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Good friends take a break from coffee in Battle of the Lake

Pacer, Laker coaches are good friends off of the football field
by: VERN UYETAKE Immediately after the “Battle of the Lake” Friday evening at Lakeridge High School, Pacer coach Tom Smythe and Lake Oswego High School coach Steve Coury hugged each other at midfield. The Lakers won the game 55-34. The first thing Smythe said to his long-time friend Coury was, “You guys are good.” For more on the game, see page A18.

If you thought you saw Steve Coury and Tom Smythe talking over coffee in Lake Oswego last week, don't worry.

You weren't seeing things.

That was them, all right, kibitzing and enjoying each other's company as they have done weekly for too many years to remember.

There might have been a little less football in the discussion, given that their teams were set to square off Friday night at Lakeridge in the biggest game in their rivalry in many years.

Coury's second-ranked Lake Oswego Lakers and Smythe's fifth-ranked Lakeridge Pacers were 5-0 heading into the 'Battle of the Lake,' witnessed by a crowd more than double the 1,800 seating capacity at Lakeridge. The Lakers won the game 55-34.

To say Coury and Smythe go way back would be an understatement.

Smythe, 70, was head football coach at Lakeridge when Coury, 54, was the Pacers' all-state running back in 1974 and '75. Smythe was a member of Craig Fertig's Oregon State staff in 1978 when Coury starred for the Beavers. They coached together under head coach Dick Coury - Steve's father - in 1985 with the Portland Breakers of the U.S. Football League.

In Smythe's mind, he has a 'father-son-like relationship' with his intracity coaching rival.

'I have a special feeling for the Courys,' Smythe said. 'It's a great family. I'm really proud of Steve for what he has accomplished, and we have a fantastic relationship.

'Hey, I'm an L.O. grad. I want them to win every game except one.'

'We're good buddies,' said Coury, who considers Smythe a mentor. 'When we first got into the playoffs years ago, I called him to talk about his philosophies. Tom is a guy I look up to, and I enjoy talking football with him. I've learned a lot from him, as a player and coach.'

Coury has built a state powerhouse in his 20 years at Lake Oswego. The Lakers were carrying a 40-game winning streak against Three Rivers League opponents into Friday's showdown at Lakeridge. The only thing missing from Coury's resume is a state championship. The Lakers have made six trips to the semifinals and three to the finals without winning a title.

Smythe is one of the storied names in Oregon prep football history, with five appearances in the state's highest-level championship game and three state crowns (Lakeridge 1987, McNary 1997 and 2001). He was at Lakeridge for 17 years (1971-87), missing only his season with the Beavers.

When Smythe took over at Lakeridge for the second time in 2009 - after two years at Evergreen High in Vancouver - the Pacer program was in shambles. With fewer than 30 players out for the sport, Lakeridge had canceled its junior varsity schedule and struggled to a 1-8 season in 2008.

The Pacers went 3-7 in Smythe's first season back, then improved to 7-4 a year ago, losing in the first round of the 6A playoffs. This season, they're one of the best teams in the state.

'We're up to about 100 kids in our program,' Smythe said. 'Football is a numbers game. You need about 20 pretty good players to have a good team, but if you've only got 30 on the squad, the odds aren't very good. Now at Lakeridge, the athletes are playing football and not walking the halls.'

Smythe has overseen a number of facility improvements, including new locker rooms. The Pacers, who for years played their home games at Lake Oswego's stadium, now play the home schedule on their own campus.

'I knew it was a great move when they hired him,' Coury said. 'Tom has brought life back into that program, just like we knew he would. The kids are having fun again. The community on that side of the lake is engaged again.'

Smythe says Coury has a lot of his father in his coaching style.

'Dick is typical of pro coaches - very detailed, very organized,' Smythe said. 'Steve has all of that, and a pleasant personality. He's so good with kids. They spend more time on the practice field than we do, but he's able to do that and still make it so much fun for his players.'

Smythe has always taken a casual attitude to some aspects of football other coaches take deathly seriously.

'We never practice more than two hours,' he said. 'By this point in the season, it's no more than an hour and a half, and 40 minutes on Thursdays. It's what I believe in; it's worked for me. Steve goes the other direction.

'And Steve films every practice. I can't say we never look at film, but we do very little of it with the kids. Our defensive coaches do a little bit, but I don't spend a lot of time watching film of our opponents. I know pretty much what we're going to see.

'So there are differences. But in most ways, Steve and I think a whole lot alike.'

Coury said his team practices about two and a half hours a couple of days each week, 'but we're probably shorter (in practice time) than Tom thinks.'

'We watch a lot of film on ourselves with the players, correcting things, and we watch the next opponent together on Sunday,' he said. 'But our approach is the same. It's about having fun. It's still a game. Tom has always had perspective. We're different in some ways, but in bottom-line stuff, we're a lot alike.'

Friday night featured a battle of two of the most explosive offenses in the state.

In the first two meetings with his old coach, Coury scored easy victories - 40-7 and 39-7. This year's contest, with Lake Oswego winning 55-34 was less one-sided.

The Lakers, Smythe said, 'are the best team in this league and have been for a long time. I told our kids when we started three years ago, we're not going to be people who bitch and complain about the teams that win. Our goal is to get as good as them, get on the same path of success as they are.'

His goal has been to develop a program that can contend for a state title.

As for whether there was a little tension between the two old comrades as the showdown approached, Coury said, 'It's fun, in a sense, to play your friends.'

'But Tom and I aren't going to play the game. He's not going to outcoach me or vice versa. It's the players who … decide the outcome,' he said.

'With Tom and me, our relationship will never change,' Coury added. 'Someone's going to win, someone's going to lose, and then we'll get on with the rest of our lives.'

And this week, somewhere in Lake Oswego, the two will meet for coffee. Rest assured of that.