By Jim Henry
Globe Sports Editor
On Feb. 16, 1980, Central Missouri defeated Southwest Missouri State 92-84 before a capacity crowd at the Multipurpose Building in Warrensburg.
“There were 7,400 people at the game,” said Tom Smith, then the young Mules coach. “Both ends (of bleachers) pulled out, it was packed. That experience, and that year, changed the entire MIAA.
“We were 26-2. We were the first MIAA team to be ranked No. 1 in the country, and we had it nine straight weeks. I don’t think people realized it helped change the face of the MIAA. That game drew so many people and so much interest to basketball, presidents all across the league put an emphasis on basketball. Basketball became the sport of the league, and it continued that way into the 1990s before more resources went into football. That helped coaches to have the types of jobs we all have now.”
Smith, now 68 years old, has been head coach at Missouri Western for the last 25 years. When the Griffons play tonight at Missouri Southern, it’s part of Smith’s farewell tour after he announced last month that this is his final season.
”I probably would have done it earlier (in the school year) except the football team got on a roll,” said Smith, 613-452 for his career with an MIAA-record 529 victories. “I waited until they were done.
”After 38 years as a head coach and 46 years in the business, not very many coaches can say I’m going out on my own terms. I’m going out the way I wanted to go.”
Smith and Missouri Southern coach Robert Corn have a common thread. Both played for and later coached with Gene Bartow — Smith at Valparaiso and Corn at Memphis State as a player and UAB as a coach.
“We’ve always bonded with our relationship with Coach Bartow,” Corn said. “I’ve always had a lot of respect for Tom as a basketball coach. … He’s a guy who definitely has been married to the profession.”
“Over the years Robert and I have had great competitions and we’ve been friends,” Smith said. “But I think last January when Coach Bartow passed away, we became better friends. We became better friends with the realization we both lost someone who was very important in our lives.”
Smith left Valpo to become an assistant under Maury John at Drake and Ken Trickey at Iowa State before becoming head coach at Central Missouri in 1975.
“At the time, Drake was a dream job,” Smith said. “They had just lost against UCLA with Lew Alcindor (85-82 in the 1969 NCAA Tournament semifinals). Maury called me and asked me to interview for the job. I remember him saying ‘it pays $9,500 a year and I don’t know if you can afford to do that.’ I asked him ‘do you pay me the $9,500 or do I pay you.’ And I seriously meant it.”
Smith grew up in Gary, Ind., which helped him establish a relationship with black players that continued throughout his career.
“I grew up playing with black kids well before most people,” he said. “Since I started coaching, my thing has been the inner-city kids who had pretty tough lives. My thing has been to try to get those kids to understand the value of an education and get it along with playing basketball.
“I’ll miss the relationship I have with my players. We really have a good relationship. When I won my 600th game, I had 45 to 50 kids show up, and we’re not talking about kids … who could fly in. We had kids driving as far as 600 miles in their car.”
When his coaching days are done, Smith plans to stay visible in the basketball arenas.
“I’ll be watching games that I don’t have any dog in the hunt,” he said. “When Southern plays at Central Missouri, I may be there. When they play at Northwest (Missouri State), I may be there. I want to see some of the really good games without caring who wins. My whole life I’ve been worried about who wins this game and how it affects us.
“We (Smith and his wife Patsy) like to travel a lot. I’m sure we’ll travel quite a bit. From the energy (and health) standpoint, I feel I can go on. But mentally, the seasons coming around and the things you have to do, from that standpoint I’m ready. People don’t understand how much your life changes for that six months. I’ve often said coaching is a little bit like flying an airplane. You don’t have to do it that often but you’d better do it well when you do it.”