Cenla-ian of the Year Charles Smith, Jr.

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Strolling into the gym at Peabody Magnet High School, visitors are greeting with green and white banners hanging from the rafters at every angle.  Winning championships is a way of life for the Warhorses, a 3-A Louisiana basketball powerhouse for the better part of the last four decades. But winning is only a part of the equation.  The major architect of that success is our 2018 Cenla-ian of the Year honoree, Coach Charles Smith, Jr.

 

Coach Smith flashes an easy smile as he sits forward at his desk, surrounded by numerous awards, accolades, trophies and schoolwork.  He is at ease in this space, as one would expect after 42 years, 33 as head basketball coach.  Smith, the winningest active basketball coach in Louisiana and 3rd winningest high school basketball coach in Louisiana history, recently surpassed the 1,000 victory mark—only the fourth coach to do so, and in record time. “I never thought in my life I’d win 1,000 games,” marvels Smith. “I’m a country boy, born and raised in rural Rapides Parish.” His record of success is lengthy, but Coach Smith is quick to point out the many years of hard work and support that helped prepare him for the position he holds today.

 

A Cenla native, Coach Smith was born in Pineville on March 15, 1949 to Charles and Zelphia Smith, the oldest of seven siblings.  A veteran of World War II, Charles, Sr. worked as a mill worker, later serving in the Veterans Administration, while his mother was a teacher and homemaker.  Smith attended A. Wettermark High School in Boyce, the precursor of present-day Northwood High.  Growing up, sports was a big part of Smith’s youth. “As a little boy growing up, we played seasonal ball,” says Smith. “In the summertime, we played baseball. In the fall, we played football.  And in the winter time, we played basketball.  We would build a fire and put up a little goal in the back yard and we would play from sun up to sun down, so I got pretty good at it,” he says with a laugh. In high school, Smith was a two-sport athlete, playing guard in basketball and as an outfielder in baseball. Coach Smith recalls, “Those were the only two sports offered at my school.”  His time in high school set the tone for the trajectory of his future.  “In the ninth grade, my Home Economics teacher made us write a letter to say what we wanted to do when we finish high school,” remembers Smith. “Of course, my first choice was being a Major League Baseball player, but my second choice was to become a teacher and a coach.”   Although a future Hall of Fame basketball coach and talented player in his own right, Smith found his first significant athletic success on the baseball diamond.  After attending Paul Quinn College, he realized one of his childhood dreams when was drafted into Major League Baseball by the Cincinnati Reds out of college. Though a dream come true, a sustained career in Major League Baseball was not to be. “I went to the Camp in Huntsville, Texas and was cut on the last day,” says Smith.  Harkening back to that ninth grade assignment, Smith embarked on realizing his second dream—to become an educator. “I came back home and started teaching high school.”

 

In hindsight, it should come as no surprise that Coach Smith would find his way into the classroom; teaching is in his blood.  His mother, Zelphia, started her career as a church house teacher in the 1940s. “Like the old show ‘Little House on the Prairie’, they had the little one-room school house which was a church on Sunday and a school on Monday through Friday,” he explains. “She instilled in me, from an early age, the importance of an education.” She took a break from her teaching career to be a mother and homemaker for her growing family.  “Once my baby sister graduated high school, she went back to work,” recalls Smith.  “She got her certification and was a Head Start teacher until she was 80 years old.”  Coach Smith’s first job upon returning to Cenla was as a math teacher at Slocum High School in Pineville. “My first student was Mayor Clarence Fields and also his future wife, Rosa,” he muses.  A few short years later, Smith would move across the river to the school that has become his home for the last 46 years.

 

Coach Smith first came to Peabody Magnet High School as a math teacher and assistant basketball coach, a position he held for 10 years.  His decade as an assistant helped to shape the kind of coach he was to become. “When I first came to Peabody in 1975, they had a coach, Earnest Bowman, and he leaned more to the academic side than the athletic side,” he recalls. “So he gave me an outlook on making sure that kids were sound academically as well as athletically. By doing that, we were able to put together great basketball teams over the years.”

 

When Coach Smith was named head basketball coach, the challenges were many, and success was anything but immediate. “In that first year, I think we went 8-18 or something like that,” recalls Smith. “I must have lost five to ten games before I won my first one.”  Since that first season, Coach Smith has worked to instill in his student-athletes a desire to work hard as both individuals and teammates to achieve success.  “As a teacher, I’ve always tried to inspire, encourage and motivate young people,” explains Smith. His players bought in and their efforts were rewarded in short order.  In just his third season as Head Coach, Smith’s Warhorses had turned the corner, winning the District Championship and making it all the way to the State Semi-Finals.  Just three seasons later, they hoisted the first of seven (and counting) championship banners.

