“After every season, Kent re-evaluates. He gives it much prayer and gets counsel as to what is best for program,” expressed Clark, who has been at Smith’s side for the past 17 years on the Bear bench. “The hardest part for Kent is leaving the kids and the relationships he has built.”
After several weeks of deliberation, even to the point of changing his mind on Monday, Smith announced he is taking a year’s leave of absence from the Bradley program Tuesday morning.
“I came in ready to do it (announce his leaving) Monday morning, but then I chickened out,” he related. “It’s hard to step away from something that has been my identity for 21 years (17 at BCHS and four at Trewhitt Junior High). I know I can’t give it a 100 percent effort right now and I don’t think it would be fair for me to ask that of the kids and my fellow coaches, if I can’t do that myself.”
Smith had complete knee replacement surgery in July and has had his normally very active lifestyle slowed by the recovery process, which is expected to take anywhere from six months to a year to complete. He is also facing a series of oral surgeries over the next several months.
“I put off the knee surgery for as long as I could, and have been putting off the oral surgeries as well, because of basketball,” Smith admitted. “It got to a point I couldn’t put it off anymore. While I was on my back (after the knee replacement) I had a chance to examine my mortality.”
Smith had seriously considered retiring, but after talking with BCHS Principal Todd Shoemaker and athletic director Turner Jackson, reconsidered but chose instead to take the leave of absence.
“Kent needed some time to get away from it (coaching) for a while and get himself healthy before making a final decision on his future,” remarked Jackson, who has been through knee replacement surgery himself. “It’s hard to make this kind of decision while you don’t feel well physically.
“This decision has been a real struggle for him,” the Bradley AD continued. “Kent puts so much into his coaching and has a very physical style, that not being able to do that bothers him. Hopefully he can get healthy and come back strong and ready to go.”
“We have a lot of faith in Chuck (Clark) and Patrick (Spangler) and know our basketball program is in good hands,” Jackson proclaimed. “Kent has done an awesome job and these guys have been right there with him.”
“We are very supportive of Coach Kent Smith and wish him a speedy recovery,” stated Shoemaker. “We have been very fortunate to have Kent at Bradley Central for all these years. Kent has done an incredible job with our program.
“We are confident that Chuck (Clark), Patrick (Spangler) and Drew (German, who will work with the freshman program) will continue the strong winning tradition of Bradley basketball,” the BCHS principal added. “Chuck Clark will do a great job with the program, as he has already done as an assistant. Chuck has a heart for students and has been coaching for many years. He has a very strong work ethic and will push his players to give their all.”
Clark actually has one more state tournament appearance on his resume than Smith, having been an assistant with former Bear coach Steve Williams’ 1982 squad that advanced to the TSSAA championship event.
“I had come back to Bradley to do my student teaching and helped Stevie (Williams) and Ken Phillips with the team that year. It was the first time we’d been to the state tournament in 10 years,” related Clark, who had played for Williams before graduating Bradley in 1977.
After playing four years at Lee College for Coach Earl Rowan, Clark had an opportunity to teach and coach at Trewhitt Junior High, but chose instead to work with his father in the family’s A&C Amusements business.
“I worked with dad until the 1993. After I rededicated my life to the Lord, I felt Him lead me to return to teaching and coaching,” Clark related.
Getting a second chance to coach at Trewhitt, Clark took over the seventh- and eighth-grade teams the same year Smith, who had been the ninth-grade coach, accepted the head coaching position at Bradley.
“Kent and I were already friends at that point. When Earl (Rowan) stepped down and Kent took the job up here (BCHS), I would coach my teams at Trewhitt, plus help out with the ninth-grade team, then come up here to help with Bradley’s practice or to keep stats during the games,” Clark related. “One season I coached or helped coach 85 games.”
Clark had that hectic routine for five years before getting an opportunity to join the BCHS staff full time in 2001. “When Walker Valley opened and they redid the junior highs (grades 7-9) into middle schools (grades 6-8), I had a chance to come up here,” he explained.
In their 17 years together, Smith and Clark have led the Bears to a school record 436 wins, against just 145 defeats, including five trips to the TSSAA state tournament, plus another half dozen sectional berths, including the past two seasons.
Spangler, who played on the 2000 state runner-up squad as well as sectional qualifiers in 1999 and 2001 before going to play collegiate baseball at No. 1-ranked Walters State and Lee University, returned to the Bear program as an assistant coach five years ago.
“We’re going to keep operating the same way we’ve been operating,” remarked Clark. “Kent has an enthusiasm that can’t be duplicated and a few things will be a little different, but overall we’re going to be the same program we’ve been for the last 17 years. Kent has always treated me more as associate coach rather than assistant. He has allowed Patrick and I to do more things, in recent years, that the head coach would normally do.”
While Clark’s main focus up until now has been with the JV program, he is very familiar with the current Bears, who only have two returning starters — seniors Taylor Bentley and Logan Cox.
“I’ve had all these guys in JV ball and I’ve worked with the whole team some in the summer camps,” Clark stated. “The fact of the matter is 14 of our 29 kids in the program are football players, so we don’t know for sure when we’ll have them. Practice begins Oct. 28 and our first game is Nov. 12.”
“The good news is the kids have bought into our program and it should be an easy transition for them,” he added. “It’s not like it is a new coach coming in with a new system.”
While Clark admits getting to coach his alma mater is a “dream come true,” he is quick to acknowledge that when Smith is healthy, should he decide to resume his head coaching duties, he will gladly welcome his friend back.
“We’ve always had a very good friendship and working relationship,” Clark commented. “This was a hard decision for Kent, but he is doing what he feels is best for the team. When he’s healthy, if he decides to return, then that’s what we’ll do, without any problem.”