Groomed to be a head coach, Katie Smith takes over Liberty

ByMechelle Voepel ESPN logo
Monday, October 16, 2017

You might be able to trace this moment -- Katie Smith's being named head coach of the New York Liberty -- all the way back to late July 2005. Smith was the best player for a Minnesota Lynx team mired in mediocrity at the time, and then-Detroit coach Bill Laimbeer thought she would be a really good addition to his team.

Smith, by contrast, wasn't sure about that at all.

"That kind of rocked my world a little bit," Smith said Monday of the in-season trade 12 years ago that sent her to the Shock. "I thought I'd be a Lynx for life. I really questioned how I'd fit in [at Detroit]. They had such talent."

She finished the 2005 season with the Shock, and then that offseason began to build a bond with Laimbeer. She and the Shock would go to the WNBA Finals in 2006, '07 and '08, winning two titles.

Having been a big scorer for the Lynx, Smith became comfortable and effective as a point guard -- even though she had balked at that term, preferring "lead guard" -- got into the best shape of her life, and truly elevated her defense to become one of the best in the WNBA at that end of the court, too.

Smith always has credited Laimbeer for helping inspire her, thanks largely to a blunt, straight-forward approach that she appreciated. Now, Smith will take over the Liberty after being Laimbeer's assistant for the last four years. And, again, this was something that Laimbeer seemed to be more sure of, at least at first, than Smith.

Her plan ever since her college days at Ohio State was to someday go into dentistry, like her father. Over and over as the years went by, Smith said she didn't want to coach. She wanted a lifestyle different from what she'd had as a player.

But when Laimbeer brought her to the Liberty for her final season as a player, 2013, he did so with the idea that she'd stick around as an assistant after that. And that one day, she'd step into a head-coaching role, either with the Liberty or somewhere else.

"I finally said, 'Let's see what I can do,'" Smith said of starting as a Liberty assistant in 2014. "Now here we are, and I love it. [Coaching] is nerve-racking; it's stressful. Dentistry would have been a little bit more of a secure profession. But I've chosen the other side. I think it's because I love the game."

The Liberty's head-coaching vacancy is a result of Laimbeer's reportedly moving to Las Vegas to take over there as coach and general manager when the San Antonio Stars franchise is sold. None of that has been officially announced yet, but the Liberty's changes were made official Monday morning.

Smith, 43, takes over a Liberty team that has been very good but also frustrating -- to the players themselves and to their fans. New York didn't qualify for the playoffs for the first two seasons under Laimbeer, in 2013 and '14.

In 2015, the Liberty had the best regular-season record in the WNBA, 23-11, but lost to Indiana in the Eastern Conference finals. In 2016 and this year, they finished third in the WNBA. Under the new playoff format with single-elimination games in the first two rounds, they lost second-round games to Phoenix (2016) and Washington (2017) at home.

The Liberty's last appearance in the WNBA Finals was 2002, and they've never won a league title. As a player, Smith won championships in the short-lived ABL in Columbus in 1997 and '98, playing for current Sparks coach Brian Agler. When she won her WNBA titles in Detroit, current Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve was a Shock assistant.

So Smith knows as well as anyone why Minnesota and Los Angeles have elevated to the top of the league -- having met in the WNBA Finals the past two years -- and what it's probably going to take to try to catch those teams.

It's a big challenge, but one she sounds eager to embrace with the Liberty. Smith joins Phoenix's Sandy Brondello as a former WNBA player who is now a WNBA head coach. (San Antonio's Vickie Johnson also had that distinction, but it appears she will be replaced by Laimbeer.)

Even though she thought she didn't want to coach, Smith is glad to be in this role now. She's the Liberty's seventh head coach, and as it happens, returns the Ohio State connection to that role. Nancy Darsch, who coached Smith when she was a Buckeyes star in the 1990s -- was the Liberty's first coach, when the franchise and the league launched in 1997.

Smith scored 7,885 points in her 17-year pro career between the ABL (two years) and WNBA. She won gold medals for the U.S. team in three Olympics and two world championships. She knows how to win at the highest level. And she knows how close the Liberty have been to getting there in recent years. She hopes she can help them achieve it.

Coaching might not have been her plan until fairly recently, but in reality she has been building toward this for a long time.

"I think it's huge for the women that have grown up and come through women's college basketball and the WNBA that we continue to find ways to give back and make it stronger," Smith said. "Because at the end of the day, we care. We are passionate about the game and the league."