Calling the shots
Her storied past in women's basketball saw her star as a Buckeye, an Olympian and a pro. Now Katie Smith is writing a new chapter as head coach of the WNBA's New York Liberty.
The greatest player in Ohio State women’s basketball history feeds the parking meter outside St. John Arena and walks alone into the campus building where her legend took root.
She passes black-and-white photos of athletes on the walls, strolls down a cement ramp and steps onto the familiar hardwood court. Her blue eyes take in the scene on this December morning. Habit soon takes hold. She scoops up a ball, toes the three-point line and lets a shot fly with a jeweler’s touch.
The ball hits nothing but net, another swish in a life full of them. Yet this one is enough to transport her back a quarter-century, back to a glorious season when the precocious, aw-shucks freshman came out of the Hocking Hills to lead the Buckeyes to the brink of a national championship.
“I love coming in here,” Katie Smith ’08, ’14 MS says. “It’s home. It’s comfortable. I really love gyms in general, but
St. John is a special place. It just has nostalgia, so many memories. I love this place. I spent a lot of days here.”
Soaking up this brief blast from the past doesn’t mean the two-time Ohio State alumna is mired in memories. At 43, Smith is busy creating new ones. Her days are a blur of off-season duties since the WNBA’s New York Liberty named her head coach in October.
While playing for the Buckeyes from 1992 to ’96, Smith dreamed of someday being a dentist like her father. Plans changed in the rapids of life. In May, she’ll take to the court as a first-time head coach in the Big Apple, a galaxy away from her tiny hometown of Logan, Ohio.
“It’s a little nerve-wracking, but I’m excited to see how this unfolds,” says Smith, who spent the past four years as an assistant coach with the Liberty. “I’m ready to work. Let’s get after it.”
The year Katie Smith helped guide her Ohio State women’s basketball team to the NCAA championship game as a freshman
Smith knows no other way. Nobody outworked her, say former teammates. A hard-charging attitude fueled Smith’s spectacular 17-year professional playing career, highlighted by three Olympic gold medals and four championships in two separate pro leagues. Ohio State honored her in 2001 as the first female Buckeye athlete to have her jersey number retired, and in 2016, the WNBA voted the seven-time all-star one of its top-20 most influential players ever. In February, she was named to the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame. Two months earlier, Smith was nominated for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Her gilded résumé was written in sweat.
“She’s one of the all-time great competitors in our sport’s history,” says Ohio State women’s basketball coach Kevin McGuff. “What is going to carry the day for her is her competitive nature and ability to get her teams to play incredibly hard. That is what’s going to make her a successful coach.”
‘For the women’
Early December sunshine cuts through a window of Smith’s home and casts soft light on her face. Tears streak down her cheeks. She pauses and apologizes, caught by surprise at her emotional response to questions about the future of the WNBA and women’s sports.
“You can’t just take this for granted,” she says.
Smith knows so much progress has been made for female athletes everywhere since she attended Ohio State in the early 1990s, when there was no professional women’s basketball league. That’s part of her pride in her alma mater and Columbus hosting the NCAA Women’s Final Four from March 30 to April 1, a symbolic full circle to her own appearance in that glittering event 25 years ago as a Buckeye freshman.
Still, the realization that more work must be done to secure and grow women’s athletics makes her choke up.
“I think that’s partly why I want to coach, for the women,” Smith says. “I feel like I need to help the women’s basketball game. I feel like it has given me so much that I need to give back. I need to help it keep going.”
The number of seasons Smith played in the WNBA before retiring from the New York Liberty in 2013
Smith is doing so in a mundane manner on this day. She’s sitting in the kitchen of the Upper Arlington house she’s called home since 2003, its location all the better to stay connected to Ohio State and Logan, about 50 miles southeast of Columbus. The modest setting is quiet, a calm contrast to the old-school wall calendar stuffed with scribbled reminders and appointments literally looming over Smith’s shoulder.
