In her mother, Natalie Smith finds her biggest role model
On September 14, 1998, Janine Smith gave birth to her second child, Natalie. Three days later, she was back on the bench coaching, with Natalie at her side.
Right off the bat, the pair’s relationship and the game of volleyball were intertwined.
It had to be. At the time, Janine was a Division I coach at the University of Texas at Arlington and taking a season off wasn’t an option.
Her husband, Warren, did what he could. He was a stay-at-home father and he took care of their eldest daughter, Brooke, who was just 15 months older than Natalie. But as a newborn, Natalie needed to be with her mother.
So she was.
“Natalie traveled with me,” Janine said. “She was with me 24/7 for a good three months.”
And with a newborn attached to her hip, Janine coached the Mavericks to a respectable 24-7 record, going 19-1 in the Southland conference.
After three months filled to the brim with volleyball, time away from the other half of the family and pandering to the needs of a newborn baby, Janine turned over some of the parental supervision to Warren that January.
For the first time since she was born, Janine and Natalie weren’t together.
Janine was born and raised in Dubuque, Iowa – a volleyball town. To the north was a big volleyball school, Dubuque Wahlert, the place where she would first truly get to prove herself.
During her time at Wahlert, she helped bring home two championship banners and made enough of an impact to be inducted into the Iowa Athletic Hall of Fame for her success at the high school level.
But her athletic achievements didn’t stop with volleyball. In track and field, Janine found a way to, quite literally, rise above the competition — she was a high jumper. In her final three years at Wahlert, Janine became a three-time state champion at the event.
Her final high jump win came in 1988, the same year she started her volleyball career at the University of Texas, Austin.
And that year, she couldn’t help but just keep winning.
The Longhorns were senior heavy, and no matter how good Janine was, she wasn’t going to start as a freshman. But Janine didn’t let that hold her back.
“I didn’t know what kind of impact I was going to make,” Janine said. “But … I was going to make an impact no matter what. And whatever it was going to take, I was going to find my way on the court.”
She started the year as a defensive specialist. There was no libero position in volleyball at that time, so the defensive specialist fulfilled that role. She remained there until one of the seniors suffered an injury, sidelining them for most of the season.
Again, Janine had a chance to prove herself.
Stepping into her new role nicely, she became a six-rotation outside hitter for the majority of the season, racking up experience and honing her game the entire way.
But towards the end, the senior she took the place of recovered, retaking her position and relegating Janine to her back-row duties. That didn’t stop her from making an impact. Instead, she earned the moniker ‘Super Sub,’ for her prowess as a rotational player.
In the NCAA Tournament, Texas faced an undefeated UCLA in the semifinals. The Longhorns didn’t back down.
“I had a pretty good Final Four,” Janine said. “That’s why they say that they call me the ‘Super Sub,’ because when I came in, I made a lot of defensive plays to help keep us in it.”
UCLA fell in straight sets, albeit close ones, and Texas moved on to face the defending champions, Hawaii. Janine kept her play up, subbing in for sophomore Quandalyn Harrell in the back row and sometimes staying in for a full six rotations when the coach needed her to.
After three sets, the Longhorns were national champions, Janine the ‘Super Sub’ an integral part of the win.
“I was just kind of in the zone,” Janine said. “I was pretty focused and wanted it for the seniors who had worked very hard and who had been mentors to me as a freshman.”
Over the next three years, Texas never made it back to the championship, only going as far as the regional finals, but Janine cemented herself as a star.
She is seventh in Texas history in both career kills and service aces, as well as second in career digs, leading the team in digs in 1989, ‘90 and ‘91.
In her senior year, Janine was finally able to compete in the other sport she excelled at in high school — high jump.
Due to volleyball, she wasn’t allowed to high jump for her first four years at Texas. But her eligibility had ended, so she was free to join track and field, something the track coaches wanted her to do much earlier in her college career.
Another member of the Texas track and field team was her future husband, Warren Smith, a pole vaulter for the Longhorns.
Soon after graduation, the two were married. A short time after they tied the knot, Janine received a call.
At the opposite end of the line was Colorado head coach Brad Saindon. The Colorado volleyball team was new, having just started in 1986, and had yet to see much success. Saindon wanted Janine to be one of his assistant coaches, barely a year after she finished playing at Texas.
