, some nights he started, some nights he didn’t played at all, and he handled it well. One of the things on Brandon was that we weren’t sure if he would handle it well. Was he mature enough for it? Everyone I speak to now tells me he’s a top -10 draft pick. It didn’t hurt him. It sure didn’t hurt his pocket. I think it helped him grow up a lot. The fact that he did it and nobody else had ever done it before, speaks volumes for him. He said it was hard just for the fact that their practice was totally different from what he was used to, their style of play and a total different way of training. So I think it makes NBA scouts look on him promising because he matured, adjusted and handled it well. He matured a lot as a basketball player too.
SLAM: Do you feel it could become a trend?
Coach Smith: Most kids aren’t good enough to do it. Most kids are not ready to do it. I think it would be a trend for college guys. But most guys I talk to tell me they think they have a better experience in college. It won’t be a lot because that is a very well-developed league. Some of those kid’s families struggle financially, so if they can go to Europe and get paid, who’s to say they shouldn’t do that? But it won’t be a lot because that European Pro League is very developed and it has been there a long time and the guys are older. Every time I’ve spoke to Brandon, he was like ‘Hey everyone in the league is like 30 or 35 years old and the really good players are like 28 years old.’ And he has said how they are all stronger physically. They’re really good out there.
SLAM: Have you been offered jobs at the next level?
Coach Smith: I’ve been offered several assistant positions at Big East schools and SEC schools. I’ve been offered some pretty good ones through the years, I just never interviewed anywhere. It just has always been bad timing. I had two kids who were growing up and wanted them to go to school together so I never wanted to move when they were still in high school. Now I’m 53 and don’t even look at other positions. I’m looking to retire before I take a job somewhere else. I’m hoping to retire by the time I’m 60. I’m not looking to coach ‘til I’m 70 years of age. I just want to enjoy golfing and do a few other things in my life. I’d like to take a job when I get that age maybe at a small college or maybe as a assistant somewhere but years ago I might have taken a job to maybe step up and take a Division I head coaching job sometime, but I feel like I have a Division I team over here. I coach Division I players. We play a schedule that is second to none in high school. I’ve had 25 McDonald’s All-Americans in 24 years. I’m coaching a guy that’s probably going to play in the NBA every year on my team, so I feel like I almost have a Division I job but with a lot less headaches. I don’t have to recruit and travel all over country to find players. I just have to answer the phone here. The school and the tradition speak for itself. We attract the best players every year. I’ve really enjoy what we been doing, It’s an awful good job. It’s an awful good situation to be in. I get great players every year. To me, it’s like if I was coaching a Division I team to be honest.
SLAM: How has the game of high school basketball changed business- and competition-wise since you became the coach at Oak Hill?
Coach Smith: Yeah, it has changed with all the tournaments and shootouts. Now you have teams traveling all over the country. There are so many events to play in, so many tournaments. One of the hardest things I have to do as a coach every year is figuring out where we are going to go in scheduling because every year I would say we are invited to three or four different places every weekend. Everyone wants you to come and play in their tournament, shootout, or just their home court so they could make some money [laughs]. Also now you don’t just have Oak Hill. Now you got St. Pats, St. Anthony’s, St. Benedict’s, Montrose Christian, Mater Dei in California, L.A. Westchester, Fairfax, and all these other teams that are good every year and travel around the country. And of course the players are so much better now than 30 years ago. I remember when I was young and use to watch Oak Hill play. They use to have three good players and the rest were role players. Now I’ve had teams that had seven or eight Division I players. I had nine one year, that’s nine Division I players in one high school team. So the competition has also changed. There are so many more players out there now that are considered high level than there was 20 or 30 years ago.
SLAM: How did the sponsorship with Jordan come about?
Coach Smith: The first year I took over, we were Converse. Then I’ve been with Nike since 1986. Probably around 1995 or 1996 Nike switched us to Jordans, which is a total different company than Nike but is also affiliated to Nike. It kind of helped out a little bit because kids know we are a Jordan school and there’s only about five of them in the country. People know — when kids call they know we are a Jordan-sponsored school. Of course I’ve gotten used to it, but the kids love it — the clothing, the shoes, and everything else. Nike has made us feel important because they would make special shoes for us that are not even out in the market yet as a test for the consumers. So our kids love wearing Jordans, I could tell you that.
SLAM: Did you imagine having such a powerhouse when you started off at Oak Hill?
