By Nick Giannandrea
The last time College of the Sequoias was looking for a men's basketball coach in August of 2001, legendary former UCLA coach John Wooden called to endorse a candidate.
So did ex-UNLV and Fresno State coach Jerry Tarkanian.
The recommendations made by the two Hall of Famers were among many quality applicants then Giants athletic director Mike Vogt received to replace George Tarkanian, son of famous towel-chomper Jerry who left COS abruptly right before the start of the school year to take over at Southern Nevada Community College.
But Vogt, a former Mt. Whitney High football coach, made perhaps the most significant hire of his one-year tenure at COS after spending some time with an assistant coach from UC Riverside.
Rusty Smith, a 17-year coaching veteran with previous stops at Cal State Northridge and Eastern Washington, spoke of wanting to establish roots in a smaller community such as Visalia while he evaluated an open gym session with the roughly half dozen players who remained at COS following George Tarkanian's departure.
Vogt, tasked with finding COS' fourth coach in six seasons, was quickly sold on Smith.
"I didn't want to make a mistake on that hire," Vogt said. "I was extremely impressed with (Smith's) knowledge of junior college basketball. I thought he was a great evaluator of talent. And he impressed on me that he wanted to make a home in Visalia and establish a home base."
Smith and his family -- wife, Susan, and children Jade, Perry, Allison and Kimberle Rose -- made Visalia their home while he has brought stability to the program.
And now, in his 18th season, Smith sits tied with local legend Polly Wilhelmsen as the winningest coach in the history of COS men's basketball, which began play in 1926.
Smith earned victory No. 351 on March 2 when his fifth-seeded Giants rallied from a 14-point halftime deficit to defeat No. 12 Los Medanos 94-76 in the second round of the California Community College Athletic Association's Northern California Regional playoffs.
"It's certainly an honor to be mentioned in the same sentence as Polly," said Smith, who is 351-214 at COS. "He was an innovator and a pioneer. If you are being talked about with him, you are doing something really good."
COS can put Smith atop the college's all-time coaching wins list, and punch a ticket to the state final eight, with a victory Saturday against No. 4 San Joaquin Delta in Stockton. Tip-off is set for 7:30 p.m. The Giants' women's basketball team also will play for a berth in the state final eight when they host No. 5 City College of San Francisco at 7 p.m. Saturday at Porter Field House.
The Giants (21-8) will be aiming for their second state final eight appearance in the past four seasons, and their fourth overall under Smith, against the Mustangs. The winner moves on to the state quarterfinals on March 14 at Ventura College. The state semifinals are March 16 and the final on March 17.
Delta (23-6) overcame a five-point halftime deficit to beat COS 78-71 on Dec. 2 during the second day of the San Francisco City Tournament.
The Mustangs, who have won 15 of their past 16 games, went on to capture the Big 8 Conference title and opened the postseason with a 70-56 victory over No. 13 Butte.
"We did not play well in that first meeting," Smith said. "A team like Delta, you have to prepare for because they run so many sets and run them very well. We didn't have time to prepare for them last time. This time, we'll be prepared and our guys are eager to play them again."
Delta is led by 6-foot-6 sophomore forward Spencer Montiero, who averages 17.8 points and 10.4 rebounds a game. The Mustangs also feature 6-7 sophomore forward Cameron Peiters (15.2 ppg, 8.2 rpg), 5-9 sophomore guard Jalen Valverde (11.1 ppg, 6.9 apg, 4.8 rpg) and 6-2 sophomore guard Jimmy Beltz (10.3 ppg).
Peiters had 21 points and 12 rebounds, while Beltz added 22 points in Delta's win over COS.
The Giants, winners of seven straight, are powered by first-team all-Central Valley Conference selection Keshawn Gibbs, a 6-2 sophomore guard who averages 16.1 points, 3.3 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game. Fellow first-team all-CVC pick Tristan Forsyth (a 6-10 sophomore center who averages 12.4 points and 7.3 rebounds a game), along with 6-5 sophomore forward TJ Givance (9.6 ppg, 7.4 rpg) and 6-7 sophomore guard/forward Mike Johnson (10.2 ppg, 3.9 rpg) are also key contributors for COS.
"The teams are very evenly matched," Smith said. "Their coach (Rich Ressa) does a great job. It's going to be a grinder, no question about it."
Forsyth became the 58th COS player under Smith to sign with a four-year university when he committed in November to Riverside-based Cal Baptist, which is transitioning to NCAA Division I status.
Gibbs, Givance and Johnson are likely to transfer to four-year universities as well.
COS President Brent Calvin, who was the Giants' athletic director early in Smith's tenure, said the key to Smith's longevity is that he's not only brought in good basketball players, but young men who are also "solid students and solid people."
"That says a lot about him," Calvin said. "Rusty is not about winning at all costs. He wants to win with good people."