“He said he wanted me because he says that I single handedly helped our team beat them,” Janine said. “He wanted me to be on their team as a coach to help his kids.”
Janine and Warren knew it was a leap, but they wanted to take it.
That year, Colorado won their first Big 8 championship ever, beating out perennial powerhouse Nebraska.
After her first year in Colorado, the UT-Arlington head coach position opened up. Janine decided to throw her hat in the ring for the sake of experience. In the future, she’d need to know how to interview and go through the process of applying for coaching positions, so it was a great opportunity to start building that foundation. In the interview, she was offered the job on the spot. After just one year as a limited earnings assistant coach, she became the head coach of a Division I volleyball program.
“It was a fast learning curve,” Janine said. “They had a couple fifth year seniors on their team so you can only imagine, we were like a year apart in age. … And so I had to try to build a program with kids that were basically the same age as I was. So it was, let me say, it was difficult.”
But, Janine managed. She started getting her own recruits in the building, and in four years, the program was turned around. The Mavericks were vying for conference championships and making NCAA tournaments, all the good signs of a healthy program.
Janine had succeeded yet again; this time, not as a player, but as a coach.
When Natalie, now a senior libero at Michigan, and her sister, Brooke, were little, their mom was as involved with volleyball as ever.
“I would grow up in the gym with her and a ball cart,” Natalie said. “So I feel like our relationship started around that, and our whole lives are kind of around volleyball.”
That sentiment wore on Janine. In 2004, it was time for a change.
Janine announced that she would be resigning as the head coach of the University of Texas at Arlington volleyball program after two regular season titles and two tournament titles in 10 years, solidifying the Mavericks as a perennial contender in the Southland Conference. Instead, she would be taking a job at Silver Creek Elementary School in Azle, Texas.
“I had an opportunity to teach at my children’s school,” Janine said in 2004. “It’s in the best interest of our family. The goal of our family is to be involved in our children’s lives.”
In this new situation, Janine and Warren were able to do so.
As the girls grew up, volleyball never went away, but it wasn’t their mother’s game anymore, it was theirs, with Janine coaching them.
“Whenever we first got into really playing volleyball, my mom coached us both,” Natalie said. “Then my first club year, she coached us.”
Janine, as well as Warren, coached the girls, but the age difference between Brooke and Natalie led to years with the two on separate teams, and left Janine only able to coach one of them.
Natalie’s junior year of high school was one of her years, her parents coaching her club team.
“That was a ton of fun,” Natalie said. “And probably my favorite year of my high school. … Because I think we got closer as a family through that.”
It was also a big recruiting year for Natalie, and there’s a thin line to pushing your own kid as a recruit. So, Janine and Warren waited for coaches to approach them about Natalie. That’s when they would have to disclose that Natalie was their daughter.
“Most coaches will tell you, ‘Oh I like her even more now,’” Janine said. “Because most Division I coaches, highly competitive coaches, like to have coach’s kids on their team because those kids understand the work that you need to do, and they understand everything that goes into the game of volleyball.”
Michigan coaches Mark and Leisa Rosen were just two of many that approached Janine about Natalie. They just happened to be the two that Natalie decided to play for.
“When Natalie took a visit up to Michigan, she just knew,” Janine said. “She had gone to many visits prior to that, and we went up to Michigan and we just knew that was the place for her.”
For Janine, that was a great fit for her daughter. Not only was she playing for Mark, a coach she knew and respected, but was playing for someone Janine met all the way back in high school — Leisa.
The two played on the Junior National team together before starting their collegiate and coaching careers in volleyball.
“Leisa is a lot like myself,” Janine said. “I think that we bonded pretty well and I think that’s why we get along so well.”
But what made Janine feel best about her daughter’s college decision wasn’t about what kind of coaches the Rosens were or that she had played with one of them in high school, it was the kind of people they were.
“They’re unbelievable people who take care of their student athletes and really care,” Janine said.
And really, that’s what volleyball is for Janine — a way to express herself and care for others.
“She cares so much about people,” Natalie said. “So I think I took that a lot from her. Just the way she cares about kids and anyone she communicates with. It’s just very inspiring to see, and she’s like my biggest role model.
“I think that's the thing I love about her the most.”