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Prep legend Smith retires at Great Falls

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Travis Jenkins

John Smith lost his first-ever game as coach at Great Falls, falling to the Chester Cyclones in 1969. He lost his last one, too, dropping a tough decision to the McBee Panthers in February...but in-between, he did pretty well.
Smith, the winningest basketball coach in state history, announced Tuesday he was stepping down as coach and athletic director of the Red Devils. He leaves with 943 career wins, 19 Upper State championships and eight state crowns.
“After 47 years, I think it’s time,” Smith said. “The combination of the two positions is very time-consuming. We need to have someone with more energy.”
Smith actually retired after 37 years, but was rehired a day later on the state’s TERI retirement plan. He retired five years later from teaching, but continued with his work as coach and athletic director. Then he retired and was rehired to work half days.
He said for each of the past four years, he’s taken some time to decide whether or not to continue working and informs Principal Brenda Fort of his intentions.
“I probably stayed a little longer than I should have. I just couldn’t pull the trigger on it,” Smith said.
Part of the reason he was able to survive the grind for so long, where so many other coaches aren’t able to, is he never let losses eat at him. There was no teeth-gnashing or second-guessing after a bad game, he and his teams moved on and got ready for the next one.
Smith was born in Columbia and his family moved to Lancaster when he was three-years-old. He played basketball at Newberry College and was hired as the boys basketball coach (and a science teacher) by then principal Speedy Starnes and athletic director Harvey Stewart as a 22-year-old. Given the success he would enjoy in the years to come, it’s safe to assume he could’ve left Great Falls for a bigger school or more lucrative payday, but he stayed put for 47 years.
“And I enjoyed it thoroughly for 47 years. We had an absolutely great run. I was blessed with great coaches and players,” Smith said.
There are some easily forgotten facts about Smith’s hall of fame career. He was an assistant football coach for 19 years, he coached the Great Falls golf team at one point and he had a three-year run as the school’s girls basketball coach, winning region titles all three years.
His boys teams, at one point, won region titles in 13 of 14 years and advanced to the state title game 17 times in 25 years. That tradition of winning made Great Falls one of the state’s true dynasties and turned home basketball games into an event that featured a wild student section and a group of ladies who serenaded losing visitors with “Rolling on the River.” Of course, Smith would tell you he never won anything and had not much to do with that sustained level of excellence.
“John always said he never won any games, that players did.
“He would say Great Falls won this, or that during his tenure. He is a very humble man,” said Great Falls native and Chester County School Board Member Dr. Laurens Fort.
Brenda Fort said it is obvious to anyone Smith is a legendary coach. That comes from his work ethic and intellect. She recalled asking him once why he continued going to coaching clinics, given his program’s success.
“He told me he didn’t know everything about basketball and that there was more to learn.
“I said ‘well if you don’t know everything about basketball, who in the world does?’” she remembered.
Most of Smith’s best attributes aren’t often on public display, she said. Fort said Smith is the most meticulous person she knows.
A former superintendent learned that if she didn’t take copious enough notes during meetings, she could call Smith and borrow his. He understood the economic realities of small school athletics and could recite from memory how much a team’s travels cost and what their take at the gate was against a given opponent.
If he needed more money for something, he could prove, in great detail, why he needed it. Above and beyond all that, what made Smith the best coach she’s worked with was the heartfelt care and concern he had for students. She remembered a player being “absolutely crestfallen” after suffering a turnover late in a close playoff loss a few years ago.
“John told him ‘I should have told you to go the other way. I didn’t do a good enough job and this loss is on me.’ He was so concerned about that child that he took the blame,” she said.
Smith sent a stream of players on to the college ranks and had a few (Danny Strong and Torrey Craig) that managed to earn a living playing basketball.
He was an important influence on athletes that ultimately chose a different path.
Alstevis “Stevo” Squirewell played basketball for Smith, playing on the 2011 state title team his senior year.
He was also a football standout, though, played that sport in college and is now on the roster of the Green Bay Packers.
He compared Smith to the best basketball coaches that have ever lived.
“Playing for Coach Smith was like watching Michael Jordan play with Phil Jackson, or Tony Parker play for Greg Popovich. He always played his best players,” Squirewell said.
Squirewell added the caveat that the best players were always on the court provided that they gave maximum effort at all times.
“One thing he harped on was effort,” Squirewell said. “When we had to run sprints because of turnovers or whatever, he’d watch how we ran sprints.
“If we ran our sprints at less than 100 percent he’d be upset.”
No one got special treatment either, as Squirewell remembers one of Great Falls’ “legends” being run out of practice for not running sprints at full speed.
Squirewell said Smith’s quote “play hard, play smart and let me do the cussing” will always stick with him.
Smith inspired him to always give full effort in every aspect of life, not just athletics.
He called his former coach “a legend” and “unquestionably a hall of famer.”
Smith said he isn’t exactly sure what the term “retirement” means, since he’s done it three times before yet continued to work.
He plans to be available to the school whenever he’s needed.
“I love Great Falls. I’m not going anywhere,” Smith said.
Jimmy Duncan, who was an assistant for Smith the past two years and coached the girls basketball team, will step into the coach and AD roles at Great Falls.