While Smith became the Yellowjackets’ all-time leading men’s basketball scorer, his parents, Bruce and Nancy Smith, made every single game of his four-year career. Home or away, they made every single one.
“They were always in the stands, and that meant so much to me,” Smith said. “I never took it for granted. I looked forward to seeing them and having them watch me. And I just think with my own kids now, growing up, that I want to be there like my mom and dad did for me, because I know how much that meant to me as a player.”
Smith resigned as Superior Spartans boys basketball coach last week, and while knowing the importance of family is ingrained in him, that’s not to say it made last Thursday’s year-end basketball banquet at Superior Middle School any easier for him.
All the players were gathered, C team, junior varsity and varsity. Parents were allowed to follow along virtually, if they wanted, thanks to technology. Speakers spoke and highlights were played and a special dedication and video highlights were given to Superior’s six seniors.
But Smith saved his resignation till the end. It’s something he and Superior athletic director Ella Olson had talked about a week earlier but kept quiet until the big announcement.
Smith wanted to do it right, so he put it in print and read his letter out loud, making sure he explained himself clearly. It was well written and thorough. Even though he had covered all the bases, to the players, it still felt like it came out of left field.
“It was very surprising and I did not see it coming,” said junior guard Jake Kidd. “He started to talk about it at the end of the banquet and I could tell by a lot of people’s faces it was not expected at all. A shock he’d just say that. He loves basketball so much, he was a standout in college obviously, and he’s pretty young. Nobody thought he’d step down like that. Everyone thought he’d be coaching for many years.”
Smith, 31, just finished his eighth year as Superior’s head coach. After graduating from Rhinelander, Wisconsin, he went on to become the all-time leading men’s basketball scorer at Wisconsin-Superior, graduating in 2011. He teaches ninth-grade math at Superior High School.
The first sentence in his letter was pretty clear, like everybody else — assumed, and he did, too — “When I first started coaching at Superior High School I thought I’d be a lifer.”
Made sense. Smith is a lifelong basketball junkie, eats it, sleeps it, breathes it, ever since he first put sneakers on, basketball is what he wanted to do.
But every dribble has a bounce, every game different, and Smith certainly had his reasons.
The line “spend more time with family” has become cliche when it comes to coaching moves and resignations. It’s become a go-to catchphrase often used gloss over internal issues or friction, but in the case of Smith, it’s unequivocally legit.
And that’s why Smith penned a heartfelt letter explaining his reasoning.
“I think they were pretty surprised, but I wanted them to understand the why behind it, and I didn’t have a good way to do that unless I was prepared,” Smith said. “I wanted to get all my points across so they could really get it. I know it was hard for some of the guys to hear that, and know that, but it was strictly about my family.”
Jake and Lindsey Smith have a blended family. Lindsey has two children from a prior marriage, Cooper LeBard, 10, and Callie LeBard, 8, and Jake’s son, Evan Shoeder, who just turned 13, lives 3.5 hours away in Rhinelander. Jake gets to see Evan every other weekend. It doesn’t take long to understand the dynamics and challenges of juggling parenting schedules and time.
“It would be different if our kids lived with us 100 percent of the time, then you wouldn’t feel like you’re missing out on as much,” Smith said. “It’s been tough on the kids, my wife, my own son who is missing out on time and activities here and there.”
Coaching is a grind at any level, that’s not cliche, it’s reality, but at high school level, it’s almost ridiculous. Keep in mind these coaches make pennies on the dollar. They do it because they love it, they want to see their players succeed, develop and advance, just like the coaches they had made a positive impact on their lives. Passing it down, for sure.
But even though the pay hasn’t gone up, the workload has. With the advent of the internet, social media, high-quality video, the coaching world is your oyster, if you want to make it such. Most coaches have that love, but the time, that’s another story. To expect anybody to be a slave to a stipend is selfish at best.
“When I started eight years ago, you could kind of show up and practice, go into a game not knowing a whole lot about your opponent and probably be OK,” Smith said. “But over the last few years, there’s been a really big difference between the great coaches and the great programs and the ones who are just out there playing. And you can tell by who’s prepared and who’s not prepared.”
Like a good soldier, Smith watched video of the upcoming opponent and put together a scouting report for his players. After games, he’d watch videos of their own games and see what they could do better, prepping for practice the next day.
If it was a road game, he might get home at 12:30 a.m., even 1 a.m., on a school night. Then there is open gym in the offseason, weight room sessions and unofficial counseling, being a mentor and a friend.
“It really is a grind,” Smith said. “If you want to run a top program, you’ve got to go all in. There’s no one foot in, one foot out, you’ve got to be all in, and it takes a lot of time to do that.”
Smith will continue to be a mentor and a friend to his former players, saying he “loves those guys.” The decision, clearly, wasn’t easy. He said he is looking forward to watching Spartans games next winter. While he will still offer advice and support — if a player wants it — everything will be much more casual, less structured.
Smith went 101-85 in eight seasons for the Spartans, including 8-9 in a year interrupted by COVID-19. The Spartans had high hopes this season but could never find their rhythm, understandable given the circumstances.
Smith’s best year was 2015, when the Spartans went 21-5 and were one game away from the state playoffs, losing to eventual state champion Stevens Point. That team included junior forward Brandon Myer, who happened to go on and become Minnesota Duluth’s all-time leading men’s basketball scorer.
That’s a resume any coach would be proud of. Smith isn’t ruling out returning to coaching one day, but for now, he’s taking a timeout.
“I’m seeing it now, my own son is 13 years old already,” Smith said. “He’s growing up before I know it. He’s going to be 18 or 19 years old here in the blink of an eye. I just want to enjoy every minute over the next handful of years and be around as much as I can, and get to as many games and activities as I can. That’s the most important thing for me right now.”