By Mike Beas
The Hall of Fame basketball coach can still visualize the sequence of events that paint a most accurate picture of one of her toughest, most-resilient point guards.
It’s the early-1990s, the Rushville girls are playing a sectional game against Shelbyville and an inbounds play has been set up to take advantage of Debbie Lacy’s skillset.
Cinda Rice Brown, the Rushville girls coach from 1975-2000, remembers Lacy drawing contact — or at least finding a way to sell it as such to game officials.
“She got to shoot free throws and was way ahead of her time, obviously,” remembers Rice Brown, 74, owner of 448 career victories with the Lady Lions and an Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame inductee in 2002. “Debbie played it for all it was worth.”
Three decades later, nothing has changed.
Now known as Debbie Smiley, the sixth-year Brownsburg girls basketball coach is coming off a season in which she led the Bulldogs to the Class 4A championship game against Crown Point at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. It was the program’s first appearance in a finals since 1991, which, ironically, was the coach’s final season playing for Rice Brown.
Born and raised in Rushville, Ind., Smiley, like so many girls in the area, aspired to one day suit up as a Lady Lion. She played varsity all four seasons at Rushville, the final three as a starter. All of 5-foot-3-inch, Smiley possessed court smarts and a tenacity that helped put the Lady Lions into the single-class regional all four years of her prep career and to the semistate championship game her junior campaign.
Smiley played for the Franklin College women’s basketball teams from 1991-1995. She returned to the Grizzlies program as an assistant coach, which effectively launched the career she enjoys today.
“It kind of dropped in my lap,” said Smiley, 48. “Franklin College offered after my senior year if I would come back as an assistant. I had never really thought about it but thought it could be something I might enjoy.”
Smiley worked three seasons for then-Grizzlies head coach Lisa Mahan and another three for Mahan’s successor, Gene White. Starting in 1997, she began teaching at nearby Greenwood High School, serving as the cross country coach in the fall and track and field coach in the spring.
Two seasons as a Woodmen girls basketball assistant in time evolved into Smiley taking over as head coach prior to the 2003-04 season. Her first two Greenwood squads were a combined 5-35, the kind of record that makes some coaches second-guess their career choice.
“It was a struggle because I had always been on winning teams. I wasn’t used to that,” said Smiley. “That’s the mindset that I had to change. I just started scheduling really tough teams and the kids bought in.”
Eight of Smiley’s final 10 Woodmen ball clubs posted double-digit win totals, the best being the 2011-12 team that advanced to a 4A regional and finished 20-3. Former Greenwood boys basketball coach Bruce Hensley, a mentor to Smiley in the 12 years she served as the school’s girls coach, had a frontrow seat watching his friend grow the program the way she did.
“The thing that comes to mind with Debbie is that she’s so competitive,” said Hensley. “You just learn to use it to your advantage, and the kids, they see that in her. You have to learn from the losses but not let it consume you. And you can’t coach every kid the same way.”
Or every team, particularly one facing more than its share of COVID-19-related challenges the way this Brownsburg team did. People often forget the Bulldogs started the season 1-3 and stood 8-10 after a 64-60 home loss to Pike on Jan. 19. Once at full-strength, Brownsburg tore off nine consecutive wins, including a 53-47 overtime defeat of No. 1 North Central in a regional semifinal.
Led by senior guard and Ball State commitment Ally Becki, the Bulldogs won their first six tournament games by an average of 18.3 points.
Now retired and living in Florida, the woman who put Rushville girls basketball on the map was looking forward to watching her one time point guard coach on the biggest of stages.
“She was one of the best,” Rice Brown said of Smiley. “If you can imagine a tiger in a cage trying to get out to get the ball. Debbie was just the ultimate defensive player and loved to run the show on offense. I’m sure her personality as far as being intense carries over to her (Brownsburg) players.”
Getting to know Coach Debbie Smiley
Tell us a little about yourself. Where you were raised and the path you took before taking the Brownsburg job six years ago?
I was born and raised in Rushville, the youngest of six kids. I played three sports all through high school and college. I spent six years as an assistant coach at Franklin College, two years as an assistant at Greenwood High School, 12 years as head coach there and am in my sixth year at Brownsburg.
Prior to coming to Brownsburg, how much purple was in your wardrobe?
My wardrobe went from green to purple overnight, according to my kids.
You are a former point guard yourself. Why do point guards often go on to become successful coaches?
I feel like point guards are similar to quarterbacks on the football team. By the nature of the position, they tend to be leaders and thinkers. Like quarterbacks, point guards have to know every position, touches the ball the most and calls the plays.
Your daughter, Kiera, is a starting guard for this year’s Bulldogs squad. Does having a child play for you change in any way the manner in which you coach?
How rewarding has this season been given all the pandemic-related hurdles your program has had to clear to get to this point?
It has been an extra stressful season for sure, but it has forced us to be resilient. We have had to fight extra hard, so it makes it even more rewarding.