Oct. 31, 2016
The family atmosphere found within the South Carolina women’s soccer program has been one of the keys to its success. One need only to look at the Gamecocks’ coaching staff to understand how such an atmosphere starts at the top with 2016 SEC Coach of the Year Shelley Smith and her husband, associate head coach Jamie Smith, guiding the program.
“I think we balance each other out,” Shelley said. “I’m a little more laid back, but you also need a voice where you can push and demand sometimes. We have always helped the girls in that we’re like parents to them sometimes. It’s a unique role with a husband and wife team. We’re both concerned about the team and the girls as individuals. We enjoy building something and working together.”
“Being around Jaime and Shelley for the five years I was there was like having a mom and dad with you while you’re away from home,” said former All-SEC defender Taylor Leach, who is currently playing professional soccer. “I knew I could call either one of them at any point for anything. I really enjoyed playing for them. It was the best thing I ever did.”
“It’s been a really good experience,” said senior midfielder and team captain Chelsea Drennan. “It definitely creates a family environment because, not only are they husband and wife, and their kids are around, but they also treat us like we’re their other 30 daughters that they never had.”
The Smiths were hired prior to the 2001 season and began rebuilding the Gamecocks into what is now a nationally known program with a ninth NCAA tournament appearance in the last ten seasons on the horizon, including the Elite 8 in 2014. The Gamecocks put together the best regular season in school history this fall, going 17-0-1, including a perfect 11-0 in SEC play to win the SEC regular season championship. Shelley and Jamie also guided South Carolina to the 2011 SEC title as well as the SEC Tournament championship in 2009. While they are professional in their work environment, there are times when one can’t help but be reminded of this unique family dynamic.
“I think after our first SEC Championship, it was the first time the players saw us actually kiss each other,” Jaime said. “The girls were like, ‘Oh my gosh,’ because they had never seen that before. So that was a big deal to them. But it is pretty neat to be there together for those kinds of things.”
Getting the Team Together
It wasn’t always easy for the Smith “team” to be together. Shelley was enjoying an outstanding playing career at the University of Vermont, while Jamie was a record setting goalkeeper at Providence College. The couple met in college while working a camp and married five years later in 1996. Whether it was in college, or during their respective professional playing, and later, coaching careers, the couple had to endure a long distance relationship at times. The opportunity at South Carolina was a dream come true so that both could be in the same place.
“We could see each other and start a family,” Shelley said. “That was a big thing for us.
“I was a head coach at the time (at Rhode Island), and Jaime was an assistant at Division I men’s programs, so we were both coaching all of the time at different schools. We were never really seeing each other. When this opportunity came along, I knew I had to take it and then see what kind of opportunities there were for Jamie here. I knew I had to hire a staff, and Jamie was willing to try coaching on the women’s side. (Former South Carolina Athletics Director) Mike McGee flew up to meet him to see if this was going to work. So he oversaw that and hired him.”
In addition to playing a high level in college as well as professionally, Jamie was already a proven coach at several stops. Prior to coming to South Carolina he was an assistant coach for the men’s program at Brown, helping the Bears reach the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament.
“I didn’t have any reservations,” Jamie said about being a women’s assistant with Shelley as the head coach. “I was excited to do it. I knew it was going to be different. The team where I was coaching had some national team players on it, and was a very high level program. We actually played at ‘The Graveyard’ (South Carolina’s Stone Stadium) my last year at Brown. It was an adjustment when I first came down here, but the players had a good attitude and worked really hard.”
“He wanted to coach high level players,” Shelley added. “So the excitement of competing in the SEC was a big draw. Jamie and I always had a relationship where we did a lot together. We had already worked camps together. We had met initially through coaching. So we knew that we could work together.” Getting Jamie on board wasn’t just a family decision, but a good coaching decision.
“Jamie is very knowledgeable and a great coach. I knew having him on staff was something that would help me in this transition to the SEC.”
