Smith's goal: 4 titles in a row

Smith's goal: 4 titles in a row
April 23, 2012, 9:53 pm
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Simeon basketball coach Robert Smith is running out of goals to surpass and milestones to establish.

Last season, Smith became the first high school coach in Illinois history to win five state championships. East St. Louis Lincoln's Bennie Lewis and Lawrenceville's Ron Felling won four.

In 2012-13, he will seek to become the first coach in state history to win four titles in a row. Peoria Manual's Wayne McClain also won three.

"I'm definitely resigned to coming back next year and winning another state title at Simeon," Smith said. "My name might be out there (for a college coaching position) but I'm staying at Simeon. I made the decision after the Final Four. I feel comfortable here. It is the best thing for me, to come back and win a fourth title in a row. That is the challenge for me, especially with the talent we have."

Smith, 40, said he isn't bitter about not being seriously considered for the vacancy at Illinois or any other major college position. "I'm realistic. I know it is a longshot for me to jump from high school to a major Division I school without any head coaching experience at the college level. But I felt I should pursue it as long as the opportunity was there. I love what I do at Simeon and what we have going on," he said.

In all candor, Smith didn't think the hiring process at Illinois would go as far as it did. He never was interviewed by Illini athletic director Mike Thomas but he was interviewed by the search team. "I'm glad they considered me. I did what all other candidates did. Some got interviews, some didn't," Smith said.

He said he probably wasn't as qualified as most of the candidates, especially those with head coaching experience at the college level. "But if (Thomas) is a risk-taker, I'm the one to pick. But (Thomas) made the best choice for the university for going ahead," Smith said.

But Smith has some advice for new coach John Groce and his staff as they go about the difficult task of rebuilding Illinois' program and attracting the caliber of talent necessary to put a championship contender on the floor.

"You have to reach back into the communities, not just the kids and their parents. You have to talk Illinois basketball in restaurants and barber shops. You have to promote the program. It hasn't been promoted that well lately," Smith said.

"You have to get the kids to stay home and commit to going to school here. Kids watch and see where other kids are going across the country. Kids want to play with some people. That's huge right now. If you persuade a player like Jabari Parker to come to Illinois, as DePaul did with Mark Aguirre, they can bring other good players with them."

In reassessing his 2011-12 championship team, Smith said it probably ranked as the second or third best team he has produced but admitted it had more talent than any of the others.

"Last year, we had a lot of depth, two five-man lineups," he said. "The difference between this team and others was the schedule. Last year, they went out of town two or three times and won only once. This team went out of town five times and lost only one game. They played a national schedule and were able to win. Those are things I look at when comparing teams. They went into hostile environments and were successful."

Next year? Smith returns four starters -- Parker, Kendrick Nunn, Kendall Pollard and Jaylon Tate. His fifth starter likely will be 6-foot-8 senior Quon Davis, who didn't play much as a junior because of a broken ankle. Tyree Washington, Dennis Williams, Bobby Harris, Edward Morrow and Brandon Hutton will provide depth. He looks for Parker and Tate to provide leadership.

"I can see us being No. 1 in the state and among the top five in the nation," he said. "We can repeat in city and state. I don't think we'll be the best team ever. I don't think there will be a team that will go undefeated unless they play locally. To be ranked as the best in the country, you have to go out and play a national schedule. But a traditional school (not a prep school) won't go undefeated. If you want to surpass what Thornridge did in 1972, you'd have to reach deep for that goal."

As he looks ahead to his ninth season as head coach, Smith said he benefited from last year's experience. "It was more challenging because we were ranked No. 1 from the beginning of the season. There was more pressure on us," he said.

"I learned to be more patient. I expected more out of my players and they didn't sit back and realize they were only juniors, as talented as they were. They didn't have all that much floor time except for Parker, Nunn, Pollard, Tate and (Reggie) Norris. I rushed them. I didn't realize that they needed more floor time. Then we started to roll. I think they got better coaching than previous years."

Meanwhile, Smith doesn't agree with critics who charge that the perception of recruiting in Chicago is that college coaches must deal with street agents, AAU coaches, influence peddlers, shoe companies and a lot of people with the hands out in order to land a blue chip player.

He acknowledges there have been controversial issues in the past that tainted the city, involving former Public League stars Efrem Winters, Deon Thomas, Sherron Collins, Derrick Rose and Anthony Davis, but he insists the allegations of under-the-table payoffs are untrue.

"I don't know why Chicago has that perception. Guys have to come in here and work. Every college coach has come into Simeon to recruit. We don't ask for anything and we don't want anything," Smith said.

"We just want to be sure that if our kids attend their college, they should treat them as their own. We don't ask for a starting position or anything else. I can't talk about other (city) programs, only Simeon. No one can say I asked for anything. I opened up our doors and said: 'Here are our players. Watch them play.' But you have to build a relationship with a player and his parents if you're going to recruit him to your school."