By Patrick Dillon @PDillon_SGN
STOCKTON – There is a new top Giant at the College of the Sequoias. Current men’s basketball head coach Rusty Smith earned his 352 victory over the weekend when the Giants defeated the San Joaquin Delta Mustangs in Stockton 85-77 on Saturday, March 9. In the process surpassed local legend Polly Wilhelmsen as the all-time winningest head coach.
“It’s certainly an honor to be mentioned in the same sentence, and breath as Polly,” Smith said. “He was an innovator and a pioneer. If you are being talked about with him, you are doing something really good.”
The Southern California native is now in his 18th season with the Giants and sits with an all-time record of 352-214 at COS. The humbleness of this lifetime student of the game showed through as he remained stoic while everyone else went ballistic over the win. His players even dumped water on him, a sight usually not seen on a basketball court.
It was partly because of Smith’s momentous achievement, and that the Giants were going to their second straight final eight appearance in the past two seasons and fourth during Smith’s tenure.
“Everyone around me was a lot more excited than I was,” Smith said. “I’m very proud to say I was able to continue the great traditions of this school.”
Smith played high school basketball for the now closed Aviation High School Falcons in Redondo Beach, and graduated in 1971. He played two seasons at El Camino Junio College before moving on to complete his collegeat career at Montana State. He went on to play professionally for a Euroleague team in Germany for seven years.
As time passed Smith ended up back in the states and headed back to southern California to complete his education. In 1983 he enrolled at Cal State Northridge. There he became a graduate assistant for the Matadors.
“It seemed like the natural progression of things to become a coach,” Smith said. “I loved the game and still wanted to compete. It all just fell into place.”
Smith stayed at the Division I level as an assistant coach. He moved from Northridge to Eastern Washington. After five seasons up north, he ended up back in the big city at UC Riverside for six years.
Smith had the desire to take the next step, but with the Highlanders head coach at the time not going anywhere he knew another move was in his future. This time he would do more than just move teams, but levels. Plus, with a growing family he wanted to settle down in a place where he could see his career and his family flourish. Visalia and COS checked all the boxes.
The focus on wanting his family develop began to merge into his coaching style almost immediately. Winning is always part of Smith’s goals, but his plan to achieve that is through player development.
“You have to take time to develop your players then you will be successful,” Smith said. “It is a product of winning.”
At the JC level it would be hard to find another coach as good as him. This past fall Tristan Forsyth became the 58th player under Smith to sign with a four-year university when he committed to Cal Baptist.
“I love coaching these young men in many ways,” Smith said.
Smith will have at least one more game with his current team. The Giants (22-8, 13-3) will put their eight game winning streak on the line tomorrow night in the quarterfinals of the state tournament. They will take on the Citrus Owls (24-6, 10-0) at Ventura College.
“Every junior college coach strives to get to this level,” Smith said. “It’s time to strap it on and get after it.”