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The end of an era

State's winningest tennis coach, CHS' Roger Smoak retires

Posted: June 5, 2014 11:57 a.m.
Updated: June 6, 2014 5:00 a.m.

Glady Smoak remembers the night as if it were yesterday.
It was a long unsettling evening in the Lowcountry in 2007, as her husband, Camden High tennis coach Roger Smoak, was preparing to undergo brain surgery at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston the following morning. Their children, Pamela and Stephen, were anxious about the procedure and could not sleep so they left their respective hotel rooms to get something to eat. Glady was also unable to sleep.
As for Roger, well, the night before he was to meet the surgeon’s scalpel, he slept like a baby. Turns out, everything came out just fine and Smoak never missed a beat as the Bulldogs’ tennis coach.
That is a far cry, however, from Roger Smoak’s sleeping habits the night before a match. On those evenings, Glady said, her husband is a bundle of nerves as his mind races in thinking about the next afternoon’s contest.
Well, there will be a lot more peaceful nights in the Smoak household from now on.
As his team met for the final time following a 9-8 campaign this past spring, the 42nd year CHS boys’ head coach told his squad they were the last group he would lead as he was hanging up his coaching whistle. Roger Smoak’s retirement came after his having led the Camden High boys’ team to a state-record 593 victories and a AAA state title in 1991.
“They asked me a couple times during the season, ‘Are you going to retire?’” Smoak said of his final group of Bulldogs quizzing him on his future plans during the course of the season past. “As I’ve always told people, ‘This could be my last year because I’ve been thinking about it.’”
Prior to the start of the past season, Smoak hinted at this being his final go ‘round. But he had said the same thing at other times, too, always with a smile or a laugh. But as the 2014 season went along, more signs popped up that this might be it. When Camden traveled to meet Chapin on March 27, Eagles’ head coach and Smoak’s good friend John Rodgers presented the Bulldog boss with a plaque in a pre-match ceremony honoring Smoak as the state’s winningest tennis coach.
On April 28, the tennis courts at Camden High were named in his honor in a ceremony held prior to that afternoon’s win over visiting Hartsville. On that occasion, Smoak quipped, “it is always nice to get these honors when you are still alive to enjoy them.”
During the course of the season Stephen Smoak, who played six years of tennis for his father including his being a part of the 1991 state championship team, let the cat out of the bag. “You know this is dad’s last season, don’t you?” he asked during a conversation.
Smoak’s retirement means that, for the first time since 1971, Camden High School has to conduct a search for a boys’ tennis coach. The last athletic director charged with that responsibility was the late Wallace “Red” Lynch, who was one of three athletic directors whom Smoak worked with along with Billy Ammons and Jimmy Neal, who is the current athletic director and who is heading up the search.
Neal said he always thought his successor would be the one to hire Smoak’s successor.
“I thought that was the deal when I came here that he wasn’t leaving until I did,” said Neal, who is in his 16th year as the school’s head football coach and athletic director.
“Coach Smoak has had a great run; it’s been a great ride. He has had a great influence on people throughout our community as well as here at Camden High School.”
When Smoak first came to Camden after six years as a teacher and tennis coach at Gaffney High, tennis took a back seat to some of the school’s more established and traditional sports such as football, basketball and baseball. Lynch, who as longtime Bulldog fans will remember could be a bit on the gruff side, was in charge of the purse strings for the school’s sports teams. And the tough as nails football coach did not have a grasp on what was needed to make a go of it in tennis, something which Smoak learned after his first season at the CHS helm.
“I went to Red and asked him if he would order us some tennis balls for the season,” Smoak said in recalling the story. “And ol’ Red said, ‘What did you do with the ones I bought you last year?’”
Plenty has changed for the Bulldog program since then. From playing on the city-owned tennis courts on York Street, which had no rest room facilities or water fountains for players or fans to use, the team has moved to a facility which has six lighted courts, named after Smoak, located across the street from the school as part of a complex which has an adjoining field house.
