D3’s Big Dance partners – D3hoops

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Shaka Smart (Kenyon ’99) consults with Nevada Smith (Bethany ’02) during a Marquette men’s basketball game.

This is Part 6 of the The Quintessential D3 Moment series. While researching their book Pipeline to the Pros: How D3, Small-College Nobodies Rose to Rule the NBA, authors Ben Kaplan and Danny Parkins asked some of the most accomplished former D3 hoopers for their best “love of the game” moment from their college days. The book is available for pre-sale and you can sign up for Ben’s newsletter here.

By Ben Kaplan

Last weekend, my family and I watched the thrilling Sunday matinee between my wife’s alma mater, Colorado, and Marquette. At the risk of creating marital strife, I was rooting for Marquette, (partly because of their D3 ties, partly for other reasons that may or may not be financial).

We’ve already covered Kenyon grad Shaka Smart in this space, but the Golden Eagles connections to Division III run even deeper. Fans paying close attention might have noticed the Marquette assistant coach who, in seemingly every key moment, was standing near Smart on the sideline and whispering in his ear. That man – Nevada Smith – both played and coached D3 hoops before an NBA team’s widespread search for coaching talent pulled him up to basketball’s higher levels (for the full fascinating story, you’ll need to check out Pipeline to the Pros).
Pipeline to the Pros cover art

Some of the coaches we interviewed, like Chris Finch and Frank Vogel, spoke about how the gulf between Division III and Division I in the 1990s seemed too wide to traverse. They were completely different worlds. Now, thirty years later, the two divisions are basically next door neighbors, with yards that aren’t even separated by a fence. D3Direct swear Riley Zayas have posted threads on Twitter detailing all of the D3 connections in both the men’s and women’s D1 tournaments. And while researching our book, we were fortunate enough to speak with a few bigtime D1 coaches who played their college hoops at a D3 school.

Marquette assistant Nevada Smith, a 1,000-point scorer at Bethany College, began his coaching career as a graduate assistant at St. Lawrence University. He planned on living in a house with the football team’s graduate assistants, but there ended up being one more tenant than there were rooms. So Smith had to do in a walk-in closet.

“I had a college-sized mattress on the floor that barely fit in there,” Smith says. “There wasn’t a side of the bed. It was wall, bed, wall. The door opened out, thank God. Otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to get in the room. I had makeshift boxes where I could put clothes and socks and stuff and then I had a makeshift clothes hanger that draped over the bed where I hung all my clothes up. I literally had a space that I could barely fit in as a 5’11” male. That was my room my first year.

As Smith discovered, the start of a coaching career is rarely glamorous, especially at the D3 level. He made $7,500, which was not enough to pay for housing, food, and the taxes on his graduate courses. The hours were so long, he barely had time for his schoolwork, let alone a second job. His roommates, who were in the same situation financially, decided not to turn on the heat. It was a bold choice, especially in upstate New York. During the dead of winter, one of the football GAs turned on the shower and, because the bathroom was so cold, a layer of ice formed. Rather than turn on the heat and thaw the shower, the residents of the GA house spent a few months bathing exclusively at the athletic facility.

Later in his career, when he was a G-League head coach or a top D1 assistant, Smith didn’t have to worry about the heating bill. But he remained close to those he met during his D3 days. “My best friends are all coaches who coach Division III,” Smith says. “We talk everyday. We have had a text thread for 15 years. They’re some of the best D3 coaches in the country. We grew up at the same time, worked in the same camps, grew up in the same areas. You just know who you can trust. You grew up sharing four to a hotel room at the Final Four. You kind of just do that. We loved that. We didn’t look at this as, ‘Man, this sucks.’ We were just excited to get down there.”

While Smith tries to make it back to the Final Four, this time as the assistant coach of a participating team, two former D3 players who have taken the helm at major D1 programs are already focusing on next season.

USC head coach Andy Enfield played basketball at Johns Hopkins a few decades before his 2013 “Dunk City” FGCU team became the first 15-seed to make the Sweet 16. Enfield’s coach at Hopkins, Bill Nelson, had a knack for recruiting future coaches – he previously coached Jeff Van Gundy at Nazareth, and later coached Wes Unseld Jr. at Hopkins. Enfield began his coaching career as a shooting guru (which led to a role with the Boston Celtics, where he crossed paths with a young video coordinator named Frank Vogel…more in our book), thanks in part to his impressive collegiate free throw percentage of 92.5%, an NCAA record at the time.

“Even though I didn’t play in the NBA, or even at one of the power conference Division I programs, because I was able to have a successful career at the Division III level at Johns Hopkins, that gave me credibility that I could shoot the ball at a very high level,” Enfield says. “When you’re trying to become an NBA shooting coach, you have to be a better shooter than the guys you’re teaching, or they’re not going to listen to you. It’s like becoming a golf coach or a tennis coach. If you’re a better golfer than your golf coach, and you have a better swing, you’re probably not going to listen that long to a golf coach who’s trying to fix your swing.”

Enfield may not have missed many free throws during his time at Hopkins, but he did miss the bus once. “I think the only game I didn’t start in my career, we were flying to Boston to play Brandeis,” says Enfield. “Three basketball players, we all lived in the same apartment. We missed the bus to the airport. I guess we overslept.”

Another roommate who wasn’t on the team drove Enfield and his two teammates to the airport. They made great time. Such a great time, in fact, that they ended up passing and beating the team bus, which left a little late because they were waiting for the tardy trio.

After such a stressful morning, Enfield and his roommates had worked up an appetite. Naturally, they bought breakfast burritos at the airport while waiting for the rest of the team to arrive at the gate. “The team finally got there and Coach Nelson walked by and obviously was mad that we missed the bus,” says Enfield. “And he looked in and saw us chowing down on a great breakfast and I think his temperature rose to 150 degrees.”

As a punishment, Nelson took Enfield and his roommate out of the starting lineup. “I think we got down 6-0 and he put my roommate and I back in the game pretty quickly,” Enfield remembered with a laugh.

Like Enfield, new Notre Dame coach Micah Shrewsberry played D3 basketball and had an assistant coaching stint with the Boston Celtics before taking over a major college basketball program. Shrewsberry first made it to the D1 ranks as an assistant at Butler, working for his good friend Brad Stevens. The pair played high school ball in Indiana at the same time, and then Stevens went to DePauw and Shrewsberry to Hanover. Stevens is just one of Shrewsberry’s former colleagues currently competing for a championship – he also worked for Matt Painter at Purdue for four seasons.

When Shrewsberry finally got a D1 head coaching job with Penn State in 2021, he proved he could drive success at a previously struggling program. Fortunately, he didn’t have to literally drive the team, a responsibility he held during his D3 playing days. “Our head coach used to always drive to the games and one of our assistant coaches would drive,” Shrewsberry says. “We were in vans back then. A lot of times I would drive the other van, even though I was a player.”

While driving to Wabash for a noon tip, the snowy roads got the best of Shrewsberry. “I ended up running into the back of the other van at a stoplight,” Shrewsberry says. “It wasn’t like a serious accident but I slid and bumped ’em. I’m glad nothing more serious happened.”

For Shrewsberry, Enfield, and Smith, there were some bumps along the way – literally and figuratively – but they’ve proven that when a future coach’s road passes through Division III, it can lead to some pretty remarkable places.

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