ROY — As a basketball coach, Ted Smith was truly something to behold — an intense, ferocious competitor who knew every nuance of the game, never had much good to say about those guys in striped shirts, and endlessly endeavored to give his players every opportunity to be successful.
As a person, though, he was even more impressive. He was simply someone special — very, very special indeed.
Ted Smith stalked the sidelines as the boys head basketball coach at Roy High School for 20 seasons, from the early 1970s to the early 1990s, and his teams won a ton of games, six region titles, and earned a long line of state tournament berths.
Along the way, his Roy High teams placed everywhere from second to eighth in the tournament — alas, a coveted state championship being perhaps the only thing that eluded him and his highly successful program.
Sure, that certainly would've been the cherry on top of what was already a superb coaching career. But if you think he needed a state title to validate what a tremendous coach and terrific human being he was, well, think again.
Ted was really like two very different people, part Jerry Sloan and part LaVell Edwards.
During the heat of battle on the basketball court, he was much like Sloan — a stern, serious, no-nonsense guy whose animated sideline demeanor was the stuff legends are made of.
Away from the game, though, he was much like the legendary Edwards — a soft-spoken, shy and humble man who was kind-hearted, humorous, generous and beloved by those who really got to know him.
Smith was the epitome of the strong, silent type, a stone-faced guy who seldom, if ever, smiled — at least in public.
But he loved candy suckers and could usually be seen with one in his mouth. Ironically, in a way, he was a lot like an oversized Tootsie Roll Pop — hard and tough on the outside, but awfully sweet and tender on the inside.
I was fortunate enough to see both sides of him and, in nearly five decades as a sportswriter, I've never known another coach quite like him.
So when Ted Smith, a man who for so many years seemed indestructible, died in late July at age 84, his death struck me with such great sadness and sense of loss. It marked the end of an era for the school and community where he coached, taught, served tirelessly as an athletic director, made his home, helped raise his four children and positively impacted people's lives for more than 50 years.
"Those who knew him best realized how tender and soft-hearted he was," said Fred Fernandes, who starred on the Royals' basketball teams that swept three straight region titles in the late 1970s. "He had that other side in the athletic arena where he was ferocious and had such high-intensity, and that's where most people got to see him as a fan.
"But, that all aside, the respect that he demanded and that he got was what made him so successful as a coach. He had the respect of all his players, and they would do anything for him. They would go through the wall for him; if he told you to do something, you'd do it. The respect that he demanded made his players just believe in him, and they'd do anything he asked.
"There was some players that took his tough, demanding demeanor as, 'He doesn't really like me,' and that was the furthest thing from the truth," said Fernandes, who's served as Roy High's head football coach since 2011. "He liked you, and, if he was hard on you, it was only because he felt like he could get something more out of you as an athlete. And I think that the players that really bought into that and thought, 'Hey, he's making me better' really excelled. … He didn't not like anybody, he was just doing what was best for you and the team.”
Despite his often gruff exterior, Smith maintained a caring relationship with his players, and even though he'd never say so, they knew that he loved them and cared about them. Sure, he worked 'em hard, yelled at them when they made mistakes — and even when they didn't — and constantly pushed them to do better.
The end result, though, was that he was able to get the most out of them and teach them how to play to the utmost of their abilities — the ultimate role of any coach in any sport.
Indeed, Smith was a man's man, an old-school guy who didn't believe in taking any shortcuts when it came to working hard to achieve success. He always insisted on doing things the right way, the old-fashioned way, and taught young men the value of hard work and dedication — because he didn't know how to do it any other way.
He was fortunate to have such a devoted wife, Juanita, who stood by him in everything that he did, even though his coaching and athletic director duties kept him away from home for many, many long hours.
A former Utah State University basketball standout, Smith was fiercely competitive at everything he did — not just playing and coaching basketball, but everything else, too, from volleyball and tennis to playing ping-pong with his grandkids. And he took losing terribly hard.
"I've never seen anything that he was bad at," said Fernandes, recalling the time that Smith "took me to school playing pool. … The amazing thing to me is, other than golf … in an individual sport where he's playing against somebody, I don't think I've ever seen him lose.
