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Mellow Smythe ponders his future

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by: COURTESY PHOTO - Tom Smythe plans to retire when Lakeridge's football season ends this fall.After 49 years coaching football, Tom Smythe will retire once Lakeridge High loses its next game.

That could come as early as Friday night, when the 8-2 Pacers square off with Southridge in a second-round 6A playoff game.

"But I'm not going to stop living," Smythe tells me.

Whoa, coach. Nobody who knows you would suggest such a thing.

Smythe, 72, is right there with Mouse Davis, 81, as the youngest old-timers I know.

"I just talked to Mouse, and he was laughing at me for being such a young punk and giving it up," Smythe says. "I said, 'Mouse, I'm not going to coach anymore, but I'm going to be involved in football one way or the other.' "

Davis, the man who popularized the "Run-and-Shoot" offense, retired from coaching three years ago. Now Smythe, one of the greats of the Oregon high school football coaching fraternity, will join him.

"I've always said when you feel like your time is up, you'll know it," says Smythe, who ranks sixth on the state's career victories list at 271-78-1 in 34 seasons at Lake Oswego, Lakeridge and McNary. "It just feels right. I came back to Lakeridge at the request of some people I care about. It was a five-year rebuilding job, and five years is up."

Smythe had just completed his second year at Evergreen High in Vancouver, Wash., when Lakeridge officials contacted him about the job. The Pacers had been Three Rivers League bottom feeders for some time. Smythe, who had been Lakeridge's first coach and spent 17 years there, was called on for a little reincarnation.

It took some time. Lakeridge was 3-7 his first year, improved to 6-4 and then 6-5, backstepped to 3-8 last season and took off again this fall, beating rival Lake Oswego for the first time in a decade.

Smythe has had nine teams reach the state semifinals, five reach the finals and three win it all — Lakeridge in 1987 and McNary in 1997 and 2001. His Oregon state playoff record stands at a remarkable 43-16. He also had a successful six-year stint at Lewis & Clark College and, during his off seasons, coached a dozen years abroad in Austria, Finland and Croatia, twice winning the European championship.

But Smythe's legacy won't be defined by wins and losses. It has been about relationships and having fun and life experiences.

"Tom was always able to keep things in perspective, which made the game fun all the time for the kids," says Lake Oswego High coach Steve Coury, who played for Smythe at Lakeridge in 1974 and '75 and has himself become a legend in the state's prep coaching circles.

"Tom is the best," says West Linn High coach Mike Fanger, a quarterback for Smythe at the high school, college and pro levels. "He strikes the right balance between practice and preparation. It's not about taking it so seriously that it consumes everything you do. All the players loved him and really enjoyed playing for him."

"He was — how should I say this? — always very relaxing as a coach," says Mike Miadich, who quarterbacked Smythe's state title team at Lakeridge. "He knew how to make it very easy for the players. He taught football, but he took interest in the human side of it, too."

Smythe said he developed that philosophy after playing for Cliff Giffin and Vince Dulcich at Lake Oswego High.

"Cliff had a great sense of humor," Smythe says. "It was so much fun playing for him. Vince was on the stricter side; his humor was more subtle. They taught everybody who played for them the value of enjoying what they're doing. They weren't afraid to laugh or cry.

"Football is a team sport, a together deal. That's how I patterned myself as a coach. My goal has always been that when my players come to me when their careers are over, they say, 'Coach, that was fun. I'd do it again in a minute.' I think most of them would say, 'Coach (Smythe) accomplished that."

Smythe's teams are always well-prepared, but not at the expense of wearing out their bodies.

"We've always tried to keep practice to two hours early in the season, and by midseason we cut that almost in half," he says. "I'm a Bob Knight disciple in that regard. I thought that made a ton of sense. Get the game legs ready for game day."

Coury's biggest coaching influence is his father, former pro coach Dick Coury. But Smythe has had his impact, too.

"I drew so much from my father, but Tom's style is something I've always liked," says Steve Coury, who remains close to Smythe, getting together weekly for coffee and speaking on the phone a couple of times a week. "With Tom, practice was never overdone. You didn't have a bunch of contact. You were fresh for games.

"He likes trick plays. He is innovative with his offense. He keeps things in perspective. He gets over losses fast. He is always gracious in defeat and gives credit where it was due. I've tried to do those types of things."

Smythe's teams aren't undisciplined. He has never been a pushover.

"He gave us a lot of freedom, but he expected a lot, too," says Miadich, 43, who runs a technical recruiting company and lives in Tigard. "If you stepped out of line, he'd let you know it.

"I remember a game against Glencoe in the state quarterfinals at (now Jeld-Wen Field) my senior year. We were struggling a little bit. He came out in the huddle and pretty much let us know what he was thinking — in a voice everyone on the MAC Club porch could hear. He didn't go overboard on discipline, but when (it was necessary), he made it understood. He had the respect of all of us."

Athletic quarterbacks

After a college playing career that took him from Oregon to San Mateo (Calif.) College back to Oregon and finally to Lewis & Clark, Smythe began his coaching career at tiny Willamina High in 1965 as assistant football coach and head basketball coach.

