Coach’s Corner: Jimmy Smith

Smith joins Trinity after three years leading team at Millsaps


Trinity Department of Athletics

Jimmy Smith looks on from the sideline as junior AJ Clark dribbles up the court against Colorado College. The Tigers are 5-1 in the shortened 2021 season thus far.

After three years leading the Millsaps College Majors, Jimmy Smith is now the head men’s basketball coach at Trinity. Smith replaces Pat Cunningham, Trinity’s winningest men’s basketball coach, who won 352 games and posted an all-time winning percentage of .614 over 21 seasons with the Tigers.

Smith is quite familiar with the Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference (SCAC) and the Tigers as he previously coached at both Schreiner University and Texas Lutheran University. Smith also served as an assistant coach at the Division I level with Sam Houston State University.

After interviewing a coach from every sport last year for the “Coach’s Corner” series, it only felt right to welcome Smith to Trinity with a Coach’s Corner interview of his own where he discussed what brought him to Trinity, why his teams have a knack for turning things around quickly and what his dream dinner party would look like.

Why did you decide to coach at Trinity after three years at Millsaps?

I grew up in Texas, went to a small school in Texas and coached in a couple different spots in the league, being at Schreiner and Texas Lutheran, so I had a lot of familiarity with Trinity and always thought fondly of the school. I was at Millsaps and was building a really good team, but when the job opened, I just wanted to throw my name in the hat because I always felt like this is a school that offers a lot of different things. With the great education, obviously our facilities are top notch, and then the location in San Antonio, it’s a great place to live and a great place for students to do internships and shadowings and all those sorts of things. My career aspiration is to win a national championship, and I know we have a long way to go to get there, but I felt like Trinity offered that opportunity as we’ve had other sports get to that point and be successful. I just felt like all around it was a great opportunity.

You mentioned that you coached a couple of schools in the SCAC. Is it strange to coach for a school that you’ve coached against for so many years?

It is a little different for sure. The nice piece of it is I was at Texas Lutheran, and we actually played them last weekend, but you know outside of my assistant who was still there, all the players and things were gone. It was a little surreal going back into the ‘Doghouse’ there at TLU, but it made it a lot easier since all the players have gone through there, so it wasn’t as awkward as maybe it could have been if they were still around.

Is there any pressure replacing the all-time winningest Coach at Trinity, Coach Pat Cunningham?

I wouldn’t say pressure is the right term, but there definitely is motivation for me to continue building the program in a direction that we’re competing for SCAC championships year in and year out and then hopefully being relevant on the national scene. I think that’s obviously something that Coach Cunningham did. Then when you look around the athletic department as a whole, it seems like everyone’s kind of pushing each other with all the sports that are winning the conference and advancing into the NCAA Tournament and then making it really far. I think there’s a nice little boost there because I think everyone’s kind of pushing each other to be better, and you have a lot of people around that have like-minded goals. Coach Cunningham made it to an Elite Eight, I believe in 2005, and had a lot of really good seasons, so we definitely want to build on that tradition and then just continue to keep moving forward.

Apart from the two schools within the conference that you’ve coached at, you’ve also coached at the Division I level with Sam Houston State. What in your experience has been the biggest difference between Division I and Division III.

I feel like at times at the Division I level, our players felt like it was a full time job and not necessarily something that they were doing because they loved, and I think at our level it’s a little more balanced. The guys are obviously working really hard during the season, but you know they’re doing it because they love it, not necessarily because it’s paying for their school or something like that.

At each of your previous head coaching jobs, you’ve taken a team who had a losing record the year when you arrived and led them to winning records soon after, including a conference championship in your first year at TLU. What is behind the quick improvement shown by your teams?

I think a lot of it is just trying to find what makes each individual guy on your team tick. I think everyone is motivated a little bit differently, so I think we’ve done a pretty good job over the years of setting clear expectations for what we expect and holding everyone to the same standard. Then it’s really getting to know our guys on a more personal level and understand what it is that they’re looking for out of their experience and how we can work together to find a common goal. I’ve been fortunate to coach a lot of high character people, and when they’re challenged to do more, work harder or sacrifice a little bit more to help the team get where they need to go, they’ve responded and done that, so I think our team as a coaching staff, we do a really good job of of mirroring that. I think we always work really hard and we try to give the guys the best opportunity to win through scouting, preparation and practice, and then when the games come, that’s their time to shine. It’s kind of like taking a test. You put all the studying in, and then once the test happens, it’s your time to show what you know, what you can do and how you can react to questions or circumstances. I think that’s really what we’ve done. We work really hard in the preparation standpoint, and I think our guys feel prepared and confident, so then when they get into the game, there’s not really many circumstances that they haven’t already been through. They can just focus on playing and executing the game plan.

