Beloved and longtime Rifle coach, Jack Smith, dead at 80
At his core, Jack Smith was a “people lover.”
Smith, an iconic and beloved figure who spent roughly five decades coaching student athletes in western Garfield County, died Saturday from melanoma and related complications. He was 80 years old.
A memorial service is tentatively scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Jan. 30 at Rifle High School.
A message from the high school notes that parking is limited and requests that people try to carpool. The loss of a man who countless people affectionately referred to as “Coach” will likely bring more people than capacity will allow.
“He just was a genuine people lover — be it kids or people our age … he enjoyed people,” Barbara Smith, Jack’s wife, commented on Tuesday. “And especially he loved working with kids, and the coaching.”
Coaching seemed to be in Jack’s DNA.
Early on, he was an assistant coach on the Rifle Bears football team, including in 1973 and 1961 when the Bears made it to the state championship — tying in ‘61 and winning the championship in ‘73.
Prior to retiring from teaching in 1990, he also coached boys and girls basketball, baseball and track at Rifle High.
He never seemed able to retire from coaching, or from sports in general. He helped with the Rifle golf teams as recently as last fall.
“What I’ve always liked most about coaching is being able to work with the student-athlete,” Jack told sports writer Mike Vidakovich in a 2011 story that appeared in the Post Independent. “I wanted them to be prepared for the game of life. The kids were much more important than wins and losses.”
That was one of the reasons why Jack had so many enduring relationships with his players, as well as with former opponents, Barbara said.
“He was deceptive in that he was such an easy going person, but he was super competitive,” she said. “He loved to win but he always knew that sometimes losing was part of the game. … He knew how to lose and lose gracefully. That’s why he (was) friends with so many of his rivals in other towns.”
Jack was always prepared with a joke or humorous piece of advice.
“He had a memory for retaining jokes and … he could come up with a quip or a quote to fit an occasion,” Barbara said.
Often, Jack’s jokes or his advice would stick with people.
Rifle High School Principal Todd Ellis recalled some advice that Jack, or Coach, as Ellis said, gave Roger Walters and himself before a game.
“‘You shouldn’t wear light colored pants when you are coaching,’ he said,” Ellis recalled. “’One time I washed my hands at halftime and water splashed all over the front of my pants. It was pretty embarrassing going out on the floor.’”
Ellis said he and Walters laughed at the story, but he failed to take the advice. A few games later, Ellis went to wash his hands and splashed water on the front of his pants.
“Needless to say, I regretted not taking Coach’s advice and from then on listened with rapt enthusiasm anytime he spoke.”
While he always seemed to have a joke or piece of advice up his sleeve, it was Werthers candy that occupied his pockets. He frequently would hand out the candy to players and others — a practice that Barbara said was impossible to pinpoint the origin of.
The family intends on handing out the candy at the memorial service Jan. 30.
Rifle’s Jack Smith Gymnasium
Jack’s work, on and off the court, led administrators at Rifle High School to recently propose naming the gym the “Jack Smith Gymnasium.”
“For half a century Jack Smith has been actively working with young people at Rifle High School,” Ellis wrote in a letter to the Garfield Re-2 Board of Education. “I’ll not go into all of coach Smith’s many accomplishments. The list is well known and lengthy.”
However, Smith’s legacy was much more than victories and state titles, Ellis’ letter continues.
“His care for our students and our community set him apart from other wonderful teachers and coaches. After his retirement, Jack coached as an assistant in our basketball and golf programs and even helped the new program as it opened at Coal Ridge High School. He was still coaching our golf team this fall.”
The board unanimously approved the proposal Jan. 12. At that meeting, Re-2 Board President Anne Guettler said Jack was a wonderful man whose dedication to the district’s students was well established. She recalled Jack came out of retirement and ended up coaching both of her daughters. The records were not important, Guettler said.
In stating his emphatic support for the proposal, board member Jay Rickstrew noted that there was previous hesitation within the district to rename facilities after people. But Jack was as worthy as anybody, said Rickstrew.
A referee and former coach himself, Rickstrew said he remembered one particular high stakes games that he was officiating while Jack was coaching for Rifle High. A player on the opposing team went down as a Rifle player was on a break and going to score. Just before scoring the basket, Rickstrew blew the ball dead.
Realizing that his call could ultimately prove costly for the Bears, Rickstrew — expecting an earful from the Rifle coach — approached Jack and offered an explanation.
“I told him I would have made the same call if it was one of his kids and he said ‘that’s all I can ask for,’” Rickstrew recalled after the vote to rename the gym.
The board was not the only group of people strongly supporting the proposal to rename the gym. A Facebook post on the Rifle High School page shortly after the board’s vote generated more than 100 comments, which were unanimously congratulatory and celebratory.
Prior to Jack’s death, Rifle High administrators had hoped to dedicate the gym to the legendary coach during the Rifle vs. Glenwood game Tuesday night. The boys varsity team downed the Glenwood Demons in a shoot out, while the Bears girls basketball team defeated Glenwood in a dominant defensive performance.
Although an official date has not been set, Athletic Director Troy Phillips said he hoped the gym would be dedicated during Rifle’s final home game against Eagle Valley on Feb. 9.
The dedication is sure to stir many of the same emotions expressed in a 2008 story on Smith’s retirement — one of multiple retirements that never seemed to stick.
At the time, Mike Samson was the Rifle High dean of students. In the story, the current Garfield County commissioner remembered Smith’s skills as a mentor.
“Jack coached me in football, basketball and baseball in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s at Rifle High School,” Samson said. “He was a great coach because he always had a smile on his face and was always happy and positive. … He taught me a lot of things, as good coaches do. He teaches you more than the sport. Good coaches teach you about life. And Jack Smith taught me about life.”
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