In 1973, when Bobby Smith agreed to be Clinton Prairie High School’s boys basketball coach, the Hobart native assumed the job would be a steppingstone to an opportunity in a larger community.
But Smith, who celebrated his 70th birthday Saturday, never left. He became a boulder of athletic leadership and fiscal responsibility at the small school on Clinton County’s west side.
Sometime in June, Smith will clean out his office and retire after serving the student-athletes known as the Gophers for 40 years, the final 39 as athletic director.
“I’ve never had to wake up and say, ‘Gee, I’m going to work,’ ” he said. “I always felt like I was going to go in and have a good time that day.”
Smith will cap 48 years in education. He taught and coached at Merrillville, Harvard, Ill., Morgan Township and Wheeler before landing at Clinton Prairie. During his 10 years as boys basketball coach, he guided the Gophers to their second and most recent — 1982 — sectional championship.
His 39 years as athletic director include three volleyball state championships, one girls basketball state title and two softball state crowns.
When Smith wasn’t at school — he often was on the job from before 7 a.m. until well after 11 p.m. — he found time to run in the seven most recent Indianapolis mini-marathons. He just returned from Coral Springs, Fla., where he helped his 70-and-over Masters basketball team place third in the national tournament.
The school now has a state-of-the-art fieldhouse. Smith was the driving force behind it, and he intends to keep using it.
“I told them, ‘Even though I am retiring, don’t lock the doors on me.’ I still want to run at 7:30 in the morning three or four times a week.
“I never thought I would be at Clinton Prairie for 40 years, but it has gone fast. Probably the reason it has gone so fast is because of the great people I have been surrounded by. The kids have been great. We’ve had some great athletes and some great students. That has been a big part of it.”
Smith approached his athletic director duties with a simple premise: Never micromanage. Let coaches coach and let players play.
“Because I was a cross country coach and a basketball coach and had coached eight years before I came to Clinton Prairie and had coached at all levels, when I became athletic director, I wanted to treat people like I wanted to be treated,” he said.
“When I was a coach, I wanted to have the opportunity to build my own program and get my own coaches. I didn’t want someone to micromanage me. I always felt that I would give that responsibility to the coaches.
“When they came in, I would say, ‘It’s your program, and I will help you out whenever you need it. But I want you to run the program.’ It has worked.”
Smith applied for a handful of other jobs but always knew only an ideal opportunity could pry him away from rural Clinton County. After eight years, he had built relationships with people who shared his objectives. He didn’t want to leave and take a chance that the next job might not be as special.
“When I came to Clinton Priairie, that was back in the one-class system,” Smith said. “About the only way you were going to win a state championship in boys basketball was to move on to a larger school.
“But as I stayed there, I came to enjoy the people I was working with. I felt like I didn’t need to move. So, I just stayed.”
For the ladies
As Connie Garrett recalls, when Smith arrived, he was all about boys basketball. He really didn’t want much to do with the developing programs for girls sports.
But when Garrett coached the 1984 Lady Gophers to a 47-0 record and the volleyball state championship in a single-class format, Smith was converted. Garrett won Class A volleyball crowns in 1997 and 1998, and the Class A basketball title in 1999. Softball added titles in 2002 and 2005.
“It really is something to be proud of,” Smith said. “It’s unbelievable what Connie has done. She was ahead of her time and was able to get girls to buy into her system and do the things she wanted them to do through hard work.
“It shows you that if you let the coaches coach, and you just support them, it’s amazing what can happen. I’ve never been one to butt in.”
In their early years at Clinton Prairie, Garrett, one year younger than Smith, often picked Smith’s brain about coaching. He was helpful, but she was keenly aware that his perception then was that because boys basketball paid all the bills for other sports, the girls had to earn their place.
At first, the girls got the gym Saturday mornings. Only. Smith wanted the girls to have a chance, but not at the expense of interfering with the boys’ teams.
“It took him a while to change,” Garrett said. “He told me, ‘I’m not going to just give you what the boys have earned over the years.’ He said that we had to earn it. I always remembered that. Once we showed that we were working hard and were willing to work, then he began to give just a little bit.
“He began to share the gym and some of the other things. Now I can say that he is the best athletic director in terms of not seeing a difference between boys and girls. He wants the best for every athlete. He rewards the effort, no matter if it is a boys sport or a girls sport.”
Garrett believes the Clinton Prairie community probably underestimates how much Smith has done for the corporation.
“He just does things so quietly,” Garrett said. “He never tells you how much he did or what he did. He never took the credit, even when there was an opportunity for him to do so. He never wasted money. And he organized coaches to work the concession stands at Colts games, which helped bring thousands of dollars into the athletic department.
“He also was the mastermind of us getting our new fieldhouse built. He never was a guy who stood up and said, ‘I did this.’ He never craved attention. It didn’t matter if you won or lost, or it was good or bad. He let you talk, and he does let you coach your program. He has a great ability to listen. He doesn’t interfere. Sometimes you come up with your own answers.”
Marilyn Price was athletic secretary during almost all of Smith’s tenure.
“He did so much for … the kids at Clinton Prairie, both boys and girls,” she said. “He really wanted to have good athletic programs. … (Coaches) come and never think they are going to stay, but he did.”
Some at Prairie feared that Smith might retire in 2010 after suffering what first was believed to be a stroke during a mini-marathon. But upon further review, doctors diagnosed Smith’s condition as severe dehydration. He says he is fine now. He drinks lots of water. All of the time.
In the beginning
Smith was a cross country and basketball standout at Hobart High School, helping the Brickies win the IHSAA’s 1960 cross country championship. He was a two-year varsity starter for the basketball team and a role player at Indiana State University. He graduated in 1965.
He took his first job that fall as an elementary school physical education teacher in Merrillville. He’d found his niche.
Smith the athlete has many stories, but one from the 1960 state cross country meet in Indianapolis is probably his favorite. The head coach told Smith and his teammates that snow and freezing temperatures were forecast, and he bought black leotards to keep them warm.
“No one ever had heard of that, but sure enough, there was an inch of snow on the ground, and we put the leotards on under our sweatpants,” Smith said.
When the teams reached the starting line, the official starter ordered the runners to remove their sweats. Only one team wore leotards.
“We took our sweats off, and everybody started laughing, calling us rag dolls,” Smith said. “The interesting thing was that after we won it, the next year, seven or eight schools had leotards for the state finals.”
That was 54 years ago, long before Smith had contemplated a steppingstone at Clinton Prairie, where he’s been a rock.