Even when they’re coaching, Shelley is like a mom, and Jamie is like a dad They balance each other very well.Chelsea Drennan, Senior Captain
Balancing Coaching and Family Life
The unique family atmosphere surrounding the South Carolina women’s soccer team isn’t lost on the student-athletes, as it carries over to the entire women’s soccer program where everyone looks out for each other and learns from one another.
“Shelley is easy to work with, and she is very tolerant of me,” Jamie quipped. “She is a good listener. I enjoy doing a lot of video breakdown, and a lot of the tedious tasks. She allows me to have input on a lot of the things we want to do. I get to concentrate on the things I really enjoy, which is the training part and the film.
“Shelley does a great job relating to the players in training and out of training. She’s a good role model. Just watching her interaction with the players is what I have noticed. She is very specific when making a point to them individually, whereas I paint more of a broad stroke with feedback for everyone. I do have a louder voice, so I can address 28 at a time. I think the combination of the two works well for them.”
“We’re trying to teach the same things, but there are certain things the individual needs to know, so I address it that way,” Shelley said. “I don’t think we ever disagree. We talk about things and sort through things, and we respect each other’s opinions, so we make it work. When one of us has something we feel very strong about, we just explain it. If I was a dictator, it wouldn’t work. So we have to be able to bounce ideas off each other.”
As the parents of two boys, life outside of soccer can get hectic, but the Smiths balance each other out to make it work.
“Jaime is always thinking about the next thing with the team,” Shelley said. “The fact that we do this together and understand what it takes to be a coach in a profession that can be all-consuming is great. I think it’s helped me stay in the profession. You see some women that will get out of the coaching profession because they want to spend more time with their kids and be a mom. We have figured out a way to make it work so that we can be parents, when needed, to all of these players, but also be parents to our own kids. Having kids puts it in perspective that you need to focus on things that are not involved with work. So you have to separate it.”
While it can be difficult to hang up the whistle after they’ve walked through the front door, family is always a priority.
“Even though our schedules are crazy, we can still be at games for our kids,” Jamie said. “If I was an assistant somewhere else, I wouldn’t have that flexibility. If there is something really important coming up for one of our own kids, we can find a way to make it work. If you have to work with someone else who is not a part of your family, it may not happen. We’ve missed some things, but we’ve been able to be at a lot of other things that we probably would have missed if we weren’t here together.”
Sometimes make it all work involves a lot of juggling.
“I try to cook as much as possible,” Shelley said. “He likes to clean. So that works out well for me. We both take the kids to school or pick them up.”
“You have recruits visiting, and you have training, and everything else,” Jaime said. “So you have to manage a lot of things. My greatest fear is that you’re going to get that phone call, and you’re told that your kid is sitting at school waiting to be picked up. That has only happened once, and it was a half day that somehow slipped past us. We’ve had a lot of players after they graduate who have been babysitters for us. It’s tough when we’re both on the road during the season.”
The concern for family carries over into their relationship with the Gamecock student-athletes.
“You watch the players go through their four years, and you try to look out for them like parents, so you have so many great relationships with the players,” Shelley said. “That’s probably the neatest part of the job; just staying in touch and having alumni come back. A lot of coaches talk about family environments, but I think it truly is here. We create an atmosphere where we want team chemistry, and we want everyone to have respect and help each other. I think when players know they have two coaches who are invested and care for them, it’s an advantage.”
“Even when they’re coaching, Shelley is like a mom, and Jamie is like a dad,” Drennan said. “They balance each other very well. Jaime can get on to you, but everything he says is all about constructive criticism because you know he expects more out of you and pushes you to be better. Shelley is going to know when you’re having a bad day, and she’ll pull you aside and talk to you.”
“We truly do have a family atmosphere,” Leach said. “I mean, you have a mom and dad coaching together. People relate to other people differently. I knew I could have a conversation with either one of them. It was very comfortable. That’s what sold me to get there. I loved the campus and all that, but the coaches are the ones you are going to spend a lot of time with, so it was important to enjoy them as well. They have different coaching styles, but at the end of the day, they come together and it’s all for one purpose.”