With facilities and a winning tradition in place, Smoak who told CHS athletic director Jimmy Neal earlier this year that he was thinking about retiring but, “just couldn’t pull the trigger” on a final decision, came to one later in the spring and decided to step away from the sport he loves.
“I’m going to walk away with no regrets,” he said with a smile when revealing his decision.
“It’s just one of those things,” Smoak continued. “My (four) grandchildren aren’t getting any younger and when they need you to do things with them and to help them with tennis and things like that, the time to do it is when they’re young not when they’re teenagers.
“A couple of them really like tennis and I’d like to be there and help them and just not be tied down (with coaching.)”
Coaching a family member will be nothing new for Smoak who coached his childen, Pamela and Stephen, in their six years each playing for the gold and black. When reminded of his father’s sleeping through the night as he was preparing for surgery, Stephen Smoak laughed. He said that evening was a microcosm of his father’s life; one built on faith and never giving up, regardless of the circumstances.
“At that point,” said Stephen, who is a Camden attorney and a  member of the Kershaw County Council, “he had completely come to terms that he was possibly facing a very serious illness. Just knowing his faith and everything else, I think it put him at ease. It all goes back to how competitive he is in any sport or with anything he’s doing as far as his not being able to sleep the night before a match.
“I think we all realized the next morning that none of us had really slept … except, apparently, him.”
The sport which Roger Smoak is leaving has changed dramatically over the years. Now, high school tennis players are allowed to have off-season workouts with their coaches in preparation for the spring season. And even though he retired from Camden High as an active teacher in 1998, Smoak said the job was taking up a good chunk of his time. Even though he was not required to be there for the team’s off-season conditioning, Smoak was not about to let his players go without having their coach there to watch and urge them on in their workouts.
In short, Smoak did not want to cheat either himself or, his players.
“Doing that fall workout like we do … that’s six months (of tennis),” he said. “It’s not like there is just the season anymore. If I could have just done the season, and I guess that I could have, nobody might have said anything about it. But I would not have felt like I gave it my best if I did that.”
As it turned out, Smoak’s take on tennis was not all that different from Lynch, until he took up the sport as a student at Furman University.
“I got my first racket in high school and didn’t know which end to hold and didn’t have any courts to play on,” the Cordova native and Edisto High School graduate said of his introduction to the sport. “I really learned to play tennis when I went to college at Furman and took a course in it, learned how to play and caught on from there.
“I have loved the game ever since and have wanted to teach it. It’s been a real pleasure for me.”
After starting his coaching career at Gaffney High School, Smoak applied for and accepted a teaching and coaching job at Camden High on Aug. 30, 1971. When he first started, he was the head tennis coach and the assistant boys’ basketball coach under Larry DiBiase. One of the players on the basketball team was Jimmy Neal.
The rest is Bulldog and South Carolina High School League tennis history.
In the span of his 42 years on the job, in addition to guiding the 1991 Bulldogs to the AAA state crown, his 2010 and 1989 boys’ teams were AAA Upper State champions while the 1978 Bulldogs played for the state title after having won the 4A Lower State crown. Smoak’s victory total does not include his years coaching the Lady Bulldogs or, any pre-season events with both squads. During his tenure as head coach of the CHS girls, he led the team to the 1987 AAA Lower State championship and a berth in the state title match.
When the 1991 Bulldogs advanced to the state final four in Columbia, it marked the fifth consecutive year that the CHS boys played in a AAA Upper State or Lower State finale. In this instance, Smoak led the Dogs to the Upper State title with a 4-2 win over Riverside in the morning. After a lunch break at the Columbia Mall, the Dogs came back to outlast Myrtle Beach in the state championship match, 4-3, with Stephen Smoak, then a junior, teaming with senior Jason Finley to win the deciding first doubles pairing, 6-4, 6-3, to set off a wild celebration involving the team, their fans and their head coach.
