George Smith has a message for anyone holding out hope that he will change his mind and remain McKeesport Area’s football coach.
“I am done,” he said. “There is no chance (of returning). None.”
In an exclusive 25-minute interview with one of the most influential and successful coaches in the history of the WPIAL just 24 hours after he stunned the football community by informing McKeesport officials he wouldn’t return for a 29th year, a disappointed and frustrated Smith explained what went into his decision.
“You beat your head against the wall with them,” Smith said of the McKeesport Area School District administration. “This is just like the ‘Forrest Gump’ story when he was running and running and running and running and finally he quit running and then everybody said what’s wrong Forrest and he said, ‘I’m tired and I’m going home.'”
Smith has grown weary of administration reluctance, including the athletic committee and Superintendent Dr. Michael Brinkos, to address longtime concerns.
The issues include, but are not limited to, salary for himself, salary for his staff, upgrades to what he believes are poor facilities, salary for a weight room supervisor and offseason programs and general respect for a program he built into a national power.
“I have always been battling uphill with this thing,” Smith said. “It is sort of a relief right now. It is a relief that I don’t have to go and raise all this money for this program. I can go about my life now. It took everything out of me. All they do around here is give you lip service.”
No WPIAL Class AAAA coach makes less money than Smith. He made $6,694 per year, thousands less than comparable coaches and even less than some in Class A districts. Smith is allowed to have six paid assistants at $2,900 per season with some of those being split up among the other non-paid coaches.
Unlike most schools McKeesport’s size, they don’t get compensated for offseason programs or postseason games. The school doesn’t pay for an equipment manager and boosters are responsible for essential items such as wraps and braces.
Smith recently submitted a written outline to the athletic committee detailing the things he wanted done.
“I said, ‘Here is what it is going to take,'” he said. “I told them I am not going to ask for the most. I want to level out the competition here. The only thing (Brinkos) wanted to talk about was giving me more money because they would take the coach’s salary out of the union because I am not a teacher anymore
“He didn’t get the entire picture. It is my assistants. You have to give them a little more. You can make them the bottom of the line wages.”
McKeesport assistants are paid half as much as those in districts such as Bethel Park and Kiski Area.
Smith met with Brinkos, Assistant Superintendent Dr. Timothy Gabauer, athletic director Charley Kiss and business manager/board secretary David Seropian on Monday and was told they could remove his contract from the teachers union and give him a pay raise, but couldn’t address any other concerns until next year at the earliest.
“I wanted to set them up with a plan that when I leave that they can do something with this football program instead of making the head coach raise all the money and even his assistants,” Smith said. “I wrote up a nine-page outline and it had everything on it. I called it ‘Success in coaching high school football, and the immediate and long range plan in a Quad-A program such as McKeesport.'”
Smith said it gave a step-by-step process on how to improve the program on every level.
“I told (Brinkos) to convince me to stay,” he said. “His answer was, ‘Are you going to be our head coach or not?’ You know what I saidâ¢ I said no and handed him a letter.”
Technically, Smith couldn’t resign from his position because he was in the final months of a four-year contract. The contract automatically would be renewed at the April school board meeting.
“I wrote a little letter to (Brinkos) and it said: ‘At the present time, I, George L. Smith wish to remove my name for consideration as the head varsity football coach for McKeesport Area School District for the upcoming 2010 season. Removing my name from consideration at this time will enable to the school district to begin its search for capable candidates. Previously, the school district never renewed our contracts until the April school board meeting. Waiting until April would handicap the efforts to continue the success of McKeesport football.'”
As for his plan?
“They probably threw it in the garbage when I walked out the door,” Smith said.
Smith contemplated retirement following McKeesport’s second WPIAL and state titles in 2005.
Assistant coach Jamie Eckels talked Smith out of it because he wanted his son, J.J. Eckels, to play for the legendary coach.
But Smith knew the end was coming sooner rather than later and wanted to have a plan in place to help the program flourish once he left.
He presented the district with a five-point plan for sustained excellence:
• Finding and developing excellent assistant coaches on the varsity and junior varsity levels.
• Finding and developing excellent ninth-grade and middle school coaches.
• Developing and implementing the best offseason program.
• Providing the best college recruiting system for the football players.
• School districts responsibilities.
The final point proved to be a difference in philosophy on the importance of high school athletics.
Smith said it’s important for the district to admit that a well-run high school football program has a positive impact on community pride. He cited accomplishments such as the 70 Division I scholarships earned by McKeesport players over the past 30 years, two state championships, being tied for 12th with Pittsburgh Central Catholic out of 123 WPIAL schools in winning percentage since 1984, 17 players being in the Big 33 game since 1985 and having a Pennsylvania State Hall of Famer as their head coach.
“They can’t handle that,” he said. “This is what I did in the last two years. I had the athletic secretary e-mail all the administrators in the school district every time a college coach would come in May. No one cared. I think they were jealous.”
Nearly 50 colleges visited McKeesport last May alone.
“The principal (Dr. Karen Chapman) said to me one time, ‘I don’t see what the purpose of all this is,'” Smith said. “Obviously she and Brinkos don’t get it. They don’t get it.”
Smith said he’s not interested in helping the district find a replacement.
“They are on their own,” he said. “Everything is written down for them. I kept preaching to them that there will come a time when I am going to retire and how are you going to find another coach for $6,000-some dollars and paying the assistants like thisâ¢ It isn’t going to happen so you better get a plan.”
Since word broke that Smith was stepping down, rumors of him surfacing somewhere else have been swirling. And why not?
Smith won 197 games, two WPIAL and two state titles in 28 seasons and three former Tigers Brandon Short, Mike Logan and Russell Stuvaints went on to play in the NFL.
A popular rumor had Smith going to nearby West Mifflin Area.
“No, I am not going to West Mifflin,” Smith insisted. “I need a little bit of time off here. I need to rest and regroup.”
But returning to the sidelines isn’t out of the question for the 60-year-old.
“I want to enjoy my retirement, but I am not saying that I am out of coaching,” he said. “I can coach down the line and I can try to go as a part-timer at college. I can apply for some jobs coming up next year, whatever. Right now, McKeesport is too hard. You have to be willing to put every hour of every day into it because they are not going to make it easy.”
Smith has no confidence in how the school district is run as a whole.
“The way it is going right now, this district is going to self-destruct,” he said. “They just don’t do things right and that scares me.”
Smith, who graduated from McKeesport, played football for the Tigers and spent most of his life as a resident of the school district, appreciates all those who helped him build the McKeesport football program.
“All the people who stayed with me, they got no money but they all stayed with me because they are my friends and they knew I would treat them right,” he said. “The kids were my friends. It was a good relationship. Good people. That was the fun part.”