August 22, 2012

Direct Kick: G.J. was one of a kind

LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. — I wonder if G.J. Smith knew how many lives he touched?

That was a thought going through my mind as I was one of the hundreds of mourners who filed through House-Rawlings Funeral Home Monday night to pay our last respects to the former South Laurel coach and athletic director.

I mean you had former players, coaches, the KHSAA commissioner, former teammates at Kentucky like Jimmy Dan Connor, former superintendents, the list goes on and on.

Many had their own little stories about Smith. I learned a lot about the man that, even though I have known him for 30 years, came as a surprise to me.

I didn’t know that he played in the state tournament with a stress fracture of his foot.  That tells you how much of a competitor he was. I learned that Joe B. Hall was ready to give him more playing time at Kentucky until he suffered a knee injury during his sophomore year.

You know why I didn’t know any of this? Because G.J. didn’t talk about himself. He liked to talk about others.

“He was very unique,” former South Laurel coach Steve Wright said. “He would rather talk about high school sports more than his career.”

G.J. could have blown his own horn, and he had every right to. A former Wildcat. High School All-American. A member of the 1971 Kentucky All Star team. A coaching career that had him winning more than 600 games and puts him among the best coaches in Kentucky history. Funny thing is G.J. said he won 662 games, the KHSAA says 696. They also have him coaching 28 years, while he said it was 26.

In all the years that I knew G.J., he only talked about UK once, and I had to ask him about that. G.J. didn’t live off his status as a former UK player like so many do. He moved on and made a name for himself, not where he played.

I remember some of the best times I’ve ever had as a reporter was when the high schools used to play their soccer games at London Elementary School. Many a nights I, along with G.J., Jack Cupp and Les Dixon, had some great conversations in the shadow of the scoreboard. And great laughs. And when someone wandered over and joined our little group they experienced the same thing.

There was one time that involved Chris Hibbard, G.J., Bud Stuber and the cap Stuber was wearing. All I can say is that I’ve never heard G.J. laugh so hard. And talking with Jack Cupp I found out that they also enjoyed those times. I’m glad.

Another thing that impressed me about G.J. was that he treated all sports the same. And he wanted to learn about all sports. I can see him now, bent over with his hands on his knees, studying whichever game he was watching.

You know one time he didn’t get his baseball team new uniforms so that other sports at South Laurel could get new ones. That’s how G.J. was.

Cupp told me he credits G.J. with all the nice baseball fields in southeastern Kentucky. “When G.J. transformed the Laurel County field it made all the other schools play catch up,” Cupp said. “I really believe that.” Yes, G.J. loved his baseball field. We used to joke that he slept on it.

While G.J. treated all his players equally, he had a special bond with Jeremy Brown. The two became fast friends after Brown graduated, and Smith was so proud when Brown got to pitch for Georgia in the College World Series. When he hired Brown to coach South Laurel, Smith even took the role of his assistant coach.

While G.J. and I didn’t always see eye-to-eye, and he was a hard person to get to know, I would like to think that he respected me as much as I respected him.

So long, Kentucky Long Rifle. You will be missed.

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Now that school is out, what are your family’s summer vacation plans?

A. No major plans. We will probably hang out around Laurel County.
B. Going to the beach!
C. Kentucky has a lot of wonderful state parks, and we plan to visit a few and enjoy quality family time.
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