Coe-Brown’s Dave Smith still loves coaching basketball, even at 78 years old

Coe-Brown head coach Dave Smith started coaching in 1967. He's now in his 33rd season as the varsity boys' basketball coach at CBNA.

Coe-Brown head coach Dave Smith started coaching in 1967. He's now in his 33rd season as the varsity boys' basketball coach at CBNA. Chip Griffin—Photos By Chip

Dave Smith coaching Coe-Brown during last year’s Division II first round playoff game against Bow. Smith started coaching in 1967. He’s now in his 33rd season as the varsity boys’ basketball coach at CBNA.

Dave Smith coaching Coe-Brown during last year’s Division II first round playoff game against Bow. Smith started coaching in 1967. He’s now in his 33rd season as the varsity boys’ basketball coach at CBNA. Chip Griffin / Photos By Chip

Dave Smith talks to some of his Coe-Brown basketball players during a game against Bishop Brady High School last January.

Dave Smith talks to some of his Coe-Brown basketball players during a game against Bishop Brady High School last January. ERIC RYNSTON-LOBEL / Monitor staff

By ERIC RYNSTON-LOBEL

Monitor staff

Published: 02-02-2024 2:44 PM

Modified: 02-03-2024 4:30 PM


When Dave Smith first started coaching basketball in 1967, Super Bowl II was just months away, the United States hadn’t yet landed a man on the moon and the Puritan Backroom hadn’t yet invented the chicken tender.

Almost six decades later, Smith, now 78, still paces the sidelines in high school gyms across New Hampshire. He’s been the boys’ varsity basketball coach at Coe-Brown Northwood Academy since 1990, where he became the school’s headmaster a decade earlier.

His longevity in the game is noteworthy for sure. But more than just his sheer breadth of experience, it’s how he’s achieved this level of success for so many years that stands out. 

Doing anything well for over 50 years requires evolution. It requires a willingness to learn, a willingness to adapt and most importantly, it requires being involved for the right reasons. Throughout his career, first at Alton High School and then at Coe-Brown, Smith’s checked all of these boxes.

“He truly loves the game of basketball and how it relates to life,” said Dave Daigle, who’s coached at Coe-Brown since 1986. “He just loves the environment, and that’s what keeps him going. It’s amazing.”

Smith’s openness to always improving and growing mirrors what he expects of his players. As Daigle noted, he often talks about how basketball is a microcosm of life itself. He hasn’t coached for as long as he has without understanding that that motto applies to him, too.

“I’ve learned a lot from kids as well through the years, not just basketball but some of their challenges that they have with their own personal lives,” Smith said. “If you’ve had a bad day, it’s nice to go to practice and walk through the door and know that you’re going to work hard and have fun for two hours and that you can be together with people that want to be there and have common goals. That makes the day pretty good.”

‘Many ways of doing things’

Smith’s coaching career started around the same time that famed Indiana head coach Bobby Knight began his legendary run in Bloomington. Known for his bombastic and often controversial antics on the sidelines, Knight’s style was generally viewed as an acceptable way of coaching at the time. A half-century later, the profession has changed quite significantly.

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“Probably the style of the ’60s of coaching in certain areas like a Bobby Knight would never exist now,” Smith said. “It would not be tolerated by high schools, by middle schools, by colleges. You see how it’s changed even in the pros now. There aren’t many Bobby Knight-style coaches, not that he wasn’t a brilliant coach — the love for his kids that he had and the love that they had for him — but it was a different style, a different era that would not be, in most cases, acceptable now.”

Smith never saw himself trying to emulate Knight’s style. Still, it took him some time to learn that there isn’t just one way to coach, as folks who followed Knight and tried to emulate him may have not have understood.

“Sometimes early on, one thinks that there is a way of doing things, and as time goes on, you find out there are many ways of doing things,” Smith said. “It’s like if I taught a particular class, I’d think that every kid in my class is really going to be focused and love math or love social studies or whatever it is. But it’s understanding that my job is to work with them during that period of time, about trying to appreciate math or social studies and understanding that they have other things going on in their lives at that time.”

Surely throughout his career, Smith’s witnessed changes he might’ve initially resisted. But he pointed to a key life lesson he’s learned along the way: the openness to look at what you’re doing critically and consider other perspectives.

Smith loves the full-court press on defense and running fast break on offense. If he lived in a perfect world, he’d employ both all the time. But it’s not a perfect world. Some years, his teams might not be best suited to press or run offense at warp speed for 32 minutes of a game.

“I think part of the fun of being a coach is to learn how you fit all the pieces together,” he said. “Most coaches don’t have all the tools that they’d like to have. They’ve gotta work to that ability and try to find out how they can make an individual team better.”

‘A common goal’

After a basketball game, players are tired. They’ve spent hours in the gym. They’ve listened to their coaches talk in the huddle and in the locker room. They’re ready to go home.

But not a single Bears player leaves the gym without first giving Smith a fist bump or a handshake. It sounds like a small gesture, but it speaks volumes about the relationship he’s still building with his players. That’s one thing, he said, that’s stayed constant in all his years as a basketball coach and kept him eager to still do the job: the kids.

“It’s a connection that you try to make every day, whether it’s before practice, during practice, after practice that builds that relationship because it’s kind of a life relationship,” Smith said. “Basketball’s very important to the team, and we want to do the best we possibly can and get better every day and be as good as we can be during the season and by the end of the season be pretty happy about what we’ve accomplished to get to that point. But I think the great part of basketball, a great part of the team sport, is that it’s about a lot of individuals coming together with a common goal, a common expectation.”

It’s not rocket science, yet that throughline of building relationships with his players traces itself across Smith’s entire coaching tenure. Coaching has changed. Basketball has changed. Smith’s love for his players has not.

Jamie Johnson, who’s coached with Smith for over 30 years, even recalls the connection he developed with him while participating in Smith’s camps as a kid growing up in Northwood.

“I don’t remember any other coaches from back then when I was a kid,” Johnson said, “but I remember him. … He’s special.”

Few things better capture this tight-knit community that Smith’s built, Daigle explained, than the consistent stream of alumni who return to help out. 

Over the holiday break, it’s not uncommon for former players to visit and sometimes even work with the current players in drills during practice.

“The older kids have been fantastic about the tradition of what Coe-Brown basketball is,” Daigle said of his favorite memory of being part of Smith’s program for so long. “Obviously winning is nice, the championship (in 1997) was amazing, but it’s more of the day-in, day-out hard work, realizing that hard work is a good thing and enjoying it.”

Coe-Brown’s currently 9-2 this season entering play on Friday, in fourth place out of 20 teams in the NHIAA Division II standings, and two things are clear: Smith still knows how to coach basketball, and he still knows how to bond with his players even though he’s 50 years their senior.

He also knows his coaching tenure is nearing its end. This year could be the end of the road for him. He hasn’t decided. 

“It’s a year-to-year thing for all the things that I do because at this point, it’s not about anything other than I love what I do,” he said. “And as long as I feel good about being able to do it mentally and physically, then I’m good. But when the time comes, the time comes.”