Once watching their respective teams rival each other for national scoring titles, David Arseneault and Gary Smith are now sitting on the same bench.
Arseneault (left photo) is in his 19th year coaching the Grinnell College men’s basketball team, and the run-and-gun system he developed for the Pioneers in the early 1990s continues to make national headlines. Smith (right photo) is recently retired from a 37-year coaching career at the University of Redlands (Calif.). During that time he ran up-tempo offenses in two different stints, the second a direct offshoot of Grinnell’s style.
Frequent meetings and a shared philosophy forged a friendship between the two coaches. That led to Smith’s decision after retirement to move to Grinnell, where he lives with Arseneault’s family while serving as a first-year volunteer coach for the Pioneers.
In fact, before Smith’s retirement was official, the two coaches had managed to set up a game between their programs on Jan. 6, 2008, in California. Although still an anticipated battle for Grinnell, the contest won’t feature the intended unique twist as Redlands has converted to a more traditional style of play this season.
Arseneault and Smith share equal praise for each other and what each brings to a basketball program. “David has a very intuitive sense and feel of the team,” said Smith. “He does a great job of seeing how things are presented in practice and then making the necessary adjustments.”
“You couldn’t have two more different coaching styles,” added Arseneault of Smith. “He’s the most organized person I’ve met and I’m at the reverse edge of the scale. I think it’s good for our players to see that other side rather than just my style.”
Arseneault can still remember introducing his system a few years after starting at Grinnell. “We had a group of recruits who seemed really enthusiastic to play this style. They had a different mentality than the returning core of players, a group that maybe lost one too many games over the years. I tried to keep them apart for that reason, so we formulated groups. I didn’t want the upperclassmen not to play, but also didn’t want them to affect the exuberance of the newcomers. So that’s kind of how it started.”
As time went on, more and more coaches wanted to know the finer points of the system, which implements up-tempo play, plenty of 3-pointers, pressure defense and frequent five-player substitutions. “I’d say that’s what a third of my job duties consist of, answering inquiries about our system from all over the country,” Arseneault said.
Smith actually ran up-tempo ball at Redlands two decades ago. “We played fast before there was such a thing as the Grinnell system,” he recalled. “Back in the late 80s and early 90s we were running, only that was more of the Loyola Marymount system. But we eventually went away from that due to personnel.”
After some time back in the traditional mode, Smith longed for a return to the fast style. “I wanted to get back into it,” he said. “I missed it and knew what Grinnell was doing back here. I like playing fast and our program needed a shot in the arm. We’d hit a down slope and I figured something different might work to turn us around.”
That led Smith to track down Arseneault and learn what he could. “Gary contacted me and said he felt his kids could run, so he was wondering if he couldn’t learn more about our system,” said Arseneault. “He tried it for a year and it wasn’t working very well I could see that on the game film he sent me.”
Smith agreed with Arseneault’s assessment of the trial period. “Let’s just say the first year was not very productive,” Smith laughed. “In hindsight, I think I tried to complicate things too much. I sent David the game films and then came back here the next summer. That’s when I got that close-up look and found out how to do it the right way.”
That close-up look eventually paid dividends. After Grinnell won 11 consecutive Division III national scoring titles from 1994-2004, Redlands broke that string in 2005 with a still-record 132.4 points per game. Grinnell regained the scoring title the next season, only to have Redlands win it in 2007.
“Sure enough, once he got the hang of it he went on to break all of our records,” Arseneault said with a laugh. “The one year his team averaged 132 points a game. I thought it was pretty impressive the year we scored 126, but 132 I don’t get it.”
Smith will have mixed feelings when he returns to Currier Gym, the home court for Redlands. “It will be fun getting back there, but it will also be very different to be in that gym with my (former) team sitting on the other bench,” he said. “I don’t really know how to describe the feelings that will be going through me.”