In second stint at McKeesport, Smith hopes to put program on track for lasting success
Not too many times in life do you get a chance to right a wrong — to re-write history, so to speak.
And if you are ever fortunate enough to have an opportunity to fix what went so awry so quickly, you better act fast.
George Smith's sudden and unpleasant fracture from a program he built into a nationally respected powerhouse over 28 years was viewed as an avoidable injustice by the majority of the people of McKeesport.
It's was an injustice that the McKeesport Area School District made right three days short of 36 months after Smith walked out on a program that meant so much to him.
As school board president Patricia Maksin said following the final yes vote in January that made Smith's return official: “I would like to say welcome home, coach.”
Smith returns to the sidelines at McKeesport and brings with him his 197 wins, his two WPIAL titles, his two state titles, his patented flexbone offense and nearly every coach who was on the staff three years ago.
Who says you can't re-write history?
“The way Coach Smith's career ended, with such a disconnect between the district and him, inspired several of us toward possibly having an opportunity to rewrite that chapter of Tiger football regardless of what had happened in between,” McKeesport athletic director Charley Kiss said. “Life doesn't ever guarantee opportunities for re-dos, but this time, Coach Smith's career of great service to the school district can be celebrated whenever the end of his coaching career comes again.”
For Smith, it was important to him to have a contingency plan in place when he does step aside for good. That was his motivation three years ago when tensions boiled over, leading to Smith walking away.
This time around, Smith's plan is detailed and structured as to what he wants to get accomplished. Sure, wins and titles would be nice, but Smith wants the program set on a track of success when he does decide to leave for good.
“It is very important to me,” Smith said. “I had numerous young coaches come to me and ask me how to set this up. I can spend hours lecturing on just that aspect. Hours about how you go about doing this and where you want to start. I tell them all the same thing: The main thing is to have good people. If you have good people, that's half the battle.”
So what did Smith do first?
He found good people and, not by chance, the people he found to run all aspects of the football program from the eighth- and ninth-grade teams to the varsity have a little bit of McKeesport in them.
“It was crucial to find the right people, and we got all guys who have played or coached for me,” Smith said.
It's just not lip service for Smith either when he said played or coached for him.
“It's been interesting,” Smith said. “(The coaches) basically came on their own and some of them date back to the early days.”
On the varsity staff are familiar names of Ivan Hampton, Jamie Eckels, Tom Smith, John Harper, Troy Blackwell, Todd Blackwell, Matt Miller, Dale McCall Sr., Bill Starry Jr., Bill Paterra, Tim Mader, Scott Bishop, Garey Christian, Jared Panek and Jason Pavlecic. The only non-McKeesporter is former Baldwin coach Jim Wehner.
At the middle school level, Smith went with former McKeesport players Dana Brown, Jon Moniger, Dennis Robinson, Ryan Smith, Derek Pavlovic, Josh Volpe, Ken Brown, Troy Brown, Tim Sweeney and John Grabowski
“We wanted to develop our junior high program,” Smith said. “The success of the future is basically with the ninth-grade team. They know what I expect out of them and are on top of things.”
Smith replaced Jim Ward, who resigned in early December after a 19-11 record in three years, including 15-5 in conference play.
Under Ward, the Tigers advanced to the playoffs all three years but lost in the first round each season. McKeesport went 5-5 last year with a first-round playoff loss to Bethel Park.
But what concerned administrators was the lack of support from the community and the lack of participation in the terms of numbers.
McKeesport had fewer than 40 players on its roster by the end of the season.
“When I hear people tell me that McKeesport doesn't have the numbers, I don't believe that,” Smith said. “The numbers are there, and the kids want to play. All these coaches are also great recruiters. We want the best athletes in the school to play football. That has to be conveyed to them when they are younger.”
It is all part of Smith's master plan of one day turning a good-standing program over to somebody who shares the same values of structure and discipline he set in place over the past three decades.
“The proper way to do it is to make sure the program is in good standing and then walk away,” Smith said. “Having somebody come in who understood what you accomplished and what you are trying to do and if they would come and continue what you are doing would be the perfect scenario.”
It may have taken an unexpected three-year hiatus and getting over some hard feelings, but Smith finally will be able to play out his perfect scenario.