FAYETTEVILLE — Christy Smith was working 10 minutes away from her hometown of Oxford, Ind., as an assistant coach with the Purdue women’s basketball team.
Her parents still live there. So does her brother. But when new Arkansas coach Jimmy Dykes presented Smith with the opportunity to leave home to work at her alma mater, she couldn’t turn it down.
“My heart is here,” Smith said Monday afternoon. “This is where I played. This is where blood, sweat and tears were on the floor. And there’s no other program in the country that I want to see succeed more than I do Arkansas.”
Smith will have a big hand in the reconstruction after being named Dykes’ top assistant Monday. She leaves Purdue after it reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament for the third straight season, joining an Arkansas program that has struggled to match the success it enjoyed when she played in Fayetteville.
But Dykes was confident Smith’s addition will be a “home run” for Arkansas after meeting with roughly 10 candidates for the position. She joins a coaching staff that also includes retained assistants Tari Cummings and Amber Shirey.
“I had a ton, a ton of interest from across the country,” Dykes said. “I interviewed a lot of folks at the Final Four a week ago. I have had a lot of phone interviews across the country. But one has clearly, clearly stood out to me as who I want beside me as my top assistant while I am the head coach at the University of Arkansas.”
Like Dykes, Smith does not have collegiate head coaching experience. But Dykes is putting his trust in one of the program’s most decorated players.
Smith played point guard at Arkansas from 1994-98, leading Arkansas to its only Final Four as a senior. She was a four-time honorable mention All-American, earned All-SEC honors as a senior and was the SEC’s freshman of the year in 1994-95.
Smith finished her Arkansas career ranked eighth in career points (1,459), fourth in assists (507) and third in steals (239). She went on to play two seasons of professional basketball after being selected by the WNBA’s Charlotte Sting with the 17th pick in the 1998 draft. Then Smith went into coaching.
After starting her coaching career at the high school level, Smith spent three seasons as an assistant coach at Valparaiso. Smith then moved to Purdue.
“We couldn’t be more thrilled for Coach Smith to have this opportunity,” Purdue coach Sharon Versyp said in a statement released by the program on Monday. “Being able to return to your alma mater in a coaching role is a very special thing, and we wish her the best in her new role at Arkansas.”
Dykes — who said Smith’s “fingerprints” will be involved in every area with the Razorbacks — got an up-close look at Smith while with ESPN this spring. He worked Purdue’s NCAA Tournament games before being named Arkansas’ coach and was convinced her return was in the best interest of the program.
“I’ve seen her work,” Dykes said. “I’ve seen her handle scouting reports. I’ve seen her conduct herself in the NCAA Tournament. I did my homework on her. … Again, her pride in being a Razorback is something that cannot be overstated. She’ll probably tell you it’s a pretty easy sell for her, but I felt like I had to recruit her just like I’m recruiting young ladies right now. I stole her from her home state.”
Smith did characterize her departure from Purdue as a “big step” and a “leap of faith,” but was sold on Dykes’ plan for the program when the two met at the NCAA Women’s Final Four last week. She officially accepted Arkansas’ offer late last week, arrived in Fayetteville on Monday morning and watched workouts later in the day.
Players applauded Smith when she stepped into the interview room in Bud Walton Arena on Monday afternoon. Smith said she’s ready to get to work at her alma mater, eager to restore the program to the success it enjoyed while she played.
“When somebody tells you something can’t be done that’s when the light bulb comes on and it’s like, ‘All right, let’s go,’” Smith said. “I’m sure there’s lots of people out there saying it can’t be done. But I believe wholeheartedly that it will be done.”