By Nick Giannandrea
The giant of all College of the Sequoias' men's basketball coaches is retiring.
Rusty Smith, who ascended to the top of the school's career coaching wins list this year, announced he will leave the college after 18 seasons effective at the end of semester.
It will cap a 46-year career that stretches back to his playing days at El Camino College and Montana State, a seven-year professional career in Germany, and a combined 17 seasons as an assistant at Cal State Northridge, Eastern Washington and UC Riverside before being hired as COS' 14th men's basketball coach in August of 2001.
"I just felt it was the right time," Smith said. "I still feel I could coach, but at the same time, I've put in 46 years between coaching and playing. So it's just a good time for me. I'm healthy, and I want to enjoy my retirement while I'm healthy.
"I'm very thankful to be involved in athletics really my whole life. It's just been great to be around young people all the time. It really does keep you young."
The Giants were 352-205 under Smith with two Central Valley Conference titles and four state final eight appearances, including a final four berth in 2003-04 when they went 28-3 and sported the best single season winning percentage (.903) in school history.
"He's been phenomenal. We are very sad to see him go," COS athletic director Brent Davis said. "He's everything we strive to be in our coaching staff and athletic department. He's great with student athletes, great in the community and great on campus. He's going to be sorely missed."
Smith passed local legend Polly Wilhelmsen for the most coaching wins in the 91-year history of the COS men's program following an 85-77 victory over San Joaquin Delta in the Northern California Regional finals on March 9. Wilhelmsen went 351-200 in 22 seasons between 1940-41 and 1963-64.
Smith's final Giants team finished 22-9, placed second in the CVC and reached the state final eight before losing 70-59 against Citrus on March 14 at Ventura College.
"I'm proud of the final eights. I'm proud of having the school record for wins. And I'm very proud that we were able to keep the program at COS successful," Smith said. "COS has been successful for many, many years, and I was glad I was able to keep that winning tradition going."
A search to hire a full-time replacement will begin immediately, according to Davis.
Smith said he believes the next coach is coming into a "great situation" under the leadership at COS.
"Brent Calvin is a great (college) president. He really supports athletics," Smith said. "And we have a fantastic athletic director in Brent Davis. Things are set up here to be successful."
Smith came to COS as the replacement for George Tarkanian, son of Hall of Famer Jerry Tarkanain who had left the school abruptly in August to take a job at Southern Nevada Community College.
Smith went on to average 19.6 wins per season, winning at least 20 games nine times while bringing stability back to a program that had seen three coaches over the previous five seasons before his arrival.
Under Smith, 58 COS players have moved on to four-year colleges, the latest being 6-foot-10 sophomore post Tristan Forsyth, who committed to Cal Baptist. Three more Giants - Keyshawn Gibbs, TJ Givance and Mike Johnson - are expected to move on to four-year schools as well.
Davis, a former college basketball coach himself, said a major key to Smith's success was his relentless preparation.
"He would watch more film than any other coach I've seen," Davis said. "It didn't matter if he had played a coach 20 times, he still prepared for those guys like he'd never seen them before. His preparation was unbelievable."
A native of Southern California, Smith established roots in Visalia, where he and wife, Susan, raised their two youngest children, Allison and Kimberle Rose, who would both go on to graduate from Golden West High. The Smith's two older children - Jade and Perry - were grown and out of the house before the family's move to Visalia.
"When I took this job, I just took it to do a good job," Smith said. "I didn't think 'I'll only be here five years' or whatever. I took it day by day, and it turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me.
"I'm thankful for the relationships I've developed here. This community has just been fantastic. It's a great town, and the college has showed tremendous support for our program. It's been beyond my expectations."
The Smith's plan to relocate to Carlsbad, where they purchased a retirement home five years ago. They will also be near both Allison and Kimberle Rose, who have settled in the San Diego area.
Smith credits his family's support for his longevity in coaching.
"It's hard to be successful without support from home," Smith said. "My wife and children have been great supporters of our program, and my whole career."