WOODSTOCK – The Tom Smith Retirement Tour has officially started.
The first gift was nothing extravagant. It was just a picture of Smith’s coaching colleagues after the Fox Valley Conference Cross Country Meet Saturday at Emricson Park … most of whom were donning “Coach Smith is my Homeboy” T-shirts.
“That’s a career highlight right there,” said a beaming Smith, the only cross country coach Dundee-Crown has ever had for boys and girls. “That’s special. I started to notice the shirts, but didn’t realize how many or who all had them.”
Tom’s wife Robin handed out shirts to FVC coaches in the morning. The D-C runners broke out the shirts a few years ago during the track season. Then, after the awards ceremony, all the coaches were called up for a group photo with Smith in the middle.
It was a sign of what Smith has meant to others.
“To have a guy, in our district, who’s always willing to help, always willing to be there is so nice,” Jacobs boys and girls coach Kevin Christian said. “I look up to the guy. I’ve wanted for years for my program to be even close to what he has. It’s tough to see a guy like that leave, but it’s great they’re doing something for him on the way out.”
Smith came to Crown High School in 1980 as an English teacher and cross country and track coach. When Dundee and Crown merged in the 1983-84 school year, Smith became coach for boys and girls cross country and boys track. He is 59 and will retire at the end of the school year as teacher and coach.
Several FVC coaches ran against Smith’s teams. Most consider him a mentor for their coaching careers.
“When I started, that was the guy I looked at and thought, ‘I want to be that guy.’ ” Cary-Grove girls coach Mark Anderson said. “I want to coach as long as he did. You can look at him and tell, ‘That guy’s a coach.’ He looks the part, he acts the part, he leads the conference in that way. I don’t know if he can ever really understand the influence he had on me and what we’ve been doing at Cary-Grove. I’m genuinely sad to see him leave.”
With the cold, dreary, wet day, most coaches kept their “Coach Smith” shirts under wraps until the end of the meet. After the awards were handed out, they gravitated toward the tent where results were recorded for the group photo.
“He’s legendary,” Crystal Lake Central boys coach Bill Eschman said. “He epitomizes everything that’s right about doing what’s right for the kids, coaching the right way and caring about the kids and the sport. Most of us, that’s what we look up to.”
Smith just grinned when the mentor thing is brought up. He sees it as paying it back.
“It’s very special. It means a lot,” Smith said. “That’s because I’ve had that experience and been around a long time, but I had all those guys who mentored me when I came in. I remember all those coaches. Then, it was my turn [to be a mentor].”
Anderson said the term “dean of conference coaches” was never more fitting than when applied to Smith. He suggested if the FVC ever needed a commissioner, Smith would be the ideal man.
It was an emotional week for Smith, whose stepfather Wayne Cross, passed away in Michigan after a long illness. He attended the funeral of the man he knew as his father, then came to his last FVC Cross Country Meet.
“I knew this day was coming,” Smith said. “This year has been different than any other year. I feel blessed. I’ve had a great career. I’ve had so many great runners and parents, I feel really lucky. And the highlight to it all is I got to coach my two boys [Paul and Ryan]. That’s icing on the top.”
There will be other ceremonies and presents and notes of thanks to Smith throughout the school year, but none may get a bigger smile than Saturday’s group photo.
“He is something special,” Eschman said. “He is the face of the conference really.”
And on Saturday, that wasn’t just figurative, it was literal.
• Joe Stevenson is a senior sports writer for the Northwest Herald. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You also can follow him on Twitter