A computer and piles of paper sit on the table in front of Smith, who’s sporting cotton sweats and athletic flip flops. She’s busy checking on her Liberty players who are spending the offseason playing overseas, writing scouting reports about the college players she’s seen play and otherwise preparing for the season’s start in May. Grunt work, she calls it. The new job isn’t all big-city glamour.
But toiling in shadows doesn’t bother Smith. She strapped on work boots and showed steers and sheep at the Hocking County Fair as a child. Her love of animals led her first to consider becoming a veterinarian. By the time she arrived at Ohio State, hailed as the high school National Player of the Year by Gatorade, her career plans turned to dentistry. That was her intent as late as her senior season, when she was named the Big Ten’s most valuable player.
“I never thought I’d be a coach, but here I am,” Smith says. “Basketball was my passion, but I didn’t know or expect that my life would take this track of playing and now coaching. It’s really the farthest thing from what I thought, growing up, my life would be like.”
Basketball opened her world. The WNBA and American Basketball League began play in 1997, spawned by the popularity of the USA’s gold-medal women’s team at the previous year’s Atlanta Olympics. Smith ditched the dental school idea and signed to play for the Columbus Quest of the ABL. Her team won titles both years the league existed, and then Smith embarked on a 15-year career in the WNBA. There, she won two more championships before retiring after the 2013 season as the sport’s all-time leading scorer with 7,885 points. And now she’s a head coach.
“We’re proud of her accomplishments, but as I keep saying to her, we’re waiting for her to get a real job,” jokes her father, John Smith.
John and Barbara Smith have lived for 45 years in the same Logan house on 20 acres where they raised their three children. The importance of home made a deep impression on their only daughter, especially when it came time to choose a college. She considered Stanford, but ultimately balked at the idea of leaving central Ohio for the West Coast.
Gold medals won by Smith - in 2000, 2004 and 2008
Smith realized how becoming a Buckeye would provide a safety net for an 18-year-old from a town of 7,000, where locals wore her name on shirts and erected a roadside sign in her honor. Once at Ohio State, she established strong relationships — with athletes, coaches and administrators — that continued to blossom after she left the college cocoon. Even while traveling the globe as a player for USA Basketball, Smith nurtured her Ohio State network with regular phone calls and emails. When home, she made appearances on campus.
“I always go back to Ohio State,” Smith says. “It’s been a huge resource and my home base.”
Having that foundation helped Smith find her way once her playing career ended.
Public success doesn’t guarantee personal satisfaction. As achievements and accolades piled up during Smith’s professional career, regrets about leaving Ohio State for the pros in 1996 without her diploma pestered her.
“In the back of my head, I always had my own thoughts saying, ‘You need to get your degree.’’’
She heard the same from family and friends, especially mentors at Ohio State. Among them was Phyllis Bailey, who spent 39 years at the university in roles ranging from the first women’s basketball coach to Ohio State’s first female associate athletic director.
“She almost got to the point of walking around me because I was always kind of nagging her about that,” says Bailey, who’s now 91 and still lives near Columbus.
Coaching or sports administration were good career options to consider after retiring as a player, Bailey suggested. Smith denied interest in either, especially coaching. Yet a whisper in her head and a body familiar with surgery told her she couldn’t play forever. Time was ticking.
Smith re-enrolled at Ohio State during the WNBA off-season and completed the few credits she needed to earn her bachelor’s degree in 2008. However, graduating at age 33 didn’t resolve the issue of what to do when basketball ended. She was still searching for clarity while playing for four WNBA teams in her final five seasons.
“At that point, I thought coaching may be a possibility,” Smith says. “But I also understood that I didn’t want that to be the only thing I could do. I decided to go back and get my master’s, but it did take a lot of soul searching about what I wanted to do. What else out there do I love and want to be a part of?”
Becoming a registered dietician appealed to Smith, and Ohio State offered her a chance to pursue that educational path while also learning about coaching. She accepted a graduate assistant position with then-women’s basketball coach Jim Foster in the 2012–13 season, which concluded two months before the start of her 15th and final season as a WNBA player. She continued in that staff role while working toward her master’s in allied health professions, which she earned in 2014.
