By Matt Popchock
On Wednesday evening at 7:00 the Gateway School Board will convene to decide the fate of athletic director/head football coach Terry Smith.
Since the turn of the century, Smith, himself a football player on some of Gateway’s outstanding teams in the 1980s, has revived the previously lifeless program to the point it has consistently challenged for district championships in Class AAAA, and has also earned national top 25 rankings on multiple occasions.
In addition, Gateway, under his watch, has matriculated eventual Steeler Mortty Ivy and Indianapolis Colts defensive back Justin King, the latter of whom happens to be Smith’s nephew, and one of the first WPIAL running backs to collect 4,000 career yards in Quad-A.
However, the school is one of several to fall under the blade of state-wide budget cuts. The board, in turn, has agreed upon a motion to demote Smith to part-time status. Opponents, including board member and fellow African-American Bill Bailey, contend the motion was racially motivated, and at the time, they feared it would push Smith to leave Gateway. Now the board is about to decide whether to remove Smith altogether as coach.
Gateway will begin the upcoming academic year in the red, and according to board member Steve O’Donnell, the amount of money previously spent on athletics has been a factor in all this. Besides, the district has already voted to lay off a number of other employees. Having said that, it’s understandable why the local chapter of the NAACP, which threatened to file suit, believes these economic troubles are just window dressing.
Smith’s aggregate salary for the past academic year did top six figures, and a demotion would cut it roughly in half. Still, even if he were to maintain his full-time status, that salary would comprise less than one percent of the district’s total 2012-13 budget.
Would the savings be worth it? At a school like Gateway, football is the sport that generally pays the athletic bills. Once again, the Gators are expected to contend this year, Antimarino Stadium fills nicely on Friday nights, and scores of Smith’s players have earned NCAA scholarships over the past decade. Why potentially cause collateral damage to a successful program?
Meanwhile, although the district has a healthy black population, it also serves affluent and predominantly white communities. Much of Gateway’s money comes from said communities. In fact, multiple sources say Mitch Adams, one of the district’s more visible Caucasian employees, is actually one of Smith’s biggest enemies, and likely lent his support to the board’s actions.
Adams, the head boys’ basketball coach, has recently led Gateway to back-to-back WPIAL titles, but Smith reportedly tried to remove him years ago, and, some time later, vice versa.
There is evil everywhere in high school sports, in public and in private. Smith, though I personally have known him to be a classy representative of his school, has not been above harboring closeted skeletons, and my understanding is that Adams is by no means his only adversary. But when a man of that stature ostensibly uses his power for more good than evil, I say let him be. Settle your differences behind closed doors.
Smith is already one of the more widely respected coaches in western PA, so there’s no doubt, if he chose to leave Gateway, or if the school forced him out, another fledgling football program willing to make the investment would scoop him up. It would be a shame, however, to see a good program suffer such a setback when the economic benefit seems to be tainted by the prospect of political gain.
A number of student-athletes and non-athletes have already expressed their support for Smith through social media, and the football team’s Facebook page is encouraging folks to show up to Wednesday night’s board meeting in a show of solidarity.
Hopefully the board does the right thing and shows Smith solidarity as well.
Be sure to check back later this week for more on this developing story.
(Follow me on Twitter @mpopchock.)