Coach Smith: I didn’t expect to see Oak Hill to where it has gotten. First, I didn’t expect to see high school basketball be as big as it has gotten now. Second, I didn’t expect Oak Hill to be a player on the national scene every single year. I mean, we are always going to these tournaments to win them. A lot of schools go just to show up, they are glad to just be invited but every tournament we go to, we go to win. The first tournament we lost was this year, we lost the National High School Invitational. That was the first tournament we loss since 1995. I don’t even know how many games we won in national tournaments. We only play in the biggest tournaments so that was a streak that went on for 14 years. I didn’t think we would be this good every year. I thought we would have our ups and downs but in the last 11 years, the worst we finished is forth nationally, and that’s the worst. We’ve been one or two like 11 of the last 14 years. So we’re always in the top five. We always have a chance to be considered the best team in the country and that’s something we’re proud of. We don’t talk about being No. 1 every year. That kind of just goes with the territory. You’re Oak Hill Academy and people are going to expect you to win every year. It’s not reality but those are just the expectations.
SLAM: If you had to pick one season as your favorite or most successful one, which one would you choose?
Coach Smith: That’s tough. I think the best team I would say that got the ball rolling was the ‘92-93 team. We had Jerry Stackhouse and Jeff McInnis in that team. Those guys are still playing the NBA right now. McInnis just retired but there were four NBA guys in the team and eight Division I players. We went 36-0 and from that point on I think Oak Hill started growing to what it is today. We had great teams in the ‘80s but from that point on I think that kind of got the name of the school out there. We’ve been in the top 25 every year since then. We been in the top two or three half of those years and then of course we been No. 1, seven times. So I think that was the team that got us going as far as being a dominant high school team. Whether we finish No. 1 or not, I think from anybody’s standards Oak Hill has been the No. 1 high school program in the country from that point.
SLAM: Everyone was looking at this season as a rebuilding year for you guys. Were you guys expecting to have such a big year and only come away one win short from another national championship?
Coach Smith: Not by me, I think we overachieved with the schedule we had. When I looked at the schedule in August, I thought it was a tough one. All the way to the last game I thought our team had overachieved, really. I actually thought we had a chance to beat Findlay Prep, who’s a very good team and was undefeated as well. But we just didn’t play well, we didn’t shoot it well. You have to give them credit because they played better than we did. Our guys committed themselves to having a great year. I thought we would have a comfortable year like the year before. But during our first four games we exceeded expectations. We had a chance to be the best team in the country but fell one game short. I don’t think any coach would turn down a 40-1 year. I know I sure won’t.
SLAM: You don’t have to recruit. Kids come to you. How many kids try to transfer into Oak Hill during the offseason?
Coach Smith: It happens almost daily. Some days I’ll have multiple families call. I get calls from college coaches, high school coaches, travel team coaches, from parents and the actual players themselves. Rarely does a day go by that someone doesn’t call. I’m talking about from February or March all the way to the end of the summer. Some kids I’ve known and seen them play. They all have to go through the interview process with the admissions director. It’s not just, ‘Oh you’re a good player, you’re coming to Oak Hill.’ You got to have the paper work, the transcripts, talk to your guidance counsel and all that. So in 2005, I kept a log. It was 225 kids. That was the only year I counted and the reason I did it was because people were always asking me ‘I wonder how many kids call?’ So I wrote their name down, the date they called and just kept a log. If you’re talking from February to August, it’s almost every day. Some days I would have three or four kids call. Yesterday (May 27), I had three kids call. And that’s just yesterday. Today I haven’t gotten any but by 2:15, I probably will [laughs]. It’s just funny, I‘ll get a call from a kid from New York City and they’ll say, ‘I want to come play at Oak Hill,’ but they don’t realize that there is more to it. They think they could just come to Oak Hill. Most kids I have to say ‘no’ to. Sometimes you feel bad because the kid will tell you his situation and is probably a situation he may need to get away from. But for whatever reason in a lot of those situations I don’t think the kid will fit here. You have to tell 90 percent of them ‘no’ but there are other schools out there that can help. But I’m a little biased in picking those who are the best out there. I thought it was about 100 kids until I kept a log that year and realized it was over 200 of them. We would sometimes have kids come visit on any given day. We would have five or six come in three days later. Maybe the next week, we’d have five or six more come in. A lot of them I stop before they get here if I see a transcript and don’t think it’s workable or if I get a bad recommendation from a guidance counselor or coach. Then I’d stop them from even visiting because I don’t want to waste their time and my time. Out of the 225, I probably let 60 of them come to campus and then I would take it from there.
SLAM: Where did you get the inspiration to coach? Is there a particular person?