 

Coach describes the first couple years as, “on-the job training on what it takes to be a champion.”  “But once we figured it out, we’ve been rolling ever since,” he exclaims. “Rolling” is an understatement.  Since 1988, Smith’s Warhorse teams have claimed the District Title in all but three seasons, for a running total of 28 District Championships and have never missed the playoffs since his third season, an astonishing record of success and consistency. In that span, Coach Smith has been honored as a National Coach of the Year three times, the State Coach of the Year four times, the Cenla Coach of the year three times and the Cenla Sportsman of the Year in 2008.  He has also been recognized with the Louisiana Sports Writers Association Casey Kozminski Award.  Amid so much success, Coach Smith is quick to share the credit.  “Well, number one, I have been blessed by God by having a talent to work with young people,” he explains. “Number two is my family. My family has been very, very supportive, especially my wife, Rosa.” His wife of over 44 years, Rosa Bynog-Smith is herself a former basketball player, who has supported her husband’s career at every step of the way.  “I can’t give her enough credit,” he says.  “My wife could’ve said, ‘You’re spending too much time away’,” he recalls. “She was in the military, so she understood the discipline that it takes.” The pair are longtime Alexandria residents, proud parents of two children—daughter, Dr. Camacia Smith-Ross and son, Kedric Smith—and grandparents of three grandchildren. Family remains the first priority for Coach Smith.  “I like to spend quality time with my family,” he says.  “My dad is 95 and my mom is 91, so every weekend, we attend the same little community church I was raised up in—Damascus Baptist Church and my parents still live in the family home in Lena.”

 

Coach Smith’s family time doesn’t end with the school bell on Monday morning.  Son, Kedric, is a Peabody alumnus, having played for his dad as a former member of the basketball team, now serving as an assistant coach on his dad’s coaching staff.  The family tradition continues with the third generation as both father and son had the opportunity to coach the next generation in the form of grandson and nephew, Jacob Spencer Ross.  Of coaching both his son and grandson, Coach Smith chuckles, “Both were challenging.” Kendric learned early on that having a father as the head coach was not an automatic guarantee for playing time.  “He came in thinking he had the upper hand because he was my son, not realizing that he had to put the work in like everyone else did,” recalls the elder Smith. “Once he realized that he had to work as hard or harder than the other kids, it paid off for him.” Kendric earned a four year basketball scholarship to the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in criminal justice.  He would go on to earn his master’s degree in education, following in the footsteps of his father and grandmother.  The youngest Smith, Jacoby, relocated with his family from New Orleans to Central Louisiana, where he joined the Warhorse basketball team.  He set out from the start to prove himself as a player apart from his relationship to the head coach, earning recognition as the Max Prep Player of the Year.  Jacoby graduated from Peabody having earned a basketball scholarship to Alabama State University, where he is a current student-athlete. “Those were the best two shooters I’ve had since I’ve been at Peabody, and I’m not just saying that because they are my son and grandson,” beams Smith. The coach’s praise is justified as both Kedric and Jacoby were recognized with Most Valuable Player awards at the district level during their respective high school careers.

 

With a career as distinguished as Coach Smith’s and after so many accolades, it can be difficult to narrow down the “highlights” to date.  From coaching over 60 college scholarship recipients to future NBA players, two seasons stand out—2004 and 2010.  “I would call them the ‘perfect seasons’,” explains Coach Smith. “We went 41-0 and won a state championship.”  The 2004 team, in particular, achieved success both on and off the court. “Most of the players were honor roll students and I had two players on that team that had 4.0 grade point averages,” recalls Smith.  With all his success, Coach Smith’s services remain in high demand. Despite offers to join collegiate coaching staffs or other head coaching opportunities that have consistently come his way over the years, Coach Smith is committed to the students of Rapides Parish, and Peabody in particular.  “I felt that my calling was here in Central Louisiana,” he explains, adding light-heartedly, “I really felt that if I left, I’d have been a fish out of water.” Despite his modesty, or perhaps partly because of it, with his easy-going manner, quick smile and contagious energy, it’s not hard to imagine Coach Smith attaining success at any level he chose. Fortunately for the students at Peabody, his commitment has remained unwavering.

 

In addition to his roles in the athletic department, Coach Smith is still a dedicated math teacher, instructing both Advanced Math courses and Algebra 2 Honors each year.  Over the course of his career, Coach Smith has seen the entire landscape of education change. “Society has changed greatly from when I first started teaching,” Smith points out.  “In 1971, when I started my first year of teaching, the students would walk quietly down the hall, they would enter the classroom in an orderly manner, and they would take their seats and be ready for instruction,” he recalls.  “Fast forward to 2018—the kids are all over the place.  They’re free spirited, they’re very boisterous and as a teacher now, it takes me five minutes to get them settled down and focused on the work of the day.”  Through the decades one thing has remained the same, Coach Smith’s desire to help young people succeed, though they’re not always easy to reach.  “I still enjoy the challenge of trying to help young people,” Smith explains.

 

Coming off a State Championship in 2017, the 2018 Warhorses came up just short, finishing second in the Championship game. Coach Smith uses both the wins and losses to motivate his teams to give their best efforts.  “Preparation makes for success, and my guys know that we work hard enough, and we dedicate our time in preparing, every year, to win a State Championship,” he explains. “Although, some years, we fall short, we come back and work that much harder to achieve that success the following year.”  Losing only one senior from last year’s runner-up squad, the 2019 version of the Warhorses are poised to make another run at the title, with Coach Smith leading the charge.  With 46 years as an educator in the rear view mirror, Coach Smith shows no signs of stopping any time soon. “The fire is still in me,” says Coach Smith about continuing to mentor and educate students and student-athletes. “Once that fire goes out, then I will know it’s time for me to retire.”  Coach Smith continues to “inspire, motivate and encourage” people across Cenla.  Reflecting on his career, Coach Smith says, “I hope people will be able to say that I was able to help young people; to put them on a path to some degree of success. I hope that I made a difference in these young people’s lives in a positive way.”

Cover photography and images of Coach Smith by Joshua Candiloro.