Tom Smith: the collection of a historic journey

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Early life of a Hoosier

Coach Smith has been coaching basketball for over 20 years. He first began coaching at the University of Central Missouri in 1975. This year, coach Smith will hopefully be winning his 600th win on this Saturday, Nov. 12th.

Trophies lie around the school, longing for a place to sit.

The gym is completely dark and the floor is distorted. It has been empty for years, but decades ago, the gym was packed.

Horace Mann High School, which has since been boarded up, still stands on Garfield Street in Gary, Ind., just south of Jefferson Park.

Famous people that once called Gary home include the vocal group Jackson Five, former middleweight champion Tony Zale, Heisman winner Tommy Harmon, 1983 American League Rookie of the Year Ron Kittle and former NBA player Glenn Robinson. Although the accolades don’t come off as great for a Division II coach, among the names that top the list of former Horace Mann attendees and Gary residents is Missouri Western Men’s Basketball Coach Tom Smith.

Smith played his high school basketball career at Horace Mann, where he received Honorable Mention All State honors. His basketball journey didn’t run parallel to his high school. It didn’t die and wasn’t buried into a ghost town legend; Smith prospered. He went to Valparaiso and was an All-American. He loved that school so much, he would even coach there for eight seasons after he graduated. To this day, Smith remembers his time in Indiana.

“I went to a grade school, and all my friends played on the football team,” Smith said.

He didn’t follow his friends, and decided to join a basketball team. Gary was one of the few cities where blacks and whites could play on the same team. So after high school, Smith could have found himself taking part in history.

“[Don Haskin’s] link to Gary was my high school coach,” Smith said. “I remember him trying to talk me into going to Texas Western. But he was actually trying to get Haskins to recruit the others guys and take me. So I ended up going to Valparaiso.”

Those other guys Smith was talking about included Orsten Arnis and Harry Flournoy, two key players on the Texas Western’s Men’s 1966 basketball team, a team that won the NCAA National Championship by starting five black players for the first time.

Smith went to Valparaiso and started at point guard. He took them to the conference tournament in 1984 as the coach. It was the Crusaders’ first appearance in the tournament in the program’s history. Shortly after his stint with the program ended, Smith was hired as the men’s head basketball coach at Missouri Western. That’s when history hit full effect.

Inaugurate start of a real Leader

Western made the NCAA Tournament and won its first NCAA tournament game, defeating West Texas State 73-71, in Smith’s second season at the helm. Though they fell in the next round, the Griffons team remains in Smith’s memory.

“That team was pretty good,” said Smith, whose season ended to Southeast Missouri State. “In those days, the number one team didn’t host. You had to bid for it. So Southeast, whose place holds 7,000, they got the regional.”

On their way to the tournament, the Griffons defeated Central Missouri in the MIAA Championship game. A three point victory over a team that Smith once coached gave Western its first championship in its first year in the conference. Smith received Coach-of-the-Year in the MIAA as well as Division II Coach-of-the-Year in the South Central Region.

The 1989 basketball team was inducted into the Missouri Western Intercollegiate Athletics Hall of Fame this past October. And although Smith said he didn’t have much to do with his team at the time, players on the team disagree and said the coach gave the team spirit. Known as a motivator, former guard Heath Dudley said during the season that is exactly what Smith gave them.

“He did not give himself enough credit for getting the coach-of-the-year award,” Dudley said. “He always told us not to give up and to keep playing our best.”

Smith was never wanted by people in St. Joseph. The week he was hired, the local news reported that Western had hired a losing coach, given his losing record. The school newspaper even published a letter stating why Smith was a bad decision. He shrugged the comments off and just coached. 429 wins later, he remains a Griffon.

A true golden Griff

Smith said that the 1988 and the 1989 teams were two of the most enjoyable years as a coach. Throughout the next 20 years, Smith’s coaching style affected his team to the point where he would be inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame in 2006. Among his achievements, Smith won the MIAA regular season title five times. He has been named the MIAA Coach-of-the-Year twice and has coached All-Americans Mike Cornelious and Darrol Wright.

“[1988 team] was the one I inherited,” Smith said. “We were NAIA with that team that preceded the hall-of-fame team. We were fortunate. We didn’t have time to recruit anybody.”

With the team that he hardly knew, he was one win away from going to the post-season tournament. Only five guys remained on the team the next season, but the teams stay close together. After the Hall-of-Fame ceremony, Smith said both teams went to his house to celebrate that night. Those teams, along with a great run in the early 200os, helped Smith reach his win total.

When he first arrived at Western, he never dreamed of winning 600 games. Coming from a school that had to drive hundreds of miles to each game a night, Smith never felt much respect at Valparaiso. It once played a game against Notre Dame at home, where the scoreboard read Home vs. Notre Dame.

“I interviewed for the job, and I knew it wasn’t a good job, but I took it,” Smith said. “We all think we’re great. We all think, ‘the guy before me couldn’t win, but I can’.”

Now though — with 600 within one game — he feels the love.

“I came here because I wanted my gun loaded equally with the guy I’m shooting against,” Smith said. “My gun wasn’t loaded at Valpo. It wasn’t fair.”

You can’t keep a Griffon down

The 67-year-old coach has never been fired. He said he left Central to take a chance at Division I, and not that he regrets it, but he knew that after a few years it wasn’t the smartest decision. When he went to the NCAA Final Four in Kansas City, Mo., he found out about the Western job, and although a late candidate, Smith was hired.

He is tied at No. 61 in overall wins in NCAA Men’s Basketball. He is ranked No. 19 for active coaches. Still, the man once thought that he couldn’t handle any pressure in coaching says it’s not him, it’s his team.

The Gary native recently attended his 45th college reunion. Smith went to Gary on his way through Indiana, and said it changed a lot since he was little.

“It’s unbelievable. I told Marcus [Rhodes] I used to walk to the Palace Theatre. He said ‘you ain’t walking there now’.”

Now that he is out of Gary and in St. Joseph, Smith’s 24th season as head coach is about to tip off. He doesn’t seem tired. He isn’t going to calm down and take it easy. The coach just wants to watch his team perform. In doing so, more wins and achievements look destined for the man in charge. He is more laid back, however. His attitude this season with his first three-freshman class and returning seniors like All-MIAA selection TJ Johnson, should help. Johnson said he is ready for this season to celebrate the 600th win and play some basketball.

“Coach gives us the freedom to just play,” Johnson said. “We need to use our athleticism to get  to the basket and get everyone involved.”

Smith agrees, and says although it may not be his most talented team, they definitely have chemistry and makes it fun to come to work.

“Great teams beat great guys every time.”

A guy whose basketball career looked like it was over when he played his final game against Phil Jackson, 11-time NBA champion as a coach, at North Dakota when the Crusaders played North Dakota, is still is around the game. Smith decided to take it to the next level: coaching. 600 wins later, he is still the same guy.

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