It is 5:45 p.m. on a Tuesday in February and track coach Sam Smith is perched on the bleachers at Tennessee State’s Gentry Complex with a stopwatch in his hand and an eye on the time.
At precisely 6 p.m., the Continental T-Belles Track Club will take laps, and not a moment later, because this is track and, as the 71-year-old coach reminds the team, “you can’t be late for a track meet.” But today, with some of his 20-plus athletes ranging from 8 to 18 years old not yet at the track, this just might be the day that track is late.
Minutes later, the latecomers arrive, switch shoes and take off on warm-up laps with the rest of the team around TSU’s indoor track as shouts of “hurry up, ladies” and loud whistles echo through the complex.
For the next hour, Smith calls out times, counts paces and pushes the girls, many of whom travel from all over the state to train with the coach, to become stronger and better runners. He does this every day except for Sundays, his one day of rest.
He’s been doing this for more than 35 years at a variety of Nashville area high school track programs. Since 1969 Smith’s athletes have won state titles, team championships and participated in Junior Nationals. On Saturday, Smith will continue that legacy of building strong athletes at his annual Sam Smith Track Clinic at Pearl-Cohn from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.
“It takes time for any programs to be good. … I put into it what I expected to get out,” Smith said. “And that was to win championships and develop young ladies for life.”
That mission to win while building athletes and good citizens comes straight from the legendary Ed Temple.
Following his TSU football career, Smith worked first as a trainer at TSU and later a track official under Temple, who was then an assistant coach. Eventually, Smith followed Temple to the T-Belles, then called the Tigerbelle Track Club, taking over the club in 1980.
He says he preaches to his teams what Temple use to preach: “If you do your school work, practice and then social, everything is going to go well. But if you put social lives and practice before academics, then you are (going) to flunk out. And you wouldn’t be able to practice or run.'”
Smith has tied practice time to homework checks for every one of his teams. Before retiring from teaching and coaching high school in 2004, Smith served at Whites Creek as a coach for track, baseball, basketball, soccer and even a dance team called the Half-Timers.
“They couldn’t come to practice if they didn’t do their work,” he said. ” … I didn’t just coach them. …. If they showed potential that I knew they were going to go to college, I’d put them into college prep courses. And I made sure that they took the ACT/SAT so they’d be ready to go to college if they were offered a scholarship.”
He has taken a similar approach with the club by pushing the girls to master events and think early on about their futures.
“If you talk to the youngest one in here right now, they’ll tell you, ‘I’m in here to go to college, for the paid tuition,'” said Smith, who was a track official at the 2004 Olympic Trials.
Practices are designed to teach and build. Each runner, from the oldest to the youngest, participates in a series of 400-meter dashes, stretches and hurdle work that mirrors college practices.
“He’s kind of hard on us. A little strict. I know it’s hard for some people to take tha,t but it really helps to motivate us and push us in practice to do our best,” said St. Cecilia senior Eshe Robinson, who has been with the T-Belles for 10 years.
But it’s hard to argue with the results. Since 1980, Smith annually has sent an average 10 athletes to the USATF Junior Outdoor Championships, including Brentwood Academy alumnus Victoria Dunlap, who won the 2007 USA Junior Olympic heptathlon title and is a two-time U.S. Youth national champion.
“A lot of the things we did in practice were kind of extreme,” said Dunlap, who played basketball for Kentucky and in the WNBA after her time as a T-Belle. ” … But by the time you get to a meet you’ve done it so many times, it kind of comes natural to you.”
The parents also notice.
Wanda McLay can’t think of anyone else coaching her 11-year-old daughter Capeirya Perry, who wants to become an Olympic track star like her idol Usain Bolt.
“I told him he has to stay until she graduates from high school,” McLay said
Instead of naming successful runners he’s coached, Smith is more apt to detail the T-Belles’ 100 percent high school and 90 percent college graduation rate.
“It’s definitely a lot of hard work, so I have to balance out track with my school work, and it can be hard sometimes and stressful, but I think I benefited,” said Robinson, who has scholarship offers from Chicago State and Tennessee Tech. “And I think it’ll benefit me in college a lot.”
Reach Autumn Allison at email@example.com or follow on Twitter: @Aallison25.
About the coach
Born: Canton, Miss.
College: Tennessee State University, 1964-68, 1971-72, 1973-74
Teacher/coach in Metro: 1969-2004
Coached T-Belles: 1980-present
By the numbers
100 percent of T-Belles graduate from high school
1,050 T-Belles runners have been coached by him
525 USATF Junior National participants coached