“His teams had been knocking on the door for some time,” Stephen Smoak said of the path his father took that that elusive state title. “You can go all the way back to 1978, when he had Tom Mullikin, Johnny Rabb, the Abbott brothers and all those guys playing.
 “It was truly something that weighed on him, fairly heavily, because we had come so close and because we had so many good teams in the past. He is such a competitor at heart that I think it really was gnawing at him, a little bit, to have not actually won the state championship. I think he was the most excited person in Columbia that day.”
Stephen, the younger of the two Smoak children, said it was probably tougher on his father than it was for him, playing for his dad. He said the fact that in all of his six seasons as the Bulldog the team was successful made things easier on him and his dad/coach.
“He expected a lot out of everyone but he probably expected a little more out of me, especially since I had been playing tennis basically all my life,” Stephen said. “It made it a lot easier on us both having had some really good teams during that period of time.”
It also made it easier on every Bulldogs team in knowing that they had a coach who devoted himself to the program and who wanted to bring out the best in his players, both on and off the court.
Neal had the unique happenstance to have played for Smoak on the hardwood and then, to have been his boss as athletic director. Neal said the Roger Smoak he saw and knew from his days as a student at CHS was the same man he saw until coaching his final tennis match against Chapin on April 29.
“Coach Smoak is a wonderful guy who always drilled fundamentals, even back in those days,” Neal said of a man whom he considers a good friend. “He always talked about doing the right things, having his players do the right things and becoming good people. That was more important to him than the wins and losses.”
The question now becomes, what direction does the tennis program at Camden High go with the man whose name is synonymous with the sport in Camden no longer being at the helm?
Privately, Smoak was concerned that he might not have enough players to give the Dogs a chance to win this past season. Eventually, nine players came out for a sport in which you need at least seven to field a full team with three of those being middle-schoolers. That left little depth and wiggle room for Camden which was facing opponents whose programs were bulging at the seams.
A.C. Flora, which won the Upper State title after having finished behind River Bluff in Region 4-AAA, which included Camden, had 30 boys come out for the tennis team. The Falcons fielded a full junior varsity squad and was forced to cut players due to the overwhelming response at tryouts.
“We just barely have a varsity team and our young kids have to play on the varsity team,” Smoak said. “The good teams have two or three players who come up every year from jayvees.
“Look at Chapin, they were not great this year but they were good because they had depth. Those kids got to play some varsity and they got to be around a winning program. They expected to win and knew that this year, they were going to get to play.
“We have always seemed to be playing from behind. It’s a grind which make winning sweet but it makes for a long off-season wondering who’s going to come out for the team.”
Roger Smoak’s advice in the search for a new Bulldog tennis coach is someone who knows the tennis players in Camden High and Camden Middle and can get them involved in the program and build up the numbers. He said getting younger players into the system early will pay dividends in the long run.
“I have no idea who will be the coach but I’ve said that I’ll help whoever does get the job,” Smoak said in reaffirming his commitment to the program. “They’ll get all my knowledge if they want it;  I’ll be glad to help. There have been a lot of things that have worked for me over the years and I’ll be more than happy pass it on.”
Finding a person to replace a legend is never easy, especially given whoever takes over the reins to the Camden High tennis program is coming in after Roger Smoak set the standard for the sport in the Palmetto State.
Neal said this is not the easiest of tasks he has had to perform since returning to his high school alma mater.
“I don’t know that you necessarily replace a Roger Smoak,” he said. “It’s not like people with certifications in math and English are there as tennis coaches. We’ll look at it and search around. We might have to go into the community if we can’t find the right person. We’re not sure, just yet, as to how we’re going to fill that slot.”
And, it’s no wonder. It’s not like this job has come open within, oh, the last 40 years which points out the loyalty and devotion which Roger Smoak has shown to a school and a community in which he has become a staple.

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