A lot of it is also being fortunate to inherit programs that have some high character guys, and then building it with some recruiting as well just to get where we want to be. I think this group here at Trinity is the same. There’s a lot of guys that are returning to the team that have a lot of high character and are talented individuals, and I feel like they’ve done a really good job of accepting some of the new guys we have and and helping them along the way, and it’s been a really fun team dynamic so far.

You talked about how important it is to get that connection with your players. How has it been dealing with the Zoom dominated world as you’ve tried to meet your players and adjust to a new school?

That’s been a lot different for sure. Usually you want to get here as quickly as you can and meet with the guys when I was hired in the spring, but the school was virtual so there was really no reason to be here. Then in the fall, we want to do as much as you can as a team, before practice starts just to, not basketball-wise, but having meals together, doing different things just to get to know each other, and obviously we were not able to do that. [It’s been] a lot of Zoom calls and phone conversations, doing as much as we can to let them know what I’m about, why I’m here, and what I want to accomplish and how I’m here to support them. It has been fun to be able to practice because it’s allowed us to get to be around each other a little bit more in person, and a lot of credit goes to the university and people in our athletic department for even being able to make that happen. In a normal year, we’d be hanging out and doing a lot of different things, but that is limited, so we’re just trying to maximize the time that we have together.

Is there a coach you model yourself after, whether that be in the pros or elsewhere?

Not necessarily one person. I think coaching is a lot of, I don’t want to say ‘theft,’ but it is kind of just seeing great concepts that other people do and figuring out how it can work within what you’re doing. I do study the game a lot and watch a lot of different things, and there’s just a lot of great coaches out there that are doing a lot of really cool stuff. I’m more of a guy that I like to look at our roster, our team and our strengths and figure out what we can use that best suits those guys. I have some mentors. Ken Deweese, who just retired at Mary Hardin-Baylor, is who I played for and worked for. I worked for Bob Marlin, who’s at Louisiana Lafayette and Jason Hooten, who is at Sam Houston. I’ve had a lot of great assistants along the way that I’m in group chats with and things like that, so I really lean on those guys. I’m like ‘Hey, does anybody have a great ISO play, or baseline out of bounds?’ I’ve put a lot of those things in this year and more times than not they’ve worked, so it’s fun to study the game and pick things up from different people.

If you could pick any NBA player to build your ideal team around right now, who would you choose and why?

I’m in San Antonio, so I probably shouldn’t say this, but I’ll go ahead. I grew up in the Dallas area, so I’m a big Mavericks fan, so I would have to go with Luka Doncic. I think he’s really well rounded. He’s obviously very young at 21 years old, and he can do a little bit of everything. I’d like to see him shoot a little bit better, but just his size and his vision, his ability to score, I think he would be a great person to build a team around.

If you were stranded on an island, who would you want to be stranded with and why?

I have to answer this only one way: I would like to be with my wife. We’ve been married for 10 years now. We have three children; a third grader, second grader and a kindergartener, and she truly has been a big part of everything that we do. She’s our biggest fan basketball wise, the backbone of our family and my best friend, so I definitely would choose my wife, Lori, to have on the island with me.

What three people, past or present, would you invite to your dream dinner party?

Again, I’m a Mavericks fan, so I definitely want Dirk Nowitzki to be there. I think he is an interesting person and has been somebody that’s extremely loyal. Faith is an important thing to me, so how could you not have Jesus there? Third, I think George Washington would be cool. First president and obviously the founder of a lot of things in our country, so we’d like to pick his brain on what things were like back then.

What would you eat at this dinner?

Absolutely steak and potatoes. Probably get a little fillet and a baked potato with butter and cheese and I’m good to go.

What’s your go-to karaoke song?

“This Is How We Do It” from Montell Jordan.

What show, movie or artist do you publicly hate but secretly love?

I don’t know if there’s one that I publicly hate, but Cobra Kai is something that’s on Netflix right now, which I guess it’s not so secret anymore wearing a T-shirt to practice, but I really liked The Karate Kid movies growing up, and I’m not ashamed to admit when the last season of Cobra Kai came out, I finished the entire thing in one day. I’ve taken a little heat from some people for that, but I’ll embrace it.

If you could tell the world one thing about yourself what would you say?

The big thing I would like people to know is that the reason that I love this profession and being able to work with young people is being able to help and assist people to get to their goals and their dreams. I think athletics is a great avenue to test yourself, challenge yourself and figure out what you’re all about and how you can overcome obstacles. That’s what I try to be for our guys and our former players, just someone that’s been through a lot in my life, and then a lot of experiences they’ve been through, just be someone that that they can lean on, and hopefully when they look back on their experience playing in my program, they felt like it was really beneficial in getting them to where they are today or in the future.