By Dave Johnson
2:34 PM EDT, August 25, 2012
HAMPTON -- Let's see, what else was in the news that day?
President Nixon Promises 'New Prosperity' Busing, Integration Get Off To Peaceful Start Harmon Killebrew's Grand Slam Leads Twins Over A's ABC To Air Jackson 5ive Cartoon.
Closer to home, on the night of Sept. 3, 1971, a legend's career was born.
It wasn't what you'd call an auspicious debut. In fact, Hampton High's football team lost to First Colonial 24-13. It had been nearly six years since the Crabbers allowed that many points.
And wouldn't you know, 15 days later, it got worse? Ferguson beat Hampton 32-14, and the Crabbers were 0-2 for the first time in a decade.
Just imagine if message boards had existed then. Mike Smith, a 30-year-old novice from the Southwestern tip of Virginia, would have been flambéed.
"That first year?" Smith says now. "I wasn't even sure I'd be here a second year."
Yet the second year became the third, the third became the fourth and today, Mike Smith is going into his 40th season as the King of Queen Street.
Just lasting that long in a profession that chews you up and spits you out is admirable enough. Winning 85 percent of your games along with 12 Group AAA state championships that's unheard of.
"When you think of everything he's accomplished, it's really unbelievable," says Virginia Tech assistant Curt Newsome, who coached against Smith at Kecoughtan and Heritage from 1987-98. "Forty years is a long time, but he's still energized."
The numbers are truly mind-numbing.
Smith's 408 career wins are 93 more than anyone else in VHSL record book. The nearest active coach, Powell Valley's Phil Robbins, has 302 -- and he's retiring after this season. Of the 33 coaches listed as having won more than 200 games, Smith has the fewest number of losses (64).
And there's his longevity. It's not certain, but it's more than likely that only two coaches in VHSL history have coached longer -- Norm Lineburg (45 years, 1962-2006) and Glenn Proctor (43, 1964-2007).
Since Smith's first season in 1971, seven different U.S. presidents have been elected -- from Nixon to Obama. Hampton has had eight principals. And the other nine teams in the Peninsula District have made a combined 47 coaching changes.
"Time just kind of moves up on you," Smith says. "The kids have been great. And 99.9 percent of the parents have been great."
So many of his former players have gone on to play college football that he can't possibly know the exact number. One of them, Dwight Stephenson, is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
And all the championships. The longest a Smith-coached team has gone without winning the state title was six years (1989-94 and 1999-2004). In his 39 seasons, the Crabbers have won the district championship 27 times (including four ties). They've made the playoffs in 32 of the last 33 seasons.
But Smith, who turns 69 next month, deflects the praise. He credits longtime assistants Danny Mitchell and Alvis Mann. He credits the players, from the stars to the third stringers. And he credits his family for putting up with him.
"If I'm not up and going when I need to be, my wife (Lisa), she gets after me," Smith says. "Last year, we weren't playing real well and I hesitated to go home after the games. I'm telling you, she's hard on me. But that's good. She's a real motivator."
Lisa, who married Mike 30 years ago, laughs when that quote is relayed to her.
"Since we first started dating, it's always been a part of my life," she says. "And the kids as well. Leigh-Taylor was only four days old when we took her to the 1985 state semifinals. He puts such an incredible amount of time and effort into it, and he believes in those kids."
The feeling seems to be mutual. Lisa said that last Father's Day, former Crabber Tyrel Wilson dropped by for dinner and Almondo "Muffin" Curry called to say hi.
Of course, Smith's remarkable run nearly ended eight years ago. On Oct. 23, 2002 -- two days before the Crabbers' eighth game of the season -- Smith called a news conference at the Holiday Inn to say he was stepping down at the end of the year.
For Crabber Nation, it was a crusher.
"I had to come home and break the news to my family," says Danny Mitchell, Smith's longtime assistant. "Cindy (his wife) was tearing up, and Matthew (his son) was crying. And he said, 'You know, I always wanted to play for Coach Smith.' That sums it up. So many kids want to have a chance to play for Mike."
Less than two months later, despite (or maybe because of?) missing the playoffs for the first time in 25 years, Smith changed his mind. Three years later, he won state championship No. 12.
So when will Mike Smith finally step down?
He'll turn 70 during the 2011 season. His VHSL records for most wins and championships seem almost untouchable, at least for the near future. But none of that seems to matter to him.
"There have been times I've encouraged him to retire," Lisa Smith says. "But he always tells me, 'I'm not ready.' He feels as long as he can make a difference in those kids lives, he needs to stay where he is."
In fact, one of Smith's biggest fears now is quitting too soon. He made that mistake eight years ago. He vows not to make it again.
"There were times I had nightmares where I had quit," he says. "I was saying, 'What have I done?' I wake up in a sweat. But I think I'll recognize when the time's right. When it comes to a time when I can't give the effort for the kids and the coaches, it'll be time to go on.
"One day, I might wake up and say 'I can't do it anymore' and just not show up. I'll be down in Southwest Virginia somewhere and they'll be looking for me for practice. Either that, or they'll be throwing dirt down on me. One or the other."
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