"Honestly, back in our era, there were those games where, for example, we're playing at Weber High and it's a buzzer-beater and we end up winning right at the buzzer, and the stands just came down onto the court like it was a tidal wave. And we're trying to get to the locker room and I remember getting hit with a full can of Coke in the head. In those instances, that's when you wanted to be on Ted Smith's side. I mean, he was all business, he's clearing people out of the hallway, taking no prisoners."
That's why, in his heyday, he was considered the "Clint Eastwood” of Utah's prep coaches — an icon who was a man of few words. So, when Smith spoke, you'd be wise to listen up.
Fred Thompson, who served as an assistant coach for six years on Smith's basketball staff, is better known as a longtime high school football and baseball coach who has worked at Roy, Fremont and Northridge high schools. He now helps his son, Erik, coach football at Ogden High.
Thompson is also a longtime basketball official and director of officiating, and although Smith had such disdain for basketball officials, he and Ted still became golfing buddies for many, many years, traveled on vacation trips together and were the closest of friends for more than four decades.
Like so many others who knew Ted, Thompson holds great admiration for both the coach and, more importantly, the person that Smith was.
"He was unbelievably strong, and he was a hands-on guy who didn't know how strong he was," Thompson said of Smith, who would famously grab his players by their jerseys and literally drag them to the scorer's table to check into the game. "He was lovingly physical with his players, and I really think he was demanding in a way that was rewarded.
"He made demands of those kids and demands of himself, and of course the reward was all those comebacks, come-from-behind victories and region championships. And he just kept doing it that way.
"Of course, the other thing is that he never asked them to do anything that he wouldn't do himself,” Thompson said. "And, somehow, they'd do it. He was willing to sacrifice so much for his kids; it was his form of tough love."
Thompson says that Smith's fierce, physical, old-school approach, with such strict discipline demanded of his players, might not work today with a younger generation of athletes who, unfortunately, are more accustomed to being coddled, catered to and constantly told how great they are.
Smith, Thompson says, gave kids a chance to play, a chance to learn and a chance to improve as players — and as people, too.
"He was the best at evaluating talent," Thompson said. "He wouldn't have you on the team if you wouldn't do what he said. And he sat some pretty good guys down because they wouldn't do it his way.
"His first priority was defense and rebounding and full-court pressure. He was ahead of his time in full-court pressure, the full-court zone, three-quarter court, half-court press. … Teams couldn't bring the ball up the court; they'd in-bound the ball and get trapped in the back court or just across midcourt. It was something to behold. That was really, honestly what he believed most in, and that's why he won, because he was ahead of his time."
Along with watching him coach basketball, Thompson also got to see the humorous, human side of Ted Smith as well.
"He was the funniest man I ever knew, even though he did not try to be funny and he didn't think he was," Thompson said. "Golfing with him, sometimes coming home I'd be laughing so hard I'd have to pull off the side of the road, just because of some of the things he'd subtly say or repeat that were so hilarious. Unfortunately, a lot of people never saw that fun side of him.
"He wouldn't tell people that he loved them, but he convinced them that he loved them, much more than if he actually said it, by his actions. It's easy to say 'I love ya,' but he proved it day in and day out with how much he got on those kids because he loved them and wanted them to get better and make them better than maybe they could have ever done otherwise. Some of those kids he brought along were unbelievable.
"The kids knew he was gonna battle for 'em and always have their back, even against the officials. He always took the kids' side," Thompson said. "He did so many things for other people, too, the team managers, the water boys, all the people that helped out. He did things for them that people don't even know about. What he did for those kids is unheard of."
Ted Smith coached at a glorious time in the 1970s and '80s when dynamic coaches like Roger Reid, Dick Connolly, Mike Gardner, John Robison, Gary Alverson, Doug Moon, Marcus Garrett, Craig Hansen, Evan Excell and so many other great men manned the basketball sidelines at Northern Utah high schools.
"There's no old-timers around any more, there's nobody like Ted," Thompson said. "Those people cared for each other, and they only didn't like each other for about an hour and a half (when their teams squared off). Today it's different, and that's too bad.”
Thompson's definitely right about one thing — there won't ever be another one like Ted Smith.