INA, Ill. – From days working in southern Illinois fields, to nights under the lights in the Missouri Valley, Ron Smith holds the playbook for prospering in the land of opportunity.
Smith, the Associate Head Coach of Men’s Basketball at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, has been named the 2011 RLC Alumnus of the Year. He will be officially presented his award at the RLC Foundation Annual Dinner, Dec. 1, in Mt. Vernon.
The 57-year-old Benton native earned his associate degree from RLC in 1974. He transferred that degree to Illinios State where he finished in 1976 with his bachelor’s degree. From there, he went on to SIUC where he earned his master’s degree in guidance and educational psychology in 1983.
He said choosing to major in education so he could teach helped set the stage for his dream of coaching.
“I enjoyed school and school life as a student, and I enjoyed sports,” said Smith. “... Teaching was one of the avenues to the love of my life – sports.”
Another love of his life, he said, is family. He and his wife, Regina, live in Carbondale. They have three children – Tim, Matt and Brooke – and six grandchildren.
Smith grew up on a farm down Lake Benton Road, just a few miles from the RLC campus in Ina. He and his three brothers are all Rend Lake graduates.
“It was a launching pad for me,” he said. He emphasized what a luxury it was to be able to attend Rend Lake for the first two years of his bachelor’s degree, which he completed in eight straight semesters. He said earning his bachelor’s degree without respite is one of the things he is most proud of. A good work ethic and ambition, he said, are two traits he credits to growing up on the family farm.
“I wasn’t always a great student. I wasn’t always at the top of my class. By going through Rend Lake and getting a degree that transferred from one state college to another, I didn’t miss a beat.”
The RLC launchpad set Smith out on a coaching career that is now 35 years and counting, rising from the high school ranks to NCAA DI. It includes five years at Coulterville High School, four years at Benton Consolidated High School, four years at Alton Community Schools, nine at SIUC from 1985-94, eight at the University of Northern Iowa, and four at Iowa State University. During the nine seasons he spent as an assistant coach under Rich Herrin at SIUC, the team was resurrected from a program on probation to winning four Missouri Valley Conference titles, qualifying for the NIT four years and participating in the NCAA Tournament twice.
A story in the Southern Illinoisan quoted Herrin as saying about Smith, “There is not a challenge that is too big for him. He knows what tough times are. When we started together at Southern Illinois back in 1985, we had lost all five starters from the year before. We had no money and were very short on talent. Ron had a big hand in recruiting and was a major reason why we turned it around.”
By helping Herrin transform the Salukis from underdogs to top dog in the MVC, assisting UNI to its first NCAA Tournament appearance in 14 years, and coaching a floundering Alton team to its first state tournament berth in 42 years – Smith has built quite a reputation as a renovator. He was named the Salukis’ associate head coach on March 15.
“It was an easy move in a lot of respects,” he said of returning to the SIU campus 17 years after moving away to Iowa. “This is one of the first jobs I’ve moved to where I knew all the names of the streets before I got there.”
He said a lot has changed in 17 years – athletic department staff, administration, a new football stadium, and a renovated basketball arena with new offices, locker rooms, teams rooms and theatre room. But the campus, for the most part, is the same, he said.
“There is a little old and new with everything.”
About a decade ago, Smith had an idea to combine his passion for sports and travel, and share them with others.
“I was getting older in my profession and had a better understanding of what I liked and what I did well.” By then he had been recruiting internationally and taking teams to venues abroad for more than 20 years. “I wanted to share those experiences with other people.” The idea developed over time and, last year, USA Sports Tours and Events was born. As owner and operator of the successful venture, Smith has already taken seven teams to Brazil and the Bahamas in a little more than a year.
“The trips and tours are much more than sports. The educational, social and cultural enrichment ... are the things these athletes really take from the tours.”
Enhancing the lives of others is something he values and recommends for those seeking personal fulfillment, he said.
“I’ve worked with many causes. There are a lot of ways people can find satisfaction with what they do. It starts right at home. Take your talent, give, and help someone else in some way. You might think it’s a very small thing, but whatever you have someone else needs and you have to go into it with that attitude.
“That’s one thing about the tours. I tell them at the orientation that these aren’t sport-only tours. ... I tell them they are going to have some great opportunities educationally and socially. They are going to be a giver – not with money – but give of their time, talents, personalities and skills. They can share those things in everything they come in contact with. The older you get, the more value and satisfaction you get from giving. We seem to live in a take-take world. But if you want to feel good about yourself, give of yourself.”
He said there have been many inspirational figures over the course of his career. He mentioned Greg McDermott, current Creighton head coach, whom Smith coached with at Iowa State; and Ben Jacobson at Northern Iowa. He also brought up RLC Hall of Fame Head Coach Jim Waugh. Smith played for Waugh from 1972-74 and helped the Warriors win the Southern Illinois College Conference championship in the 1972-73 season.
“Jim Waugh was such a big part of my life while I was at Rend Lake College. How you do things is shaped by your mentors and he was a tremendous example for me. He was the one who showed me it’s fun to come to work everyday – win, lose or draw.”
Another influential coach in his life was Herrin, Smith said.
“When I was 6, Rich Herrin came to my hometown. So growing up, and even into adulthood, he was the only coach I knew at Benton. [Waugh] was totally different from Herrin. His personality is much more like my personality than mine is like Herrin’s.”
While at SIU, Smith helped coach current Missouri State University Head Coach Paul Lusk and Salukis Head Coach Chris Lowery. While at Benton High, Smith coached RLC Athletic Director and former Warriors head coach Tim Wills.
“It is a very unique profession,” said Smith. “You get to deal with some of the top athletes, not only in the region, but in the world. I’ve been fortunate to have some guys who have gone on to play in the NBA. And we’ve competed against some of the elite college players.” A few players who came to Smith’s mind are Kansas State’s Michael Beasley, who was picked second overall in the 2008 NBA Draft and now plays for the Minnesota Timberwolves; Texas’ Kevin Durant, another second-overall pick now with the Oklahoma City Thunder; and Oklahoma’s Blake Griffin, the top pick in the 2009 NBA Draft by the Los Angeles Clippers.
Like he tells his players – the future is about grasping opportunities. Take it from a southern Illinois farm boy who became a coach in the top division of college basketball.
“We didn’t have a whole lot of money to pick and choose where we could go [to college]. The value all four of us brothers found at Rend Lake College opened the door and gave us an opportunity to pursue what we wanted to pursue. Rend Lake College can be your own land of opportunity. What you do with that is up to you.”
Another Benton native, Foundation CEO Pat Kern, will also be celebrated at the Annual Dinner this year as she enters retirement on Dec. 31.