After 21 years on the court, Chico State basketball coach Puck Smith says ‘so long’
The Chico State men’s basketball team’s 75-66 win over California Collegiate Athletic Association foe Cal State Dominguez Hills on Feb. 29 was a triumphant end to an otherwise dismal year. The Wildcats finished 7-20 for a second straight season, marked by a baffling 3-17 conference mark. After the game, Head Coach Puck Smith collected his thoughts and, as he always does, spoke to his players. This post-game message would be quite different.
“I walked in and said, ‘You guys really gave me a hell of a gift tonight,’ “ the 64-year-old Smith recalled during a phone interview. “I told them I’d made the decision before the season started that this was going to be my final season coaching.”
Chico State Athletic Director Anita Barker was one of the few who knew of Smith’s intentions (his wife, Linda, and his assistant coaches were also privy) and respects his decision to close the season without making it public.
“He felt it was the right thing to do to just finish this year and for the attention to be on the players,” she said, “as opposed to the attention being on him.”
In 1987, Smith was hired as the 10th men’s basketball coach in Chico State history (his son, Ryan, a senior on this year’s team, was 2 years old when Dad was hired). Prescott “Puck” Smith wrapped up his 21-year Wildcats coaching career with 287 victories. While Chico State notched win No. 1,200 in its 93-year history, the university also embarked on its national search for its 11th head coach.
Consecutive seven-win seasons to close his career don’t accurately disclose Smith’s contributions to the men’s basketball program or the university. Thank him for many of Chico State’s salad days. In 1991, Chico State beat St. Mary’s 67-64, its lone win over a Division I opponent. Chico State finished the 1992-1993 campaign ranked No. 17, its highest final ranking ever in the national poll. The Smith-led Wildcats captured four consecutive Northern California Athletic Conference titles (1990-1994) and reached the NCAA Tournament five times.
And, during a three-year stretch (1991-1994), Smith won 67 games. No Chico State men’s coach, even the legendary Art Acker, collected as many wins over the same time span.
So, what’s next for a man who spent 21 years at the same job?
“I don’t really have any direct plans,” he said. “I’m not looking for a new career.”
These may be intimations from a man who’s made his final coaching stop. Here’s what he does know: A 35-foot sailboat awaits Smith and his brother. He’d like to golf a little bit more. He and his wife, Linda, have plans to travel. He’s even considering authoring another book (in 2006, Smith published his Vietnam memoirs in Last Light With the Boys).
Smith leaves behind a legacy that’s nearly unrivaled throughout the halls of the Chico State Athletic Department.
“You look up and down our hallway, and we’re losing someone who’s seasoned and who has some wisdom … that our younger coaches don’t have, because they haven’t been in the profession long enough,” Barker said.
Puck Smith is a salt-of-the-earth fellow. His loyalty is boundless, his candor refreshing. Family is top on his priority list and, if you suited up for his squad, he demanded you live up to his expectations. Some may have been uncomfortable with that. Perhaps they didn’t quite believe in themselves as much as he did. But, more often than not, if they listened, put in the time, cultivated their work ethic and tried their damndest ("Practices are the essence of what basketball is all about,” Smith says), they’d be better people after he touched their lives.
“I was just a guy trying to do his job,” he said. “Sometimes I think I’m a bit misunderstood. When I get focused on something, I come across as a little uncompromising. I’ve gotten that kind of feedback. People know that I’m not going to waver, and they try to avoid me when I have that look in my eye. But I don’t see myself that way.”