Dec. 24, 2009
SEATTLE - The first thing Wingate Smith looks for upon disembarking an airport is the bus. If the bus waiting at the loading dock, all is right in his world.
Such is life as a director of operations for basketball, a job Smith holds for the women's team at Washington. His responsibility is lording over the logistics involved with running and managing a Division I basketball team. When the team travels, Smith is at the forefront of the operation, booking tickets and hotels and scheduling meals. The position is an entry-level portal to coaching or upper-level athletic administration, and it's a complicated, sometimes thankless job.
But for those like Smith who see themselves as basketball lifers, it can also be a fantastic experience.
"Of course I want to coach," Smith said. "But if I had to do this for the rest of my life, I would have no problem with that."
A strong desire to work in collegiate basketball is what brought the Thomasville, N.C., native to Seattle in coach Tia Jackson's first season. Smith was a student-manager at his alma mater, North Carolina. Upon graduation, a coaching friend told Smith to get his Master's degree, which he did at Wake Forest University. While with the Demon Deacons, Smith was their video coordinator, which involved tape exchange and splicing film. It was during this time where he developed a friendship with current Washington assistant Fred Applin, who eventually helped Smith get the operations job at UW following a series of interviews with Jackson.
Most recently, the 27-year-old Smith had to coordinate logistics for a six-day trip to Michigan, which included games at No. 16 Michigan State and Western Michigan. Now in his third year at Washington, Smith is a pro at managing travel. First up were the flights. It's too expensive to fly into Lansing directly, but Smith found seats on a plane from SeaTac to Gerald R. Ford International Airport in Grand Rapids. With airlines now charging for bags, this was an added expense for the team, almost $500 one-way. Then Smith had to coordinate a charter bus to shuttle the Huskies from various spots in Michigan for a six-day stretch.
Finding the right bus driver is crucial. When it comes time for the Pac-10 season, Smith will tap into relationships with bus drivers he's dealt with in the past.
This bit of advice came courtesy of men's director of basketball operations (or DOBO, in hoops parlance) Lance LaVetter, who is Smith's mentor and confidante. Even with three years of experience on the job, Smith will call LaVetter from advice on how to handle particular situations.
"One thing I've learned: you find a good bus driver, and you stick with him forever," Smith said.
This is ingrained in Smith's thinking after an "incident" in Los Angeles his three years ago. The Huskies were waiting at LAX airport, and the bus was delayed. While waiting, and waiting and waiting, Smith - growing panicked - called the dispatch to see what the problem was. Dispatch responded that the bus had already picked up the UW team. Almost an hour later, it was discovered the bus he had called had picked up Washington State.
"I learned that when you find out your driver, you get his cell phone," Smith said. "Never deal with dispatch."
One benefit of this job is that it's forced Smith to pay attention to detail. It's an excellent preparation for being a coach, as they often have to manage an impressive amount of minutia in their profession.
"You'd be amazed how detail-oriented you have to be, and I'm not that person in real life," Smith said. "But with basketball I'm obsessive about every little thing."
Booking hotels is another hassle. But Smith has learned that bargaining - again, not something that's a strength of his normal life - can make a world of difference in terms of saving money. In today's economy, hotels are apt to offer discounts for groups, if you know how to ask for them. And this goes into forming a partnership that's mutually beneficial for both parties. One particular hotel in Berkeley, Calif., sent Smith a box of cookies this year as thanks.
Another task Smith is responsible for is finding entertainment for the student-athletes. With six days in Michigan and only two games, the Huskies had a lot of down time. Most of this time was divvied into practice, rest and eating, but Smith needed to keep everyone entertained as well. A Google search pointed him to Laser Tag in East Lansing. And during an earlier trip to Florida, Smith took the team to the amusement park, Busch Gardens.
Both were hits with his players.
One area of the job Smith really treasures is his time with the student-athletes; people he's seen grow up and mature at Washington. The team culture with the Huskies is extremely close, and Smith is heavily woven into its fabric. He's a sounding board for players both on-the-court and off, always willing to prop up an athlete who might be frustrated with their basketball struggles.
Recently, he helped bolster the confidence of reserve point guard Christina Rozier, and she's responded with two strong games back-to-back against the Spartans and Broncos.
"This job has really forced me become a good communicator," Smith said.
Going forward, Smith sees those skills helping him as a future coach, or managing budgets as a college administrator. His graduate degree is in teaching/education, and before Smith came to Seattle he taught eighth-grade social studies at Thomasville Middle School. His present, meanwhile, is better when the bus shows up on time at the airport.
"That's the number one thing," Smith said. "If that bus is there, life is good."