11 years ago, I attended my first Iolani Classic. The championship game that year featured No. 1 Oak Hill (Mouth of Wilson, Va.) vs. No. 2 Dominguez (Compton, Calif.). Oak Hill won in a 54-50 thriller, and Kentucky-bound Cliff Hawkins was named the Most Valuable Player. In addition, I got to interview Tyson Chandler.
Over a decade later, not much has changed. Oak Hill is once again No. 1 in both the USA Today and ESPN RISE rankings with an 11-0 record. They have one game left vs. Sumter on Saturday before they leave for Hawaii.
Smith, who has his choice of holiday tournaments, has been bringing the Warriors to Honolulu since 1988 (though not every year).
“The Hawaii tournament has top-notch competition. Semifinals, finals, you can’t find a better game on your schedule all season long. Obviously, being in Honolulu, Hawaii, that’s an attraction. Most of our kids have never been there. I like taking our guys to different places, places they’ve never gone to,” he said.
In addition, Smith was very complimentary about the atmosphere: “(Tournament Director) Glenn Young and all the Iolani people who run it are first class. Even though it’s in a smaller type of gym, I really like that. It’s a community out there; I see some of the same faces year after year. The people are great, they appreciate good basketball, and they appreciate us coming. I really like traveling there and playing in that tournament.”
The Warriors enter as the clear favorites, but Smith doesn’t have a problem with that. In fact, he almost welcomes it.
“We’re playing well so far,” he said. “We’re putting this season into sections, and we want to go to Hawaii without a loss. Our guys have aspirations of being No. 1 and being national champions. They know in order to do that, they need to win the tournament in Hawaii.”
Smith is very familiar with national championships. Currently in his 26th season at Oak Hill, his teams have been crowned national champions seven times by USA Today and six times by ESPN RISE / National Sports News Service.
He has been named the USA Today National Coach of the Year three times and the Naismith Boys’ High School Coach of the Year once, but he has never considered himself just a coach. “You’re almost like their dad,” he said. “It’s a boarding school, so I eat in the cafeteria with them, we go to church together on Sundays, I have them over at the house. It’s a neat job, and I’ve enjoyed the years I’ve had at Oak Hill.”
However, Smith never imagined that he would stay there. “When I first took over, I figured I’d be here for three to five years, and move on,” he said. “When you’re a young coach, you always want to coach in college.”
But, the timing was never right. At first, his children were too young, and he didn’t want to move them around. The next time he considered leaving, his children were in high school, and he didn’t want to take them out of school. By the time his children grew up, Smith was in his 40s.
“When you’re at a place as long as I’ve been here, you kind of want to leave your mark a little bit,” he said. “I like working with young people at their age, and I do think I have more of an effect on them. Not a day goes by without me talking to a former player. I follow those guys, watch them play in college and in the NBA.”
Smith has no regrets about his career choice. He admits that he probably wouldn’t have stayed as long as he did if he weren’t coaching at such a high-profile school, but he treasures running his own program. He does everything himself, including chartering team buses and booking flights. In addition, he also serves as the school’s Athletic Director.
“I’m 55 years old; I’m not going anywhere now,” he said. “I’m going to keep coaching. When I retire, I’m heading to the golf course.”
Fortunately for Smith, Hawaii has plenty of those. It’s never too early to do some scouting for greens.