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Former Ute Mitch Smith hopes new job as East High coach is about more than basketball

SALT LAKE CITY — Mitch Smith, the well-traveled 50-year-old former Ute star and current elevator salesman, recently became the head basketball coach at East High School, but it took time and convincing.

When East officials first contacted him about the position he told them he wasn’t interested and that was that for a couple of months. The previous coach, a long-time friend, had been fired, and it felt wrong to Smith to be his replacement. Smith is big on loyalty — to a fault, he says. He’s still angry that his old college coach, the gentlemanly Lynn Archibald, was let go by the University of Utah — almost 30 years ago. It was why he decided he didn’t want to be a college coach following his long playing career in Europe.

So when East High fired his life-long friend, Skip Lowe, and invited Smith to interview for the job, Smith decided, “I didn’t want to be that guy.”

He was watching his son play in a junior high game one afternoon when he realized he didn’t like sitting in the stands; he wanted to be on the bench. Moments later he received a text from his neighbor, East High football coach Brandon Matich, urging him to reconsider the East job. He was taken on a tour of the school, along with his wife and youngest son, an eighth-grade basketball player who would enroll wherever his father wound up coaching. While touring East, they saw the school’s facilities for homeless students — showers, free meals, a laundromat, clothing — and tears came to Smith’s eyes. Just like that, he was in.

The Leopard Boutique offers free clothing to students in need at East High School. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

“It’s something my family and I need to experience and be around,” he says. “It was mind-boggling to see these kids doing this for their classmates. I’d love for my kid — and I — to have an opportunity like that. Speaking frankly, I went in there with the mindset that this was a sports decision and then saw there was more to it than that.”

Smith always has been a sucker for both kids and basketball. This is, after all, the guy who turned down a chance to return to play in Europe for an 11th season because he couldn’t walk away from coaching the girls team at Woods Cross — which paid $2,100 for the season. “I felt horrible to leave them, so I retired,” he says.

Mitch Smith | University of Utah

You remember Smith, don’t you? He was the scrappy — that was the way he was always described — floor-diving, elbow-throwing, angry-playing, trash-talking, intense 6-foot-8 forward for the University of Utah from 1985-89. He was the custodian of the team, the guy who cleaned up and did all the dirty work, rebounding, defending and diving to the floor for every loose ball.

Smith once referred to himself as a “garbage player,” but that’s misleading. Twenty-eight years after leaving the U., he still ranks high on the school’s career lists for scoring (10th), rebounding (fourth), blocked shots (third), free throws (eighth), and steals (seventh) — oh, and also personal fouls (first) and disqualifications (third).

And yet he does not have fond memories of his college playing days. “It was probably 15 years before I could go in there (the Huntsman Center) without wanting to throw up,” he says. “I’m still uncomfortable there.”

The source of this discomfort is his 1988-89 senior season, when the Utes were picked to win the Western Athletic Conference and finished sixth, which led to the firing of Archibald. They returned everyone after a second-place finish the previous year, but won only six league games. Smith won’t be specific, but he hints that he was doing things away from the basketball court that compromised his play (he averaged 14.7 points and 8.4 rebounds per game, down from his stats earlier in his career).

“(Archibald) could’ve kicked me out of school a few times,” he says. “I was a knucklehead.”

He says he should’ve punched a couple of his teammates for the way they were conducting themselves, as well. Over the years he has talked to former Utes Josh Grant and Manny Hendrix, among others, about that lost season.

“They tell me I’ve got to get over it,” he says. “But you know when you don’t do it right. It was on me. I didn’t perform the way I needed to. I’d put 96 percent of that season on me. I could’ve played better. I feel ownership for the way it went down. I played badly and it cost a friend a job.”

He volunteers that the dismissal led to prosperity for Utah, which replaced Archibald with Rick Majerus, who then turned the Utes into a national powerhouse. But that is little comfort to Smith, who had a close relationship with Archibald.

After leaving Utah, Smith — accompanied by his wife Cindy — began a decade-long professional career in Europe, starting in Spain, then moving to Turkey, then Belgium and back to Turkey. It was a wild ride. In only one of those 10 years did he receive full pay for a season’s work. “That’s very common,” says Smith. “They just don’t pay you. Every month they came up with a reason for not paying you.”

When he was paid, it was often right before the start of the game, in cash. He played the game with the cash stuffed in his shoes “because if you left it in the locker room they’d take it back.” There were times when he refused to leave the bench until he was paid. On one occasion he chased the team owner through a building to get paid. Injuries could be costly. He sprained an ankle once and the next day his car was gone, reclaimed by the team.

“That’s just how it is,” he says.

He found himself pulled into the strange world of European basketball, one in which referees were beat up during the playoffs, and the front office included a mafia head and a police chief, and fans threw bricks onto the court and lit flares in the stands.

The demands of the long European season took its toll on Smith's body, especially with the physical way he played the game. He faked injuries “all the time” to let his body heal. He earned a reputation for getting kicked out of practice so he could rest. Opponents often made Americans — usually the best player on a team — the target of rough play, hoping to goad them into retaliation and disqualification from the game. “They had players whose job was to rile you up and get you kicked out of the game,” he says. Sometimes Smith would flip roles. Looking for a night off, he’d deliver payback — say, an elbow to the face — to some player who had roughed him up earlier in the season.

And yet, despite all of the above, Smith says, “We loved it. It was great for our family. I can’t think of a better place to raise a family than Europe. We also depended on each other as a family. It was very good for our marriage. We could only depend on each other; our families were seven thousand miles away.”

Late in his career, Smith, a hard-living Arizona native who was decidedly anti-Mormon, converted to the Mormon Church, a decade-long process that was chronicled by Trent Toone of the Deseret News in 2013. He says he was never the same player after his conversion. He played one more season and his performance was so lackluster that his coach actually showed him a before-and-after video to demonstrate how much his game had declined.

“I couldn’t reconcile how to play with the same intensity without the extra elbows to the mouth,” he says. “Even as a coach, how do you yell at the kids and keep the adjectives out or make a point with a gosh darnit? Sometimes the 1980s Mitch mouth comes out, but the kids help me with it. I usually go with something in Turkish.”

Smith says he endured 10 years in Europe “until I figured out what an old basketball player does.” He returned to Utah and sold copiers for a few years, then radio time for a couple of years before becoming sales manager for a supply company for several more years. Through a friend he found his current job, working in customer service for Otis Elevators.

“It’s the perfect job,” he says. “I work with awesome people and there’s not a lot of stress.”

Smith and his wife, married 30 years, have five children, one of whom is serving an LDS Church mission, as well as three grandchildren (plus one on the way). All five of his children played or are playing basketball.

During his playing days Smith spent his off-seasons coaching youth basketball teams in Utah. He coached the girls team at Woods Cross High for 10 years and coached AAU teams in the summer, which usually included one of his children. And then East called and hired him as a “paraprofessional” — a non-teacher working part-time in the school.

Mitch Smith, coach of the East High School varsity boys basketball team, speaks to his players after the spring league tournament at East High School in Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 18, 2017. East beat Granger 57-56. | Nicole Boliaux, Deseret News

“It had to be a family decision,” says Smith about accepting the East job. “My wife knows what this will mean. Dad will be gone a lot during the season. But she’s awesome about it. I took my wife for the interview, and we did the whole Mormon thing and went to temple to help with the decision.”

Given his passionate nature, he knows what awaits him as he delves into the job. “I’ll be involved too much,” he says. “But I want to be like my college coach, just to be a good role model and hope in 10 years my players still come back and know I loved them.”