Sports

Great Falls hoops coach Smith reaches another milestone with 800th career victory

McBEE -- John Smith won his 800th game and it seemed like just another day at the office. He paced, slowly, in front of the Great Falls Red Devils' team bench watching as his team steamrolled McBee, 81-30, in the Region 3-A opener for both teams.

Smith knew, prior to the game, another milestone was his with a win. The significant wins come every four or five years now. You can bet his 700th and 600th wins were treated with similar indifference.

His 500th win was a big one, he admitted. He said getting to 500 is a watershed mark for coaches. But now the milestones are almost a distraction to him.

When asked prior to the game if this was going to be a big win he answered frankly and positively. "It is the first region game of the year, it will be a big one."

McBee (1-10 overall) kept the game close in the first quarter. But Great Falls began wearing down the Panthers in the second. The Red Devils scored eight unanswered points to double up McBee, 24-12.

Isaiah Lynn buried back-to-back 3-pointers to give Great Falls a 16-point cushion. Smith watched calmly from the sideline.

Smith is in his 40th year coaching boys basketball at Great Falls. He has had plenty of successes with six state championships and 15 trips to the state title game. He remains strikingly modest.

Great Falls went on a 12-0 run in the third quarter. Walter Lamar passed ahead to Torrey Craig for an easy layup and Lynn hit a pair of long 3-pointers to cap the run that put the game away.

Smith stood and watched. He stuffed his hands in his pockets.

As his team peeled off the first 11 points of the fourth quarter, Smith was seen standing. He folded his arms across his tall frame and watched.

His wife, Ann, sat at the scorer's table, keeping the team's scorebook as she has for more than 30 years. Eleven players name's were printed neatly on the Great Falls' side of the book. All 11 players played, as they probably do in every game. Nine players scored, four finished in double figures led by Lynn's 18 points.

Ann Smith hasn't missed many of her husband's games over the years. She gave him a congratulatory hug after the game. The coach said he'd see her at home. The scene has been played out countless times in the couple's life.

Chesley Smith, the couple's 31 year-old son, was on hand for the win.

"I've been around the games since I was young. The games are all the same. Just like going to work," Chesley said.

Smith's 800 wins are more than any other high school basketball coach in South Carolina history. He's in an elite, yet surprisingly large, group. He joined 41 others with 800 or more wins nationally.

Robert Hughes of Fort Worth, Texas, retired in 2005 with a national-record 1,333 wins. He began coaching in 1959.

Smith gasped when he saw that win total. "I would have to have people wheeling me into the gym to reach that," he said.

Smith will move ahead of Willie West's 803 wins (Los Angeles Crenshaw), Jack Butcher's 806 (Loogootee, Ind.) and Arthur Trout's 809 (Centralia, Ill.) this year. He could conceivably move ahead of six more coaches next season.

But Smith is concerned about the next game, winning the region this season, and getting back to another state title game. He has a talented team this year. He isn't worried about next year or the next milestone.

"I am really glad to get 800 out of the way," Smith said.

People, Great Falls people in particular, and players get the credit from Smith for all the wins.

"There are so many players and so many people that have made this possible. I am extremely proud of Great Falls. This is not a John Smith record, this is a Great Falls record," Smith said.

This year's team is off to a great start like so many teams have done before. The 10-1 record includes wins over much larger schools like Northwestern, Andrew Jackson, Lugoff-Elgin and Charlotte's Independence and Olympic.

Great Falls is deep this year, a luxury not always afforded to Smith and small schools of its ilk. Half way through the first quarter, Smith directed five players to sub into the game. Likewise in the second quarter -- a fresh new rotation of players came into the game.

McBee, and most schools Great Falls will face this season, can't compete with that.

Smith said he has a team with that kind of bench this year. In 2004 he didn't. He went to state with six players. That's what makes coaching fun and challenging for him.

"This year, we have some fine athletes. We don't always have 10 players. That's the thrill of high school is to make it the best you can with the players you have."

Smith described himself as a loyal employee of Chester County. He wants to leave the county's residents with the responsibility of judging what kind of job he has done.

So the game was decided, well before the final buzzer. Smith gathered his players and headed out of the small gym at McBee High School. They climbed on to a long yellow school bus, and Smith drove the team home.

The game was just like going to work. Driving the bus is part of the job.

Even if you've won 800 games.

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