When the architect of the Carleton Ravens’ ascendancy as the top men’s basketball program in Canada decided to take a well-earned sabbatical during the 2015-'16 season, the perfect substitute was waiting in the wings.
By Dan Rubinstein
Not only is longtime assistant coach Rob Smart a former all-star guard with the Ravens and the nephew of head coach Dave Smart, he’s also a professor at the Sprott School of Business whose main research interests are teamwork and organizational change.
"In a lot of places, performance gets hidden. But in business and sports, you’ve got stock prices and a win-loss record. That type of direct evaluation might make some people uncomfortable, but others gravitate towards it."
Mr. Smart brings lessons from the basketball court into the classroom, and his work as a researcher informs his approach as a coach.
"I did go a bit ‘academic’ on the players a few times this season," he says about inheriting a squad that was supposed to be in rebuilding mode and not ready to challenge for another championship.
"I talked to them about how we learn as individuals and the way we learn as a team. To me, that’s more important than anything we did against a specific opponent."
Mr. Smart grew up in Napanee, a hockey and baseball town west of Kingston. He played a lot of different sports as a kid, but around Grade 6 or 7, basketball took over.
His parents had both played the game; one of his grandfathers, Bob Cooney, played for Tufts University in the NCAA in the 1940s; uncle Dave was a star at Queen’s University; his sister Jessica played for Carleton; and his cousins, the Doornekamps, lived 10 minutes away and loved basketball as well.
Mr. Smart and his brother Mike (who also went on to play for the Ravens) went to the same high school as three Doornekamp boys (including Aaron and Ben, both former Ravens). They had some very strong teams.
After high school, Mr. Smart enrolled at Vancouver’s Simon Fraser University, where the men’s basketball team played in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics against American schools.
While Rob was at SFU, Dave Smart was an assistant coach at Carleton, and Rob’s father became an assistant at Queen’s. Rob was planning to join whoever got a head coaching position first. Dave got the job with the Ravens, and Rob came to Ottawa for three seasons, helping the Ravens win their first national title in 2002-'03, his final year as a player.
Although SFU had a lot of talent, Rob says the players never really came together as a team. At Carleton, with not only his brother and cousins on the squad, but also a lot of guys who knew one another through Ontario’s provincial basketball program, Dave Smart created an enduring family-like atmosphere.
"We could criticize each other and tell anybody anything," says Rob. "It pushed guys to be better."
"Coming from SFU, I felt a difference right away. Dave really set the culture. These days, we draw great players from a lot of different parts of Canada, but if they’re not working as hard as they should be working, people point that out."
After games, Rob would regularly walk into Dave’s office with a list of dozens of things that had gone wrong.
That openness to criticism is a crucial component of a team’s ability to learn and adapt, according to Harvard Business School leadership and management professor, Amy Edmondson, whose book "Teaming" has been a big influence on Mr. Smart.
Leaders, she writes, succeed when they empower rather than control, when they ask the right questions instead of providing the right answers, and when they "focus on flexibility, rather than insist on adherence."
When Mr. Smart’s playing days with the Ravens and undergraduate business degree were finished, he became an assistant coach and began working toward an MBA with Sprott Prof. Linda Duxbury as his adviser.
His master’s thesis, she recalls, explored whether varsity athletes have a higher emotional quotient than fellow students. He believed they did, but the data said no.
"I think he was crushed," laughs Ms. Duxbury, who was struck by how laid-back, thoughtful and considerate Mr. Smart was as a student, noting that his players might not always see those sides of his personality. "He has a very good ability to connect with people."
After finishing his MBA, Mr. Smart went to Europe with his backpack, but this was no ordinary gap year. He also brought a basketball and slept on friends’ couches and the occasional gym floor while travelling from city to city, hoping to catch on with a professional team.
"You’d be surprised," says Mr. Smart, "how many gyms were unlocked."
He ended up playing for half a season in Germany, then returned to Ottawa and signed on to do a PhD with Ms. Duxbury.
"A Longitudinal Case Study of a Public-Sector Change Team," his doctorial thesis, probed the effectiveness of a change team used by the federal government during the first wave of its move toward shared information technology services.
"He’s interested in organizational change," says Ms. Duxbury, "but his real love is studying teams. There’s a teamwork theme to just about everything he does, even when he was studying change for his PhD."
Mr. Smart was able to tap into his expertise on both teamwork and change when he took on the head coaching job this past season.
The 2015-'16 Ravens had lost a lot of key players to graduation. To Mr. Smart, a rookie bench boss, this reduced the pressure.
"Everybody on the inside understood that a bunch of people had a huge opportunity to step up," he says. "Nobody expected us to win, so there was also a lot of motivation to prove people wrong. You could see that in our level of focus, especially after games we lost, which we looked at as great opportunities to learn."
"It can’t be a fluke," Ms. Duxbury says about the incredible Ravens run over the last 14 seasons. "There have been a lot of different players over the years, but so much success, some of which has to be attributed to the coaching style and philosophy."
It’s rare for a Canadian university head coach to also be a faculty member. While filling in for Dave, who’ll be back this fall, Rob took a break from his research on work-life balance, elder care and mobile technology, but maintained his regular teaching load: BUSI 4111 (Training and Development), BUSI 2101 (Organizational Behaviour) and BUSI 3602 (Designing Organizational Systems).
“He has a unique ability to help individuals reach their greatest potential and, at the same time, help their organization excel and reach the top. That’s not always easy.”
In BUSI 4111, which Mr. Smart helms with Prof. Troy Anderson, fourth-year students learn about pedagogy, about what works and doesn’t work in the classroom, and go on to teach large groups of second-year students.
Tyson Hinz, a former Ravens star now playing professional basketball in the Netherlands, was one of those BUSI 4111 students.
"I was able to view the teaching version of Rob as well as the coaching version," he says. "Despite being in two different environments, Rob’s core values were apparent both on the basketball court and in the classroom. He wanted the success of his students in the same way as he wants the success for his players on the court."