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View from the East
Thursday, March 6, 2003

By Al Myatt
ECU Beat Writer for The News & Observer

Hero from another era gains overdue honor

©2003 Bonesville.net

Earl Smith said he had forgotten about the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame, which will hold its annual inductions on May 21 at the North Raleigh Hilton.

"I expected it 15 to 20 years ago," said Smith, 85, a former East Carolina student-athlete and coach who was inducted into the ECU Hall of Fame in 1977. "It never came about and I had really kind of forgotten about it."

Smith was at home in Fayetteville when the hall called.

"It was the Wednesday night before Christmas and Reese Edwards called me," Smith said. "He said, 'Coach, the wait is over.' I didn't know what he was talking about. I asked him, 'What do you mean?' And he said, 'You've just been selected to the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame. We just got you in there.' "

In addition to being a fine athlete and coach, Smith had one of the most interesting and diverse careers imaginable. The Micro native finished high school when he was 16 years old and enrolled at N.C. State where he played baseball and basketball for the Wolfpack.

"They only had 11 grades back then and I jumped over the second grade," Smith said.

Smith had problems in college with Chemistry — not the athletic kind, the classroom kind.

"You got three chances to pass and I had three chances in three quarters," Smith said. "The dean at State called me in one day and said you have to pass Chemistry to graduate. He advised me to drop out and suggested I go to Mars Hill. Well, I didn't go. I didn't know where it was to tell you the truth. I hadn't been much farther than Raleigh."

So Smith went back home to Micro, actually about 2.5 miles from Micro — near his family's home on the Little River. The State coaches in the meantime called Campbell and suggested that they get in touch with Smith. He would have a year of eligibility for Campbell, then a junior college, and maybe be could pass Chemistry in Buies Creek and regain his eligibility for the Wolfpack.

"Gafney Smith and Mr. (Leslie) Campbell came to see me in February," Smith said. "I was trimming apple trees. They said if I would sweep the leaves and straw away from the buildings on the campus I could go to school at Campbell."

Smith played basketball, baseball and football for the Camels — and he passed Chemistry.

But his return to N.C. State was thwarted by a new Southern Conference rule. To transfer to State he would have to graduate from Campbell.

"That would have taken another year," Smith said. "I dropped out and went home. A friend of mine talked to East Carolina. That was the spring of '37. East Carolina was an independent and they didn't have that Southern Conference rule."

Smith didn't achieve immediate stardom at EC. Although he had hit .393 at State, the coach in Greenville was Bo Farley and he told Smith he already had his team. Smith, the new arrival, would have to sit the bench.

Smith was on the bench the first seven games although he was used as a pinch hitter.

Smith's role as a substitute ended after a game against Atlantic Christian in Wilson. The game was played on a field behind Charles L. Coon High School and Farley put Smith in to hit with the bases loaded in the eighth inning. Smith hit a grand slam and Farley began playing him at third base.

It's interesting to note that Smith replaced Otis Powell in the lineup. Powell went into the service and later returned to play baseball for EC when Smith was coaching the team. Smith hit .411 his first season at EC and .531 his second season. He played third base and also some shortstop when Bill Shelton got hurt.

It's also interesting to note that when Smith didn't return to State, the Wolfpack recruited a shortstop named Walter Rabb from Mars Hill. Rabb became a graduate assistant coach to Bunn Hearn at North Carolina while working on his masters degree and stayed in Chapel Hill as baseball coach for many years.

Smith finished East Carolina in 1939 and got out of the Navy in 1945. In the fall of 1946 he began coaching at Campbell at an annual salary of $2,500. He coached football, basketball, baseball, cross country, tennis and golf. He taught physical education and history.

Smith said his football teams in 1946, 1947 and 1948 were undefeated. They were so good in fact that other members of the Carolinas Junior College Conference met in Thomasville and formed a new league that excluded Campbell.

"They wouldn't schedule us," Smith said.

Campbell played football for two more years with no scholarships but that wasn't a big factor. High school coaches around the state who knew Smith sent him players, many of whom were able to take advantage of the GI bill for their educational expenses.

Smith is also a member of Campbell's Hall of Fame.

East Carolina talked to Smith about returning as a coach in the spring of 1952 but he wanted to remain at Campbell a while longer because the junior college was in the process of building a new homecourt, Carter Gym. It would be step up from the facility where Smith had to fire up six coal heaters himself.

But after coaching the first men's game at Carter Gym, Smith couldn't turn down EC's next overture in the spring of 1953, especially since it meant a big raise, $4,500 annually. Smith was an assistant for the Pirates in three sports — football, basketball and baseball — in addition to teaching responsibilities.

Smith's coaching record at EC speaks for itself. He was an assistant in baseball for coach Jim Mallory when the Pirates won the NAIA championship in 1961. In 10 seasons as head coach from 1963-72, he had a record of 185-103-2. His teams won or shared the Southern Conference championship six times, which was a remarkable accomplishment considering the program had just two scholarships.

Smith served two stints as the Pirates' head basketball coach with an overall record of 69-49 for five seasons. He was 16-9 in 1945-46 and never had a losing season in four campaigns starting with the 1959-60 season.

Smith said he continued teaching until 1989. He was a major league scout for several teams including the Chicago Cubs for seven years, the New York/San Francisco Giants for 14 years, the Boston Red Sox for two years and the San Diego Padres for seven years.

Smith scouted Gaylord Perry on the high school level in Williamston. Perry went on to make a hall of fame himself, in Cooperstown, N.Y.

Smith was actually umpiring one of Williamston's games when he saw Gaylord Perry but he was scouting, too.

Smith did clinics for big leaguers such as Ted Kluszewski of the Cincinnati Reds from 1963-73 and he instructed at clinics at William & Mary for high school coaches in Virginia. He played six years of pro baseball. He coached an American Legion team in Raleigh. He managed the Hertford team in the Albemarle League.

Two of his Campbell football teams played for the Eastern junior college championship. He took a Campbell basketball team to Hutchinson, Kansas in 1948 and finished sixth. He helped ECU make the transition from NAIA to NCAA.

"You name it I've been there," he said.

And now he'll be in the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame, which inducted famed ECU running back Carlester Crumpler just last year. Chronologically, Smith should have gone in earlier but that is not an issue now.

"I didn't put myself in any of these hall of fames," Smith said. "The boys who played for me did that. I always followed something I got from my Mom and Dad. I treated my players as if they were my sons.

"The boys were the ones who done it. I was just there and I tried to put 'em in the right place at the right time. I'll challenge anybody on my knowledge of the game, except golf, but I was lucky I had nice young men, Christian boys who were loyal to me and my assistant coaches such as Hargrove Davis, Wendell Carr, Harold Ellen and George Williams.

"Until I got to East Carolina I never had a trainer or custodian," Smith said.

He did it all in his career, even sanding and refinishing gym floors. Let me know when Mike Krzyzewski or Lute Olson or Tubby Smith does that.

A man who was an exceptional player and coach, he is now a valuable living artifact who spanned an era in sports vastly different from today. Earl Smith is finally getting some due recognition.

Send an e-mail message to Al Myatt.

Click here to dig into Al Myatt's Bonesville archives.

02/23/2007 12:40:54 AM
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