Charlotte Smith is one of the most decorated players in North Carolina basketball history, as one of only two to have her jersey retired. She hit the buzzer-beater winning shot in the 1994 National Championship game to give the Tar Heels the title.
Now in her seventh year as Elon head coach, Smith has guided the Phoenix to no less than a fourth-place tie in conference play. Last season Elon earned its first-ever NCAA Tournament bid, and won the conference regular-season and tournament titles for the first time in 35 years.
After college, Smith played in both the ABL and the WNBA, as well as overseas. She also played for USA Basketball for many years. Smith, a North Carolina native, was an assistant coach for Hall of Famer Sylvia Hatchell and the Tar Heels from 2002-2011.
Let’s start at the beginning: what was it like for you last season to take Elon to its first NCAA Tournament appearance in program history, and to be named CAA coach of the year? Was that something you had envisioned or planned for?
It touches a real feeling. When I got the job at Elon I remember vividly at the press conference talking about building a championship program. I’ve always had that winner’s mentality, where I could go into a situation and build anything. I remember having that at all levels, in high school and then at Carolina. I’m used to building things. I felt like we could do that at Elon if I got the right staff to support me.
Then you have to recruit well. It was exciting to see it come to fruition. I remember first sitting down with this class, who are seniors this year, and telling them they could turn it around, that they could see the fruits of their labor.
How was it having Coach McCallie’s daughter on your team, and having Coach P show up for games at times?
It was awesome! She was our super fan, our number one fan. I thought it was so cool to see her on the sidelines supporting Maddie and our program. Some might feel uneasy about it, but it’s not a problem. We all scout each other. She wasn’t coming here with a pad and pen.
When we would watch film last year, I’d rewind it to see her cheer.
How old were you when you started playing basketball, and what were the circumstances surrounding you first picking up a ball?
I grew up in a basketball family, and Sunday we’d go to my grandmother’s house. She had a basketball hoop at the far end of her yard, and with three brothers, I was right in the mix. We spent a lot of time playing there; I started playing around seven years old.
My uncle David “Skywalker” Thompson played in the ABA and the NBA, and I grew up watching him as a little girl and wanting to be a professional athlete like him. My cousin Alvin Gentry is the head coach of the New Orleans Pelicans. My cousin Dereck Whittenburg played at NC State and helped them win a National Championship. I’ve also had several family members work on the administrative side of athletics.
Most of my family is still here in North Carolina. My parents are both deceased. My mom passed at the beginning of my pro career in 1996, and my dad passed at the end of my pro career in 2006. Now I have an older brother who lives in Charlotte and gets to some of our games.
I tell my players all the time the importance of having that killer instinct. Once you cross those lines to the court, it’s war, it’s battle. Whenever I was in the game, I was trying to take you out.
You played at North Carolina at probably the most heightened time in the history of the program. How did that experience prepare you to become a coach? And when did you know you wanted to coach?
I am forever grateful and indebted to coach Sylvia Hatchell because honestly, I didn’t want to coach. I was playing basketball professionally when I got my first offer from her, and I turned it down. The second time she asked me my pro career was winding down and I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do after basketball. I didn’t know if I wanted to coach, but I told her I’d give it a try. It took years for me to take to it. It was a huge adjustment to go from being a pro athlete where you work two to three hours a day to this job, that encompasses your life. It took four to five years until I felt like I had a rhythm to this thing. I’m grateful for coach Hatchell because for almost 10 years, I worked under a Hall of Fame coach, which was the best prep I could have got. Seeing how she approached every single facet of the job, from camp to recruiting to game prep, was invaluable. I was watching someone who had a well-oiled machine in place.
What was it about coaching that you liked that you hadn’t counted on?
I loved the games and going back and teaching what has been imparted to me over the years. When you see the players grow and change, it’s great. How you impact their lives as a coach means the most. A lot of times you don’t know the impact you have on them, until years after the fact.
How was your lens different between the time you played at North Carolina to the time you coached there? What did you learn from Sylvia Hatchell as her assistant coach?
It’s a night and day lens. You start to realize the investment that coaches put in, and you don’t see that as a player – the grind of being a coach – and it makes you more appreciative of everything they pour into the program, and pour into players. That’s the part where a lot of people, once they realize what it takes to be a coach, that can be a turnoff for some. I’ve had some players who realized what’s behind the scenes, that it’s not just the glamor of pacing the sidelines, and decided it wasn’t for them. Ten percent is the X’s and O’s and 90 percent is the rest. If you’re in love with X’s and O’s, it might not be for you, because the biggest part is people management.
What are the steps involved in building a program and a culture around it?
You have to identify what you want the culture of your program to look like. If there is one word I had to build my culture on, I would say excellence. That’s what my culture revolves around: do it with excellence, and make excellence your signature of perfection. It doesn’t mean you’ll always get it right, but shoot for the moon and reach for the stars.
Is Elon where you want it to be yet?
It was where I wanted it to be once I did my formal interview on campus. I had no idea about Elon and I had never been on campus. I’d interviewed for a couple of jobs and was turned down because of lack of head coach experience. I went back to Carolina and thought I’d stay there another year. Then the Elon job became open and I talked to coach Hatchell about it, and she felt like it would be a good fit. In the interview I fell in love with the place and when I left, I had a sense of peace about it. I decided that if they offered me the job, I’d take it.
As it all worked out, with the other schools that turned me down, we’ve played those teams several times and beaten them several times. I have a competitive spirit, and I showed them it’s not just about experience. If you have a passion and a love for the game, that’s what’s important.
What is the best thing about coaching?
The impact that you have on players. I love to see the maturation process, the growth and the emotional maturity that unfolds. You prepare them for life off the court. When you see your players graduate, see their resumes and what they’ve accomplished, there’s nothing better. I tell them, when you graduate, I want people to see your resume and say “wow!” We’re big on them being well-rounded.
How has your approach to working with young people changed over the years?
I’ve developed more patience, because you come to realize that they’ve done all these studies about how 25 is the new 18. The maturation process is a little slower than it used to be because young people have been exposed to so much. I’ve developed patience for how other people mature, patience in helping them to grow. A lot of things can make you have a short fuse. The process of teaching them how to be great citizens and good people doesn’t happen overnight.
What do you want to make sure you impart to your athletes before they leave your program?
It goes back to that excellence word. Everything you do, do it in a spirit of excellence. My players are always open to that. Lots of players want to mature spiritually. I talk to them about how in beginning, God said it was good when He created the Earth. Similarly, everything you put your hands to do, you should be able to look back at it and say it was good.
You are a talented piano player and singer. When are those talents showcased?
I’m a producer and player more so than a musician. I have done a team song with a rap hip hop beat to it, it’s called “Championship Road.” I wrote it in 2011 when I was first hired.
What’s on your bucket list?
As of 2013 I’m an author, of the book “When Coaches Pray.” Now I want to write one called “When Athletes Pray.” I would love to go to Dubai – I’ve never been there, though I’ve traveled the world. And I’d love to produce an album.