For the first time since helping Nebraska knock off No. 9 Wisconsin on “No-Sit Sunday” to punch the Huskers' first ticket to the NCAA Tournament in 15 years, Craig Smith will be back on the bench to coach a game at Pinnacle Bank Arena on Saturday.
After serving as an assistant under head coach Tim Miles for two seasons in Lincoln, Smith returns as the third-year head coach at South Dakota.
HuskerOnline.com caught up with Smith to reminisce on his time at NU and talk about what Saturday’s 1 p.m. showdown with the Huskers means for him and his program…
HOL: First off, can you describe your feelings and emotions about coming back to coach a game at Nebraska for the first time since you left for South Dakota?
CS: “I’m excited. I’m thrilled. So many special memories affiliated with being a part of the Cornhusker family. Two just tremendous years for our program and certainly my family. We still talk about it, how enjoyable it was and the people there and just everything about the University of Nebraska. It just kind of hit me today, to be honest. I was at the (2015 Nebraska state basketball tournament) recruiting Tyler Hagedorn, who’s now a sophomore for us, but other than that I haven’t set foot in Pinnacle Bank Arena since 'No-Sit Sunday' when we knocked off Wisconsin, who was No. 9 in the country, and for all intents and purposes that solidified our NCAA Tournament berth.
"We played at UMKC last night, and Benny Parker came to the game, so I was abel to catch up with him for a while afterwards. When I think about Nebraska, you certainly think about tradition in athletics overall, but what a special year (2013-14) that was. At that time, that was the 118th year of Nebrasketball, and for us to be able to make the NCAA Tournament for only the seventh time in the history of the program, it’s truly special. That’s just a special memory.
"Those are special memories certainly on the floor, but you just think of all the people that were involved, and you think about Terran Petteway and Shavon Shields and Benny Parker and Ray Gallegos, and even guys like Kye Kurkowski and Trevor Menke. Then you think of certainly Kenya Hunter and Chris Harriman and Gregory Eaton and all the staff that you’re around. Those are just bonds that never go away, and that’s something that you’ll carry with you until the day you die. What a special memory and what a special place.”
HOL: Can you give a rundown of how this game came to be? Who was the first one to bring up the idea?
CS: “I think it initially started when I was approached about the South Dakota job and Coach Miles made a few calls, and he brought up the idea of playing. Once I heard that, I wasn’t going to let him forget that he brought it up.
"So we’re very, very fortunate, because certainly Coach Miles decides on basically who they want to play, and it certainly means more for our program than it does for his. We’re incredibly thankful for the opportunity, and for our program it’s huge, because Nebraska is a major, major recruiting ground for the University if South Dakota. We have four guys on our current roster from there, and good players. It’s an area that recruit very, very heavily, and I think that’s attractive for perspective student-athletes, and certainly a dream come true for the four guys in our program to be able to go to Lincoln and play in Pinnacle Bank Arena. That’s something that they’ll never forget.
"Then just personally, Coach Miles and I worked together for 11 years at four different stops, and the Nebrasketball stop was as enjoyable at it could have possibly gotten. Coach Miles’ family and our family are very, very close. We would do anything - well, just about anything in the world for those guys. I know the experience for our players is going to be off the charts, because where else in the country do you sellout for every football game? Where else do you sellout for every basketball game? Volleyball might be the hottest ticket in town. So to be able to play in that kind of spirited atmosphere is just going to be so tremendous for our guys and our program.”
HOL: This won’t be the first time you and Miles have faced off as opposing head coaches, correct?
CS: “Yeah, you’re right. His teams have kicked our teams’ butts three times. When I was at Mayville State, my last year we played in the national championship game, and we had a good team. But my other two years we were in the national tournament as well. So we had good teams and we were going in there thinking, ‘Man, we’re going to do it this time.’ And they (North Dakota State) just kind of whooped up on us.
"That was right when they were in their transition to Division I, and they had a very good team. I learned very quickly - I would always try and call him or text him prior to the game, and he would just never respond. So I haven’t even tried to call him or text him the last two weeks, because I know he’s just going to tell me, ‘You’re the enemy, Smith.’”
HOL: It’s probably safe to say you have the scout on Miles’ system down as well as any opposing coach in the country. Do you think that will give your team an edge on Saturday?
CS: “Well, working for a guy for 11 years, you better learn a thing or two. It’s kind of funny though, we did a walk-thru today on them, and there are certainly some common sets, and there are definitely some things that we run the same as them. We know their play calls and they’re going to know our play calls, so the terminology is very, very similar. We’ll yell something out, they’re going to hear it, they’re going to know what’s coming. They’ll yell something out, we’re going to hear it, we’re going to know what’s coming.
"So there’s a lot of similarities that way. When you work for a guy for 11 years, you’re going to know a thing or two about him and what we need to stay away from and where maybe we can attack. But it’s really interesting, Robin, because we were only there two years ago, but the only two guys that are still with the program from when I was there are Tai Webster and Nick Fuller.
"Then we have 10 new newly-eligible guys in our program, seven brand-new guys. So we’re still working on just walking and chewing gum at the same time. So we have enough to worry about from our perspective, but we’re certainly welcoming the challenge.”
HOL: You mentioned Tai Webster. Can you maybe speak on how much he’s grown since the true freshman you coached to the senior leader he’s become?
CS: “Well first of all, our family on a weekly basis will sit down and at least watch one Nebrasketball game per week. We make it a Nebraska basketball night, and we’ve done that since we’ve been here. All four of my kids, my wife and I, we’ll sit and watch, so we’ve paid close attention since the day we left, and we’re always going to be huge fans of Nebraska basketball.
"I texted Tai on Thanksgiving Day and he responded with a really kind response back. Tai, we all know the story. Tai came in with a lot of fanfare and a lot of expectations, and it put a lot of pressure on him. Everyone is viewing him as the savior, and that’s a hard thing to come into, especially coming in from a different country. Everything is brand new, right? The style of play, you name it.
"But I’ll tell you, how he’s improved on the floor - it’s neat to see his leadership ability. It’s really easy to see that watching games. He has really come into his own. What used to be weaknesses for him have now become strengths for him. He’s just a totally different player in so many ways than what he was as a freshman. It sure is fun to see his growth. More than anything, I’m just so impressed with his leadership ability.”
HOL: We’ll end this with an easy one - What is your favorite moment when you look back on your time at Nebraska?
CS: “It’s the obvious one - Wisconsin, No-Sit Sunday. I mean, you remember the feeling in the community, the excitement, the Railyard - it was electric. I mean, you could just feel the excitement, the enthusiasm. You had the team with the longest winning streak in the country coming to town, and we knew knew if we won, we were in.
"We were so good at home that year. Pinnacle Bank, I had other coaches texting me saying, ‘That place is a like a big party in there.’ I’m convinced teams were psyched out before they even got into the game. We were rolling. We had really good players and we had great chemistry that year.
"I still remember, we win the game, we shake hands, and everybody is storming the floor, and everybody was just so happy. Just the smiles on everybody’s faces and walking into the locker room and bear-hugging each coach and high-fiving all the players. That’s the stuff you really remember. It’s something that you’ll never forget.”