John Smith has driven his Great Falls boys’ basketball teams all over the state since he got his CDL bus license in 1975. The high school basketball coaching legend’s responsibilities will be far fewer now, but he’ll still squire the Red Devils to their away games.
Smith has decided to retire from coaching after his 47th year of high school basketball at Great Falls. He won 943 games and eight 1A state championships during his nearly five decades in charge of the Red Devils. Who knows how many bus miles he drove?
“I’ve been blessed,” Smith said Tuesday, while waiting for Great Falls’ scrimmage at Rock Hill to tip off.
Jimmy Duncan will take over Smith’s duties as the boys’ coach and athletic director. He assisted Smith with the boys’ team for three years before coaching the girls’ varsity the last two seasons. The 30-year old graduate of South Carolina and Winthrop had discussed the move recently with Smith, but was still surprised that it actually happened.
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“When someone has been around that long it always seems like a surprise,” said Duncan.
New Great Falls boys’ basketball coach Jimmy Duncan
Smith has attended every one of the Red Devils’ summer scrimmages. He isn’t cutting off his involvement cold turkey, but “this way he can help when he wants, and stay home when he wants,” Duncan explained.
Great Falls principal Brenda Fort said Smith “would be committing himself to other activities in the school.” She didn’t expound on what those might be, saying, “he’s invaluable in so many ways. What he does, you can’t put a price on. You can’t buy the integrity that he has.”
Smith began coaching and teaching at Great Falls in 1969 after playing college basketball at Newberry. He taught history, P.E., science and driver’s education, and was the Red Devils’ athletic director for a number of years.
All the while, Smith shepherded one of the best boys’ basketball programs in the state. His victory total would put him 21st all-time nationally, though his accomplishments aren’t listed in the National Federation of High Schools record book. Smith, a 2004 South Carolina Athletic Coaches Association Hall of Fame inductee, led Great Falls to eight state titles and 19 Upper State championships. The Red Devils played in 19 state finals under the 6-foot-5 head man, including one stretch of 17 title game appearances in 25 years.
One of the best teachers I ever sat in a classroom with. Never any discipline problems. He sent one kid out of class in 12 years.
Great Falls principal Brenda Fort respected John Smith for his teaching ability, as much as his coaching talents
Even if folks from across the state couldn’t find the tiny town of Great Falls on a map, they knew about Red Devils basketball.
Fort Mill coach Dwayne Hartsoe has the rare distinction of being undefeated against Smith. Hartsoe was a 25-year old rookie head coach at Williston-Elko when he went against Smith’s Red Devils in the 1995 1A state final. Williston-Elko came out on top and he experienced the postgame grace of a man who finished his career with more state titles than technical fouls.
“Ultimate professional,” said Hartsoe, whose Lancaster teams often scrimmaged Great Falls. “Always willing to help out a young guy. Obviously he’s a great basketball coach but I think he’s an equally great person.”
Great Falls lost seven total games from 2008 to 2012, winning two state titles during that stretch. Smith’s best teams were never built around one player, but unrelenting depth. His championship squads in the mid-1990s that won 55 straight games and three consecutive 1A titles went 10-plus players deep.
Recent years had not been as successful. The Red Devils haven’t won a region title in four years and missed the playoffs this past season.
Smith said the timing was perfect for him to step aside. Duncan has six underclassmen that will be key contributors next season, giving the rookie boys’ varsity coach a group that he can mold and develop in his own way. It’ll leave Smith more time to spend with his granddaughter and his honey dew garden.
You can’t fill those shoes. I just have to focus on the kids and worry about getting them better every day, just like I would for any other season.
Smith will be 69 years old in less than a month. He remembered his first Great Falls team bus was driven by the backup center, then chuckled as he imagined how the modern public would react to students driving school buses.
Times have changed.
“We didn’t make the playoffs last year. And in two years he’s gonna have a good team,” Smith said, nodding toward Duncan. “Without our normal success the last three years and the talent in the eighth and ninth grade coming, now was the time.”
The squeaking of warm-ups ceased in the gym and Smith craned his neck to see what was happening. The scrimmage was about to tip off and he needed to get to the end of the bench so he could take notes. They had a 40-minute bus ride back to Great Falls afterward, plenty of time for the state’s winningest bus driver to mull over what he saw with his successor.
Great Falls boys’ basketball dominance under John Smith
1976-77, 1991-92, 1995-96, 1996-97, 1997-98, 2003-04, 2010-11, 2011-12
1984-85, 1987-88, 1988-89, 1992-93, 1994-95, 1998-99, 1999-2000, 2000-01, 2002-03, 2008-09, 2009-10