Hotchkiss School coach gains full perspective of his players
The Hotchkiss School coach Danny Smith has led his team to a 7-0 start
He lives in an on-campus apartment and gains an encompassing perspective
Having lived on campus at each of his stops, he has never paid rent
LAKEVILLE, Conn. -- All that separates The Hotchkiss School's Danny Smith from the 12 freshmen and sophomore boys living outside his on-campus apartment door in Van Santvoord Hall is the pane of glass in his office. "It's a window into their world," said Smith, the school's athletic director who coaches football, girls' basketball and baseball. "Most coaches only see their kids on the field or in the locker room. Here, you get the full picture."
Smith has the view that most local public and private school coaches do not get. Now in his eighth year at the elite New England prep school, he is the live-in coach, residing in an apartment he shares with his wife, Carrie, and their three daughters. He can look out on Baker Field and the school's nine-hole golf course. As athletic director, he oversees a fiefdom of facilities including: two hockey rinks, an elevated indoor track, an eight-lane swimming pool, eight international squash courts, three indoor tennis courts (donated by the Fords of Detroit) and a basketball court. When weather allows, students can play nine holes on the golf course, football on one of two full-length fields, soccer on one of five pitches and tennis on any of 20 outdoor courts. For those, like Smith, who prefer the natural route, you can saild on Lake Wononscopomuc and hike on the 100 acres of trails.
"You have to pinch yourself it's such a good life here," said Smith, whose father, Jim, was a legendary coach for 36 years at Deerfield (Mass.) Academy. "Sometimes you are the kids' friend and sometimes they need a kick in the rear."
Though the setting of the school's 550-acre campus is unique in its layout, it is the boarding school lifestyle that Smith -- whose football team is currently 7-0 heading into Saturday's Founders League regular-season finale against Taft -- knows well. Growing up on Deerfield's grounds, Smith, who has five brothers, enjoyed the run of the campus, played three sports a year and prepared for college.
Smith did not immediately follow his father's career path. After playing defensive back for the University of New Hampshire, Smith took a sales job with a radio station in Keene, N.H., but his mind soon soured on pursuing that career one day when the owner visited from Boston. Sitting at lunch, the owner said, "You know the thrill you get from hitting a grand slam in the bottom of the ninth? Well, that's the same as when you close a deal."
As Smith says, "It wasn't even in the same league for me."
Looking to get back into football, Smith took a graduate assistant's position at Trinity College in Connecticut, and worked his way up to a full-time assistant. Still, the fit was not right.
The salvation of the student-athlete, Smith thought, was back at the scholastic level. After first going to the Culver Academies in Indiana, his next stop was the Pomfret School in Connecticut, which he enjoyed until the Hotchkiss position opened. There, he could dovetail academics with athletics and coach all three seasons, a practice he feels is lost in many schools these days. "Sports aren't just an additional thing here," Smith said of Hotchkiss. "They are worked into the schedule so every kid can do them, and you can't just specialize in one. You have to work at a few."
Though he has never paid a month's rent in his life because of the housing that has been packaged with each job, Smith considers the proximity to his players priceless. Xang Chareunsab, an inner-city Houston product, came to Hotchkiss for a postgraduate year in 2002 seeking a way to improve his grades. Unsettled at first by the affluent environment and heightened standards, Chareunsab listened to Smith's advice, both on the field and in the dorm.
"He drew me out of my comfort zone," said Chareunsab, who walked on the University of Texas football team and won a national title in 2006 alongside and now teaches and coaches at Aldien MacArthur High in Houston, "and he made me realize my year there was a chance to network with these people."
While many of the parents who send their children to Hotchkiss and traditional New England prep schools are well-off, Smith appreciates the trust placed in him. Charged with steering the teens' high school careers, he serves as an admissions interviewer and dorm parent in addition to his athletic duties. "When I go to sleep at night I know that Danny is one of the most trustworthy people out there," said Dr. Patrick Ruwe, an orthopedic surgeon who has sent one son, Patrick, to Hotchkiss and has another, Brian, currently on the football team. "He's been a tremendous source of reassurance."
In the last year, Smith, a traditionalist, was approached by a company about producing webcasts of the hockey team's games. Not sold on the idea of opening the doors for all to see and track the student-athletes, Smith declined the offer. "I'm sure there's a whole list of issues with privacy of the kids that would be involved, " Smith said.
For now, the parents can call Smith to keep their children's lives in focus.