I heard from numerous people last week after a story appeared in Tuesday’s paper about the legendary Jim Smith retiring after 56 years as a coach.
Smith was one of the most personable coaches I’ve dealt with in my six-plus years covering sports. Smith always spoke his mind around me, no matter what. Whether it was about the game of football, my writing, or life, Smith would offer some sort of pointer, and I was always too eager to listen.
We spoke for about an hour on Monday night, when I first learned he was walking away from the game he had been a part of since youth. He wanted to spend more time with his family. His grandchildren were playing sports, and he didn’t want to miss their games. If you know Smith, it’s not surprising. The man is the consummate gentleman, both in life and in coaching. He raised his players to be men first, football players second, and in this day and age, it was refreshing. Smith would always brag about what good young men he had at Mohawk Trail Regional High School, the final stop on his coaching journey, which began at Deerfield Academy in 1960 and lasted 36 years, before a seven-year stint at Franklin County Technical School and finally Mohawk. The coach would talk about how smart his players were, and tell funny stories of the players as they tried to uphold his strict set of rules. Even on Monday, he mentioned a story when he recently stopped into Mohawk and ran into one of his players. Smith has a rule during football season that his players are not allowed to wear hats inside the school (even though the school allows it). When one of his players came around the corner wearing a hat and saw coach Smith, the player quickly plucked it from the top of his head and tried to hide the hat behind his back. Smith simply joked with the student, as he is prone to do.
There has always been a level of respect that Smith’s players have had for their coach. I saw it this fall when former Deerfield football player and Dallas Cowboy Randal Williams was in the area and stopped by Mohawk’s practice to speak with the team. And I saw it again this week, when I heard from some of Smith’s former players, including attorney Steven E. Kramer, who included a short letter he gave me permission to print.
Coach Jim Smith began his local coaching career at Deerfield Academy over 50 years ago. Deerfield was no picnic for Day Students in those days. Upon arrival each day, instead of being greeted by girls, we met teachers in bow ties and tweed jackets, whom we were to address as “Sir”. The academic demands were rigorous and Day Students ate lunch by themselves downstairs in the dining hall.
The teachers and coaches at DA demanded discipline and performance. Many were congenial and were excellent instructors. There was one, however, who was a teacher and Head Coach, who had the unique ability to convert the high standards he demanded into those we eventually wanted to pursue for ourselves. That was Coach Jim Smith or “Smitty.”
Smitty was tough. Whether you were a pro prospect or a substitute on his team, he expected you to be motivated and prepared for every practice and game. His demands at times seemed excessive – but he took a personal interest in making sure that you met them – not for him, but for yourself. His quick wit kept the atmosphere friendly but the character requirements never wavered – on or off the field. If you considered quitting, he wouldn’t hear of it, and made sure you persevered –not for him, for yourself. Smitty demanded respect when you met him, and earned it as soon as you knew him.
It is no surprise that after DA, Smitty went to Franklin County Tech and Mohawk. His skill at motivating young athletes applied to those with silver spoons or no spoon at all. Many coaches have made lateral demographic changes during their careers. Few, if any had the versatility after 36 years at a prestigious prep school to coach at two less affluent small town schools.
Accolades for retiring coaches typically are given by former stars or colleagues with a recent relationship. This tribute is from neither, as in 1971, my varsity football uniform often got dirtier during warmups, than during the game. Regardless, 42 years later, Smitty’s lessons stick, for all who were lucky enough to play for him. We can pass them on to our kids, part of Smitty’s extended family.
There were other stories that Smith discussed on Tuesday night, including how he met his wife, Carole, which is a great story. Smith came to the area from the Midwest, growing up in Minnesota, and later attending the University of South Dakota before moving on to graduate school at the University of Illinois. When he got the job at Deerfield, he knew very few people. One person he met when he first moved to the area was Stan Benjamin, the longtime Greenfield High School baseball coach and football coach. One night while with Benjamin and his wife Barb, Smith told them a confession.
“I told them, ‘All I see around here is boys, and I’m looking for a good-looking girl,’” Smith joked.
Barb happened to know a single woman that she taught with, and told Smith she’d set him up. He remembers the first time he pulled up in front of the school and laid eyes on the woman he now calls his wife.
“I said, ‘Oh my God, she is beautiful,’” he recalled.
The relationship nearly didn’t work out, however, because when Smith got around to calling Carole during Christmas break, a man answered the phone. It turned out Carole lived at home with her parents, a fact Smith was unaware of. Things worked out, they went out on their first date to Snow’s Dairy, and have been married for nearly 52 years.
“She still believes my lies,” Smith joked. “The only trouble is she knows them all.”
When asked about his time at DA, Smith began telling stories of his time with Archie Roberts, who was born in Holyoke and would go on to play at Columbia University, and in the NFL for the Miami Dolphins. Roberts was the quarterback at Deerfield in 1960, and the first-year coach knew he had something special right away. Smith said that in a preseason scrimmage Roberts sprinted out to his left for a toss, but the play was broken, so he looked downfield and fired a 40-yard bullet for a touchdown.
“I said, ‘Smith, you lucky bum, you got a real QB here,’” he recalled.
Roberts wound up leading Deerfield to a 5-1-1 record that season. But as much as Smith was enamored by his quarterback, he was equally, if not more, impressed with the school that he would call home for 36 years. He said that the school did more than just prepare the students in the classroom, it also helped turn them in fine men. Smith recalled seeing students enter the classroom of a teacher by the name of Emmett Cooke, and upon entering, each student said “Hello, sir.” And when the bell rang, Cooke would close his door and lock it, so if you were late, you took a zero for the day.
“I called my father after about a week and I said, ‘This is the way a school should be run. The students don’t run it,’” Smith remembered saying. “But I told him, ‘Dad, I feel kind of dumb here.’ He said to me, ‘They probably are smarter than you, but you know more than they do.’”
Congratulations go out to Conway’s Jacob Conroy, who skis for Frontier Regional School, and recently participated in the Bay State Winter Games.
Conroy competed in the Alpine Skiing boys’ 11-12 Division and took home the silver medal during the meet, held Feb. 16 at Bousquet Ski Area in Pittsfield. Jacob finished with times of 47.41 and 47.52 in his two runs to earn the silver medal.
Jason Butynski is a Greenfield native and Recorder sportswriter. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.