By Patrick Dillon @PDillon_SGN
VISALIA – The winningest coach in College of the Sequoias’ history is stepping down. Rusty Smith announced his retirement from coaching, and teaching after 18 years late last week.
“I just felt like this was the time for me to retire,” Smith said. “I’m healthy, and want to enjoy my retirement.”
The announcement came two weeks after he surpassed local legend Polly Wilhelmsen for most wins in the program’s 91-year history. Smith earned his 352nd win when the Giants defeated the San Joaquin Delta Mustangs 85-77 in the Northern California Regional Finals on march 9.
“It’s certainly an honor to be mentioned in the same sentence, and breath as Polly. He was an innovator and a pioneer. If you are being talked about with him, you are doing something really good,” Smith said after getting what became his last victory.
Smith will retire with an overall record of 352-205. He is one win ahead of Wilhelmsen who went 351-200 in 22 seasons with the Giants from 1941 until the 1964 season. Smith won two Central Valley Conference titles, and took COS to four final eight appearances.
The furthest run during Smith’s tenure was in 2003-04. That season COS had their only final four berth under Smith. That same season the Giants had their best single winning percentage in school history going 28-9 (.903).
Although, winning a basketball game was important to Smith it wasn’t the key component to his success. Smith’s first and foremost task was the development of his players. That philosophy led to the signing of 58 players to the Division I level.
According to College of the Sequoias’ Athletic Director Brent Davis, it was that foundation which made Smith one of the most respected individuals at every level in the game.
Smith’s final charge came to an end when the Giant’s lost 70-59 to the Citrus Owls on March 14 at Venture College during the opening round of the state playoffs. COS finished with an overall record of 22-9, and placed second in the Central Valley Conference.
“I feel fortunate to have coached at COS for all these years, and maintained the success of the program,” Smith said.
The decision to step away ends a 46-year playing and coaching career. 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 amateur career at Montana State. He played professionally for a Euroleague team in Germany for seven years.
As time passed Smith ended up back here in the states. He decided to head 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.
Smith stayed at the Division I level as an assistant coach moving from Northridge to Eastern Washington. Then ended up back in the big city at UC Riverside for six years. Smith had the desire to take the next step with the Highlanders, but the head coach at the time didn’t seemed settled in for a long stay. Smith knew if he wanted to take the next step another move was in his future. This time he would do more than just move teams, he moved levels. Plus, with a growing family he wanted to settle down in a place where he could see his career and his family have the support they need and would be given the chance to flourish. Visalia and COS checked all the boxes, and it was those two aspects which kept him in Visalia for all those years.
Smith will still teach through the end of the semester, but both he and COS will be starting new chapters in their lives come this summer. Smith plans on returning to Southern California. He and his wife, Susan, purchased a home in Carlsbad. They will be closer to family who have laid down roots in the San Diego area.
For Davis the search for the next head men’s basketball coach begins immediately.
“He [Smith] was one of the great ones,” Davis said. “I’m happy for him, but sad that we’ve got some big shoes to fill.”