"After two years, my basketball teams were 4-40," he says. "I figured football might be a better fit for me."

In 1969, Smythe was hired as an assistant football coach at Lake Oswego. A year later, head coach Boyd Crawford retired and Smythe was elevated into the head position. He was 29.

The next year, Lakeridge High opened.

"The head coach in every sport at L.O. was given the choice to stay or move to the new school," Smythe says. "My decision to move was based entirely on the fact that of the 20 returning starters from my 1970 team, 18 of them were on the Lakeridge side of the lake."

Smythe's offenses through the years at Lakeridge and McNary featured the wide-open "Run-and-Shoot," with no tight ends, double slots and plenty of aerial assaults.

"Mouse and I were the first guys who believed in spreading the field and throwing the ball," Smythe says. At Lakeridge and McNary, "we were blessed with a lot of really good athletes. If you're throwing the ball, the best athlete wants to be the quarterback. Year after year, we had our best athlete as our quarterback. It perpetuated."

At Lakeridge, Smythe built a dynasty on a string of great QBs, including Fanger, Miadich, Jason Palumbis, Bob Sotta, John Pigott, Todd Beahm, Todd Anderson, Doug Nussmeier and Erik Wilhelm. Nussmeier — now offensive coordinator at Alabama — and Wilhelm both played in the NFL, but Smythe considers Anderson the best of the bunch.

"Todd was the best athlete I coached, an all-state player in football (as a receiver) and basketball as a sophomore," Smythe says. "He started his college career at Oregon, reinjured a knee, transferred to Boise State and wound up as a tailback."

"Tom knew how to spread the field out, and he created mismatches we could take advantage of," says Miadich, who played a year of football and two years of baseball at Notre Dame, then finished his college career playing one year at quarterback for Smythe at Lewis & Clark. "But he wasn't just a one-style type of coach. When we were at Lakeridge, Jason was more a drop-back quarterback, while with me, it was throwing on the run. When Fanger was there, a lot of running. Tom was really good at molding the offense based on the talent he had."

"The one thing Tom always did, he got the most out of his players," Coury says. "He had great success and great teams. He always had good players, but he didn't always have great players."

Smythe believes he has a great one in his current signal-caller, 6-4, 195-pound junior Eric Dungey.

"I hate to put too much pressure on the kid, but he's a heck of a talent," Smythe says. "His arm isn't as strong as Palumbis', but it's in the ballpark. He's not as nimble as Miadich, but it's awfully close. And he's a 3.8 student. It's hard not to project him being a big-time college player."

Smythe can't choose between his three title teams as the best.

"The one at Lakeridge was the culmination of 17 years of effort and coming close so many times," he says. "That was really special. At McNary, we beat Beaverton 51-48 (in 1997) in what has to be the most exciting state championship game ever played in Oregon.

"In 2001, (the Celtics) beat Tigard, Roseburg, Jesuit, Lake Oswego and Sheldon in the playoffs. We were a low seed and ran a gauntlet, beating the best four teams in the state in succession. After the Tigard game, the kids were chanting something. I asked them, 'What are you chanting?' They were saying 'GKC — Giant-Killer Crew." That was the theme the rest of the year. What a cool bunch of kids."

Fanger feels Smythe evolved as a coach.

"When I first played for him (at Lakeridge), he was young and fiery and really intense," Fanger says. "Over the years, he mellowed, but his drive to be the best and win games was unparalleled.

"And he has maintained relationships with a lot of his ex-players, guys he coached back in the '70s and '80s. He has been a great ambassador for football, and he treats people the right way."

Smythe has experienced a lot of changes in high school football through nearly five decades in the business. Not all for the better.

"The players are bigger, stronger and faster, but the game itself hasn't changed much," he says. "What has changed is this: The first 30 to 40 years, the coach was in control of the team. If something happened and you had to discipline a player, no one questioned that.

"Now, there is a procedure, with administrators and committees and parents involved. It has become a situation where it's almost handled by committee. I can't do what I would have done 10 years ago. I don't know if interference is the right word, but there are more people involved in running your team."

Does that make coaching less fun?

"Yes, it does," he says. "Whether that's fair or not, that's my opinion."

Smythe won't leave the sport after he retires. He envisions running what he calls a "self-scouting" service for high school and college programs, offering his wisdom on means of improvement. If Nussmeier lands a college head-coaching job as expected, Smythe will likely have a role as an adviser.

"I'm not going to disappear from the football scene, though I'll be in the background," he says. "My wife (Nancy) is ready to move away from the husband-on-the-sidelines deal, and I feel the same way. I'm kind of pumped. I know something fun is going to keep me going."

During his final stint at Lakeridge, "I've been coaching sons of kids I coached 30 years ago," he says, chuckling. "It's been a great ride."

Before he hangs it up, there is at least one more game. Maybe more.

"Central Catholic and Tigard are the pick of the litter, and they're on the same side of the bracket," Smythe says. "Any of the other 14 teams have a chance to get to the finals. It's kind of an open door."

Smythe has always sidled through open doors with a smile and a plan. Maybe the final chapter of his story will have a Cinderella touch to it. Don't put it past him.

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Twitter: @kerryeggers




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