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Veteran coach Bill Smith is one of five first-year head coaches in PIL as teams prepare for possible March 1 games.

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Ball carrier Jayden Gumm is wrapped up by Josiah Crothers during a football practice Feb. 9 at Cleveland High.Sure, being a head football coach is more work than Bill Smith was seeking. But, three months after being hired at Cleveland High and heading into what he hopes will be a six-game spring season, Smith is glad he is back.

"The people I'm associated with are great people," Smith said. "It's really been a lot of fun."

If things go as planned, it will become more enjoyable soon. With the decision last week that high schools can resume contact sports, including football, the Portland Interscholastic League is working toward a week of March 1 opening to a five-game season.

Winter weather canceled several practices, further delaying progress toward practicing in full pads, which — pending clarification on state-mandated protocols — Smith originally hoped could happen by Feb. 19.

Smith is one of five new head football coaches at the eight PIL schools. Others are Houston Lillard (Damian's brother) at Jefferson, Jesse Thompson at Franklin, former Oregon State running back Ryan McCants at Roosevelt and former North Marion High coach Keith Bennett at Ida B. Wells.

Smith was the head coach at Madison for four seasons (1997-2000) and at Beaverton's Century High for 15 seasons before stepping away after the 2016 season. More recently, he was an assistant coach for Neil Lomax at Fort Vancouver High.

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Ellis Blanchard is chased by Connor Smeller during a drill at a Feb. 9 football practice at Cleveland High.
He enjoyed that role — even at a school that has struggled for years to field competitive football teams.

When administrators from the PIL office asked Smith to consider the Cleveland job, he was initially reluctant. He is in his fourth year of teaching at Southwest Christian in Beaverton and figured the days of running a football program were behind him.

But, after praying on it and discussions — including with friend Craig Ruecker, who was hired by the PIL to coach coaches — he warmed to the idea.

Cleveland was 4-4 in 2019, the one season Ken Duilio was head coach.

"Ken Duilio and his staff did a wonderful job" creating high expectations, Smith said. Smith, who was hired in November, said he initially had 16 players at conditioning sessions twice a week in the late fall. On Feb. 8, the first day full-team conditioning was allowed, 35 players showed up for a two-hour, socially distanced session.

Smith said he is really enjoying working with Cleveland student-athletes.

"Even with all of the questions, the kids are still hungry," Smith said.

The big challenge has been keeping players engaged without certainty that a high school season will happen. The outlook brightened on Feb. 10 when the state revised guidelines to allow contact sports when specific protocols, among them some in-person instruction, are met.

If games are played, it will help that Smith's staff is experienced and close-knit. Many of his assistants, including former Portland State and NFL quarterback Lomax, have coached together.

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Bill Smith is in his first season coaching football at Cleveland High, one of five first-year head coaches at PIL schools.
"Even though it's a new staff to Cleveland, we are all on the same page," Smith said.

Lomax joined Smith's staff after stepping down as head coach at Fort Vancouver. Other assistant coaches are Matt Loun, Brian Allmer, Ethan Le, Joshua Branch and brothers Brennan Howell and Tristan Howell, who played for Smith at Century.

Cleveland High athletic director Kellie Cook is one of a number of people in the Cleveland community who have impressed Smith with their commitment to their student-athletes.

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Thomas Oh throws a pass during a Feb. 9 football practice at Cleveland High School.Cook said Smith was hired because of his coaching experience and record of building programs.

"Coach Smith's values as a coach and educator align with our school and larger community. He encourages athletes to be involved in multiple sports and has brought with him a coaching staff that the students can get behind," she said. "Coach Smith has already started to nurture a family dynamic with his players and aims to continue to expand his impact as the school year progresses."

Even with the challenges that come with transitioning a football program, Smith strongly believes it's safe to play high school football and that his players need to be rewarded for the work they've done to prepare despite uncertainty.

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