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Long-time Crook County High School head cross country coach Tracy Smith steps down after 21 years at the helm

CENTRAL OREGONIAN FILE PHOTO - Tracy Smith celebrates after his boys team won the state cross country championships in 2017. His team also finished second last year.It was 1998 when Tracy Smith first took the reins as the head cross country coach at Crook County High School.

Smith retired from teaching several years ago, but continued as Crook County's head cross country coach and as an assistant coach on the track and field team.

That is until mid-July, when Smith suddenly announced his retirement.

"I just was tired of driving back and forth and I was feeling like I wasn't as connected with the kids as I used to be," the 74-year-old Smith said. "They needed some younger blood in there. I also wanted to spend more time in the fall doing things with my wife. I'm still kind of sad about the decision, but I was starting to worry about things like liability and feeling like I didn't have the energy to do some of the things I've done in the past to do the kind of job that I wanted to do."

He added that planning for his annual outdoor camp the first week fo fall schedule and for the team's one home cross country meet, the Jere Breese Memorial Ranch Stampede, was just too much for him this year.

"All the details and the other things, it just kind of wore me out," he said. "It made some sleepless nights, so I just feel like it's time to hand it off to somebody else."

Smith, a special education instructor, had the perfect credentials as a distance coach.

He burst onto the running scene as a senior in high school, setting a national prep record in the two-mile with a time of 9:11.6.

Graduating from high school in 1963, he went to Oregon State University to run cross country and track.

He immediately found success. In 1966 he finished second at the NCAA cross country championships. Later that year, he withdrew from Oregon State, because he "found the coaches' training regimen stifling."

That view of training and coaching would ultimately shape Smith's career, both as a runner and a coach.

Smith became the first American runner to ever medal in the international cross country championships, finishing third in 1966 on a 7.5 mile course at Rabat, Morocco, with a time of 36:32.2.

The next year, he set the world record in the indoor three-mile with a time of 13.16.2.

In 1968, he placed 11th in the 10,000 at the Mexico City Olympics.

Following an Achilles injury, Smith tried to return to international competition in 1972, but dropped to the 5,000 due to his lack of training base.

After failing to make the U.S. Olympic team, Smith temporarily retired, finishing his degree at Long Beach State, and temporarily serving as the school's head cross country coach.

Then in 1973, he returned briefly to the running scene, resetting the three-mile indoor record with a time of 13:07.2 in a race at Madison Square Garden in New York.

Smith was one of the best runners of his era, with wins over better known distance runners Steve Prefontaine, Gerry Lundgren and Billy Mills to his credit.

Instead of continuing in amateur track and field, Smith was a founding member of the International Track Association, a short-lived professional track organization.

The group was greeted with open hostility by the Amateur Athletic Union and the International Olympic Committee, who insisted that Olympians must be amateurs. Records set by athletes in the organization went unrecognized, while many international track and field stars stayed away from the organization for fear of losing their amateur status.

Although the group was short-lived, they left a mark on the world of track and field, and led to the system that we have today where track athletes can make a living from the sport.

Smith began his high school coaching career at Bishop Union High School in California, serving as the assistant track coach in charge of distance runners.

A firm believer in the training techniques of Hungarian coach Mihaly Igloi, Smith used interval-style training and had great success with his high school athletes.

Then in 1994, he moved to Bend and soon had a job at Crook County High School.

Smith has left a lasting legacy at Crook County High School.

During his tenure as head coach, he has watched as two of his runners, sisters Michelle and Kellie Foley, won state cross country titles.

However, although he had guided several teams to the state championships, Smith had never earned a trophy at state until two years ago, when his boys team won the Class 4A state championship. Then, last year, despite Crook County moving up to Class 5A, Smith guided the boys team to a second-place finish.

"Having an athlete of Tracy's caliber, having an Olympian on staff, most schools regardless of size, they don't get that," Crook County athletic director Rob Bonner said of Smith's resignation. "It's been amazing having him and his talents here. Athletic talents are one thing, but he's irreplaceable about how he relates to kids and just his spirit and his nature. It's going to be impossible to replace."

Bonner noted that the timing of the resignation came as a surprise.

"We knew that he was wanting to switch gears and try some new things and I get that," Bonner said. "He's been at this a long time, but I thought that we would have another year with him. Things change and this was the right time for him to move on for his family and he chose to do that and we completely respect that. We are just very appreciative of the time that he has given. Somebody like that could coach anywhere. He could work with any level of athlete, but he chose to dedicate his time to Crook County High School all these years and we couldn't be more appreciative of him."

He added that, although Smith will be missed, they already have some good applicants for the position.

"Luckily we have some good candidates that are willing to take on the program and that's assuring," he said. "But replacing Tracy Smith is going to be impossible."

Although he is proud of both his coaching accomplishments and the two team trophies his teams earned during his coaching tenure at Crook County, there are other things that he is more proud of.

"I think being a mentor to a lot of kids as far as my faith and introducing a lot of kids to the outdoors and wilderness are the biggest things," he said. "I hung around for a long time because I had never got a state trophy. Then the last two years we did, so those are the three things. My faith, introducing kids to the wilderness with my camp and taking kids all the way to California and backpacking with them. I have had them come back some that are 31 or 32 that still want to go backpacking and hiking. I think that those things are even more satisfying than the team trophies, although those rank up there pretty high."

Smith added that coaching has been more satisfying than his running success as well.

"You know, going to the Olympics was exciting, but I think that coaching was more rewarding," he said. "Just seeing kids tuned on to healthful living, running and kind of catching the vision of what it means to believe in God, and loving the wilderness, I think that made it more enjoyable and more fulfilling than actually running in the Olympics. I'm proud of those things, but coaching was more of a highlight than that was."

Smith added that he believes that the coaching techniques that he learned from Igloi were largely responsible for his coaching success.

"I introduced the form aspect of running that I learned from the Hungarian coach who made the difference in my career," he said. "I think that I was pretty much a master of making workouts that were right at the kids ability level, that were challenging enough, but not overly much and that's a hard thing for coaches to do. When they leave high school, most kids never want to do interval training again because most coaches think harder is better and the kids just hate it by the time they are seniors. Every once in a while I will ask the kids how do you feel about intervals and they are 'Oh, I love intervals, I almost like them as much as long runs.' That makes me feel real good."

In retirement, Smith said that he and his wife are going to do some traveling.

"I bought a small trailer and in the fall, when the kids are back to school, we are going to go camping and we are going to take some longer trips now," he said. "I might even go back to bow hunting. I used to bow hunt and I haven't been able to do that for the last 23 years because it's always in the fall. So we are going to go out and explore different parts of the United States in our trailer and have a good time together."

Smith added that although he will miss coaching, he believes that he is leaving the team in good shape. Although the boys team lost some key members to graduation, he believes that they can still challenge for a trophy, while the girls team should be the strongest they have been in years.

He also has faith in this former assistant coaches Orie Gamez and Chuck Coats.

Although there is no guarantee that either will be the team's next head coach, Smith expects the two to continue to be involved, helping to keep some continuity with the program.

"Chuck has done a good job running with the top guys, so he knows what it takes and his encouragement is key to our victories in the past," Smith said. "And Orie, the girls and guys really like her youthfulness. She is able to joke around with them, but she also keeps them accountable for things. She's a no nonsense disciplinarian, which it takes some times. We will see what happens, but I will be cheering then on, that's for sure."


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