Coach Smith: My dad was a coach. He was a small college coach. He coached at four different colleges. They were like Division II or Division III schools. All the way from the third grade I was always the water boy. The stats kid and I would go to all the games with my dad. So I definitely got it from my dad. If I wasn’t a coach, I don’t know what I would do. When somebody asked me ‘What do you want to do in life?’ I always said I wanted to coach. I got it from my father. I was raised in Kentucky and at the time I was growing up Adolph Rupp was the coach, so I followed Kentucky. Then I fell in love with watching basketball on TV, whether it was college basketball or the NBA. I’ve always wanted to coach. My dad is my inspiration. His name is Winston Smith. As for my coaching style, I didn’t really get that from my dad because he coached in the 60s and 70s. I think it’s a combination of a lot of different people. You pick up things from different coaches. You know, different styles. I’ve always liked to play fast. In order to do that you have to play defense, so I’ve always emphasized playing defense. Of course when people see Oak Hill play, they are watching the other things but I take pride in our teams playing defense. That allows us to play fast and allows us to go up and down the floor in transition with playing defense and rebounding. That helps you a lot offensively and makes things easier when you do those things.
SLAM: What goes through your mind when you turn on the TV at home and see guys you once coached like Carmelo Anthony, Josh Smith, Stephen Jackson and Jerry Stackhouse now playing in the NBA?
Coach Smith: I’m proud of the guys that have come through our program. That’s one of the benefits. I get to follow those guys and watch them play. You know, it’s hard to turn that off. I get to follow those guys and have a relationship with them and of course a lot of them go on to play in the NBA. With Rajon Rondo, Josh Smith, Carmelo Anthony and seeing all of those guys have good careers. Look at Carmelo right now. He came from a tough situation in Baltimore. I’ve known his mom and his background. To see him where he is today and what he did at Oak Hill. He came to summer school before his senior year and he was the only basketball player on campus. He came for five weeks and I worked him out every day. He went to class and he went to study hall every day. It was probably the hardest thing he did in his life. But he had to do it or academically he wouldn’t have made it as a senior. Then he came back as a senior and qualified. He could have gone straight to the Draft. He was projected in the top 10 but he promised his mother, ‘If I’m going to Oak Hill and make this sacrifice, if I qualify then I’m going college.’ As soon as he got his SAT scores in March, I remember him telling me, ‘I don’t care about what pick I’m going to be. I’m going to college. I promised my mother I was going to college.’ He could have gone the year before. I don’t think it would have made much of a difference. He probably would have been the eighth or ninth pick. He ended up going as the third pick, so there’s really not much money there. But it was the endorsement money he made by going to college and winning a national championship. He showed himself well on and off the court and he got a big shoe deal with Nike and some other endorsement deals. So he made a lot of money by going to college, even though it was just that one year. He even won a national championship and no one can take that away from him. But I really like following the guys. I get home, turn the TV on and watch these guys play. Rajon Rondo won a NBA Championship last year. It’s a source of pride. Definitely something that you are proud of, that you coached those guys and you’re associated with those guys.
SLAM: Who would you say needed to get out of the environment that they were currently living in more, Brandon or Carmelo?
Coach Smith: Both of those guys equally. Brandon came from Compton Dominguez. I’m not knocking their school but his mother worked there and she said ‘I got to get my son out and away from Compton and the distractions that are in Compton.’ She quit her job and that shows you how much she wanted to get him out of that area that she would say, ‘I’m going to quit my job, find another job and he’s coming to Oak Hill.’ So I’d probably say Brandon more than ‘Melo but ‘Melo was coming from a different life. He lived with his mother in Baltimore and he could tell you stories about being out in those streets. But I would say Brandon because Compton is a tough place. It’s a really tough place. He left there and came to Mouth of Wilson in Virginia so he could better himself. And now he’s about to be a lottery draft pick. I have to be there to see that. So my wife and I and one of my assistants are going up there to New York with Brandon for the Draft.
SLAM: Do you feel like you have done just about everything that you wanted to accomplish, or is there still more work to do?
Coach Smith: I’m going to strive to be the best coach I can be. I hear coaches say ‘What are you going to do next year, hang another banner?’ But a new year, it’s a new team, another group of players and it’s another group of goals. When I leave Oak Hill, I want people to say that Oak Hill was the best program in high school basketball ever… ever! I want people to say that about the school not for me but because the school is committed to it. I don’t know so much about the ‘80s but since the ‘90s, I think we’ve been the most dominant team year in and year out. I want to kind of keep that going for another decade if we could do it. And it’s not an ego thing. It’s just that we’re on a level now that I think we should strive to be on every year. We should strive to beat every team, every single year. And if we do that, someday we will be the best team out there.