Mutka: Earl Smith’s time in Gary peaked with coaching hoops
July 15, 2013 9:32PM
TAB MUG MUTKA 100109 Andy Lavalley/Post-Tribune ptmet
Earl Smith’s highlights
Roosevelt — won state long jump championships in 1951-52, breaking 20-year record of 23 feet, two inches. Ran on two record-setting state mile relay teams. Three-year letterman and team captain in football and basketball. All-American honors in long jump (third best)
Iowa University — Big Ten scoring champion with 11 touchdowns in 1954, also led Big Ten in kickoff and punt returns. Conference indoor long jump champion, 1953 and 1954, fourth in NCAA twice.
Head coaching — Basketball at Froebel (1968-69), Emerson (1970-80), 1975 semistate champs; Lew Wallace (1980-1994), 1983, 1986 regional champions.
City athletic director — 1998-2013.
Honors — inducted to Indiana Hall of Fame, 2007.
Retirement banquet — Friday, Avalon Manor, 6 p.m. (hospitality), 7 p.m. dinner
Updated: August 17, 2013 6:37AM
GARY — How do you sum up the life of a man who has graced our sports section for more than 60 years? His athletic achievements date back to high school at Roosevelt in the ’50s and ended with his reluctant retirement as Gary city athletic director.
My relationship with Earl Smith Jr. began when I started at the Post-Tribune in 1963. By then he was already employed as an assistant at Tolleston, working with football coach Bobby Stearnes and track legend Marce Gonzalez.
Because of Gary’s tragic decline due to racial and steel industry issues Smith’s accomplishments have often been overlooked. Turbulence during his years as Gary’s athletic boss made him an easy target for critics who did not understand the insurmountable difficulties.
“People would criticize me about (high school) coaches, but I never had the power to evaluate them,” he pointed out.
Stressed athletic directors at each school, who are limited to one hour a day, could seldom be located and rarely returned phone calls. Unfairly, Smith often took the heat for something beyond his control.
A sensible solution would be to eliminate Lew Wallace and Roosevelt and create a full-time athletic director at West Side, Smith likes the idea, but that’s a battle yet to be waged.
At the height of his athletic career his life course could have been dramatically altered. Originally, he planned to enroll at Michigan to compete as a nationally known long jumper. He even worked a summer job in Ann Arbor, but switched to Iowa after a belated visit to the campus.
“I got off the train and the track coach was waiting for me at the station,” he recalled. “Instead of putting me up at a hotel, he took me to his home and I stayed with his family. When I came back I told my family I was going to Iowa.”
In his freshman year Smith roomed with offensive lineman Calvin Jones, who won the 1955 Outland Trophy.
“Calvin talked me into coming out for football,” said Smith, who played end, halfback and quarterback for Len Douglas in high school.
At Iowa, he was listed behind Stearnes, but raised eyebrows in a freshman game by returning a punt 85 yards for a touchdown the first time he touched the ball. Smith morphed from anonymous rookie to Big Ten scoring champion in 1954 and managed to placate his track coach with two Big Ten indoor long jump titles and a fourth-place finish in the NCAA championships.
During a lengthy lunch Smith talked about how a talk with long-ago city athletic director John Kyle dramatically changed his life.
“Kyle asked me what my major was and I told him journalism,” Smith said. “I wanted to be a writer.”
Kyle persuaded him to switch to elementary education, practically guaranteeing him a teaching job. After graduation he was assigned to Banneker elementary school back when Gary’s population nearly doubled present-day numbers.
“I owe him,” said Smith, who will be honored with a retirement banquet Friday at Avalon Manor.
During his basketball coaching years from 1968-94 we had many conversations, mostly friendly. He started at Froebel, but spent most of 27 seasons at Emerson and Lew Wallace. There he coached enough athletes to form an all-star squad capable of beating a major conference power. Here are just a few, some who may be present Friday:
Wallace Bryant (San Francisco) — was inducted into the USF Hall of Fame in 2008. A two-time all-conference player with the Dons, he reached the 1,000-point club in points (1,529) and rebounds (1,062). He still ranks in the school’s top 10 in those categories.
The 7-footer came to Gary by way of Madrid, Spain and played in Europe after being drafted by the Bulls in 1982, then bouncing to the Mavericks and Clippers before retiring in 1986. He also played in Spain, Italy and Argentina, then coached the California Sea Kings in the ABA.
Frank Smith (Arizona) — Led the Wildcats in scoring with a 13.7 average in 1982-83 and in average minutes (37.0) the previous season. An outstanding shot blocker, he ruled Arizona in rejections for four straight years and in rebounds for three seasons. Smith was drafted by Portland in the eighth round after finishing with a career total of 1,329 points.
Emmett Lewis (Colorado) — Though barely recruited by Division I schools, he went on to lead the conference with a 19.6 average in the 1976-77 season. Lewis topped the Buffaloes in scoring three years and ranks in their career top 10 with 1,680 points. He was drafted by Denver.
“Emmett broke just about every scoring record at Colorado,” Smith said.
Tellis Frank (Western Kentucky) — He was drafted by Golden State in the first round after averaging 18 points and 7.4 rebounds with the 1986-87 Hilltoppers. He played pro ball from 1987-94 with the Warriors, Miami and Minnesota. In 1989-90 he peaked with averages of 9.5 points and 5 rebounds at Miami.
Jerome Harmon (Louisville) — A superb talent, he wasted a golden opportunity with the Cardinals. The 6-foot-4 dunking machine was a Prop 48, then averaged 14.7 points as a supersub for the Cards, who went 28-7 in his only season.
“I could write a book about him,” said Smith, who believed Harmon had NBA potential.
After surgery for a ruptured disc the undrafted wannabe was limited to a brief 10-game fling with Philadelphia in 1994-95. He now works as a truck driver in Louisville.
Johnny Fort (Iowa/Virginia Tech) — The 6-4 guard received a scholarship to Iowa after leading the Hornets in scoring, but exited after the 1983-84 season when Lute Olson bailed for Arizona. Personality differences with Coach George Raveling hastened his departure to Virginia Tech. After Fort quit the Hokies his life took a turn for the worse.
Eventually, being the nephew of notorious Chicago gang leader Jeff Fort caught up to him. Fort was sentenced to 14 years in 2012 for his involvement in drug trafficking.