BERKELEY, Calif. (AP) — Hall of Fame Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer once told Charmin Smith coaching would absolutely be in her future.
Smith didn’t see it at the time.
Pursuing an engineering career had become her backup plan after Smith got cut from the WNBA when “someone named Sue Bird came in to the Seattle Storm and it was my time to go.” Smith contemplated her next move and had returned to graduate school — “because my next favorite place to be other than the basketball court is in the classroom, I’m a nerd like that.”
“I was just going back to get another master’s degree that I really didn’t need and trying to figure out life,” Smith recalled Tuesday, when she was formally introduced as California’s new women’s basketball coach. “I interviewed for an engineering position and during that interview I was shaking, nauseous, dizzy, sweating, just like I was not ready to let go of basketball. I couldn’t do it.”
Back at alma mater Stanford shortly afterward working basketball camps, VanDerveer was clear with Smith, more than once: “Oh, Charmin, I really think you should look into coaching.”
Boston College wound up having an opening and Smith’s path to where she is now had begun.
She was greeted Tuesday at Memorial Stadium with colleagues and donors sporting “Welcome Home Charmin” buttons. And that’s exactly what this is.
Smith’s journey to becoming a head coach took her from Berkeley to New York and back to the Bay Area in a matter of two months. Her stuff is in storage and her former house has long-term renters because Smith departed Cal in April after more than a decade to join the WNBA Liberty as an assistant coach.
Now, she’s back leading the Golden Bears to take over after Lindsay Gottlieb departed for an assistant coaching position with the Cleveland Cavaliers earlier this month. Smith had been the associate head coach since 2012 under Gottlieb and with her defensive-minded playing style she knows that will be a focus at Cal.
Even that short time away with the Liberty benefited the 44-year-old Smith, the former Stanford guard who is “revitalized” for the next challenge and has some new schemes and sets to add to the mix, too. She appreciates the support and chance from Liberty head coach Katie Smith and the front office there both to join the staff then explore the Cal opening.
“As an assistant coach I had really exhausted my growth, and I think that happens, 12 years, they were 12 great years,” Smith said. “I was really happy but I knew that there was going to be a time where I needed to do something different. I was not retiring as an assistant coach for Cal. The WNBA experience was something that excited me and working with Katie Smith. I’ve known her for a really long time, I have a lot of respect for her. I thought it was a good opportunity. I didn’t know at the time that it was preparing me for this phenomenal opportunity and I do think that it all happened for a reason.”
Smith quickly climbed to the top of the list for candidates to replace Gottlieb, who carefully gave her insight to athletic director Jim Knowlton without overstepping. Smith’s vision for the program and emphasis on leading her players in basketball and far beyond the court in life as well as a commitment to build strong relationships with the university’s Division of Equality and Inclusion all made her stand out in a national search.
Gottlieb, who flew back from her new base home in Cleveland to attend Smith’s news conference, is also thrilled to see an African-American woman guiding a top program not only on campus but in the Pac-12 Conference.
“I’m not afraid to say that Charmin is the right person at the right time for a number of different reasons,” Gottlieb said. “One of which is I think it’s really important to have an exceptional African-American female head coach coaching here at Cal. Period. It’s really important that young women see people in positions of power that look like them. Not that every player here is African-American but I think that it’s really significant. I think she shows any young recruits, any young student-athlete that you can reach any height.”
Smith will keep her familiar staff intact with assistants Kai Felton, Wendale Farrow and April Phillips.
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