Two years of peeking behind the scenes of the hectic coaching world reinforced how much Smith enjoyed guiding players and proved her people skills were well suited for a life in basketball that didn’t require a uniform.
“Katie spent a lot of time with our players helping them grow and develop as young women,” McGuff says. “She was also out in the community promoting our program, reaching out to former players and alums who wanted to keep close to the program. She was just a great person to have around.”
Career point total. Smith is the all-time scoring leader in women's professional basketball history. She ranks fifth in the WNBA with 6,452 points.
Master’s degree in hand, Smith decided she couldn’t leave her WNBA world in 2014. New York Liberty Coach Bill Laimbeer asked her to be one of his assistant coaches. They knew each other well. She had won two championships playing for him in Detroit, and he was leading the Liberty when she played her final season in New York. She trusted Laimbeer, and she accepted his job offer. Two years later, he promoted Smith to associate head coach, and in October, she succeeded him at the helm when he left to become president and coach of the Las Vegas Aces.
“I’m really glad she’s coaching,” Bailey says. “When you’re a good player in a team sport, you’re a good person, because you’re not just looking out for yourself. You’re looking around and helping your teammates. I think Katie was one of them. She’s doing what she needs to be doing.”
Herb Williams, a former Ohio State and NBA star, agrees that Smith has found her true calling. The two became friends working together as Liberty assistant coaches the past three years. Now she’s his boss, and Williams is proud to serve and support a fellow Buckeye.
“I think she’s a natural fit,” Williams says. “Coaching is something she’s going to be very good at.”
His confidence in Smith comes from watching how she manages the personalities of players. He sees not only her thorough basketball knowledge, but a person who can connect with anyone because of her accessible, caring, humble nature.
“No matter where Katie has been or what she’s done, she’s the same person,” says Williams, a Buckeye star of the late ’70s and early ’80s who played 18 seasons in the NBA. “She’s well grounded. She doesn’t change. She is who she is, and you’re going to love her. You don’t have a choice, because she’s for real.”
For her friends
Plans sometimes change, but Smith has remained firm on the importance of friendship. A new head coaching job couldn’t keep her from making time in November for a former Ohio State teammate.
Adrienne Lynn Johnson ’97, executive director of player relations for the University of Louisville women’s basketball team, was in Columbus because her Cardinals were playing the Buckeyes. Smith stopped by the team hotel for a quick hello, and the reunion lasted 90 minutes.
“It was like old times,” Johnson says. “We laughed because we’re in our 40s now. It’s funny to us. We used to be these fine-tuned athletes.”
They traded stories about that magical ’93 season and their careers at Ohio State. But mostly, they talked about where they are in life, each now mentoring a new generation of players.
“I told her I’m proud of her,” Johnson says.
Smith deflected the attention. Personal matters mattered more. She offered condolences about Johnson’s mother, who died in April, and her empathy caused Johnson to recall how her friend was as a teammate.
“She always had this laid-back way about her — and the smile that came with it,” Johnson says. “You never felt uptight or tense around Katie. She cared about you.”
Caring goes both ways for Smith and Ohio State, and that bond will aid a rookie head coach in a volatile business. The Madison Square Garden Co. put the Liberty up for sale a month after her promotion. Nothing is certain in pro sports, but home is never far away.
“She knows the support system at Ohio State is always going to be there for her,” Williams says.
Smith likewise vows to forever maintain a presence at her alma mater.
“It’s great to have the connection with Ohio State and be its ambassador,” she says. “I love to give back and love just being somebody who represents Ohio State in a positive way.”
Look for her to continue meeting with Buckeye players or coaches whenever asked, to stop in professors’ offices unannounced to say hello, to lend her time to university and community causes.
Some days, you might even see Katie Smith in St. John Arena, shooting three-pointers like it’s 1993 all over again.
About the author
Todd Jones joined Ohio State Alumni Magazine in the role of senior writer last fall. He previously was a senior reporter for The Columbus Dispatch.