Sports

Dennis Smith steps away after decades

MIDDLEBURY UNION HIGH School Head Football Coach Dennis Smith, shown on the sidelines with his team early this season, has decided to step down from coaching after 30 years with the Tiger program. Independent file photo/John S. McCright

MIDDLEBURY — After more than three decades coaching with the Middlebury Union High School football program, Dennis Smith said he knew two games into this season, his 15th as its head coach, it was time to step away. 

That was before an 0-2 Tiger team turned around its season, finished with seven wins, and came within eight yards and eight seconds of defeating top seed Champlain Valley in the Division I final. 

And before Smith’s peers chose him as the D-I Coach of the Year. 

Smith, 54, acknowledges that when he decided to step down — a decision he kept private, he said, so as not to become a distraction — he did not necessarily expect his last team to become so exceptional.

“I didn’t plan on it being such a great end to my career, but it just worked out that way,” he said. “I pretty much knew about week two of the season that this was going to be it.”

Smith leaves a legacy of excellence on and off the field. Despite typically leading the smallest school in D-I, his record as a head coach was 104-38; his teams went undefeated and won D-I titles in 2013 and 2014; the Tigers qualified for the playoffs every season; and they reached six finals.

The Tigers have also been known for sportsmanship and respect for their opponents and their coaches. 

“What I love about it most is taking a group and getting more out of them than you expected,” Smith said. “And then having them realize (it). I’ve always said to them winning isn’t fun, winning is work, you know? And I think most of the time the kids have taken that to heart and understood my goal was (for them) to become a better player, a better person, every day.”

MUHS Activities Director Sean Farrell also cited program intangibles. To understand them fully, some background is necessary. Farrell and Smith were teammates in the Tiger football program under Coach Hubie Wagner, whose teams won five D-II titles between 1975 and 1980. 

As the AD, Farrell promoted Smith to head coach in 2008 when Head Coach Peter Brakeley, whose teams won three D-I titles, stepped aside for health reasons. Smith had begun coaching with the school’s program in 1990 after graduating from Norwich University, moving up from the freshman and JV levels and eventually serving as both offensive and defensive coordinator for Brakeley’s varsity team.

Farrell said Smith’s success, shared with the rest of the team’s staff and Tiger alumni, can be traced to that background.

“I think it’s because of that, and I’m going to say mutual respect, that we’re so successful,” Farrell said. “The kids want to play for Dennis. They understand his expectations. They want to meet his expectations. And when they do that, that’s when they are successful. This year was a prime example. When they started out a little rocky, the kids bought into the plan and ended up in the state championship.”

And he pointed to the history, saying that Smith has preserved a legacy that will be bestowed upon the next coach:

“There’s some history behind that. When you see every coach on the staff come through that program, they’ve kind of established that way of doing things, all the way back to Hubie and Pete, and that’s a huge benefit for us to have that culture continue on for decades.”

COACHING 

Smith began coaching while student teaching at MUHS in the fall of 1989. Other than one year in New Hampshire (1992) he has been with the Tiger program since, moving to the varsity level in 1995. He also coached lacrosse for two seasons.

Why coach? 

“I love competition, and I love football, and I was fortunate enough to be able to coach back where I played, back where I watched. I was going to games since I was 4 or 5 years old when my uncle played, going with my grandfather and my mom, and I’ve been around the football program ever since,” Smith said. “To me, it’s all for the kids and the program.”

MUHS Tigers football Coach Dennis Smith was voted D-I Coach of the Year by his peers.
Independent file photo/Steve James

He described a coaching approach that is not complex. 

“To me coaching anything, and in most of the years I’ve been in football, and this is kind of what I learned through Pete, is keep things simple,” Smith said. “Make sure you don’t keep adding stuff on to the kids until you feel comfortable with where they’re at and what you’re doing … To me it all comes down to fundamentals and keeping things as simple as possible and executing to the best of your ability.”

His reasons for stepping down are a bit more complicated. Yes, he said, he felt like he lost some “fire” early this season. But Smith felt his insistence on strict discipline and hard work might not be resonating the way it once had. He also has chafed under new rules limiting preseason practice time and banning workouts if it becomes too hot and humid.

“That can be part of the reason why I’m done,” he said. “I’ve had to change to adjust the new styles of life. The lawyers, they’re in charge of everything now. It goes back to preseason. We don’t have as many practices now. We don’t have as many full-pad practices. I’ve had to change for 30 years, and it just got to the point where I’m done changing.”

Smith said he also wanted to go out on his own terms. 

“I just don’t have that fire to continue to adjust and adapt to what I’m told I have to do because of this stuff. And secondly, it kind of opened my eyes to see what happened to Connie LaRose, and I didn’t want that,” Smith said. 

“I don’t even know what the full story is about that. But whatever it is, I don’t want that to come down on me. I feel I’ve had a great run, and I don’t want to go out that way, with a decision because I’m not adapting enough to the changes and the way certain people feel things should be done. I’m still the old-school style. I’m still about discipline. I’m still about structure.”

There is also no question that there are more and more demands on any coach’s time not directly related to coaching. 

“I said to my wife if I could show up on Friday night and coach a football game it would be awesome, I would never get done,” Smith said. “But to deal with all the stuff that you’ve got to deal with from Saturday morning to Thursday night before that game, even a Friday morning before that game, there’s so much added stuff for coaches, and it just keeps building and building every year, and I’m just at my end of having to continue. It’s probably 80-20 now, 80% that stuff and 20% coaching stuff.”

LOOKING BACK, FORWARD

There are many athletes and teams Smith looks back upon fondly, but none more so than the two title groups in 2013 and 2014. His son Sam played on the 2013 squad, and both were quarterbacked by standout Austin Robinson.

It might have gotten a bit dusty on the other end of the phone when he talked about 2013.  

“I coached my son. Undefeated. That would be No. 1. And all those kids that were part of his upcoming. I had those kids since they were part of Little League baseball,” Smith said. “You know, the Sam Smith group and the Austin Robinson (group) behind them, just being a part of those kids’ lives.”

Smith is not sure what will come next, other than surgery after the holiday season to repair his cranky knees. After that he and his wife Beth will take stock. 

“I’ve got to sit down with my wife and talk to her,” he said. “I don’t know yet. That’s to be determined yet in the next three to five months.” 

Smith also reflected on the past 15 years. 

“I joke around. I never had a serious interview to be the head coach. I was just the interim. And then Pete wasn’t going to be coming back the next year. And so I look at it as I’ve been the interim for 15 years. But I guess not.” Smith said. “But I feel like I’ve done a good job in taking this program, Middlebury football, for what it is, and continued it to be what it is, from Hubie to Pete to me.” 

Share this story:

More News
Sports

Eagle boys’ lax opens with two losses vs. D-II opponents

The Mount Abraham-Vergennes boys’ lacrosse team opened its season with high hopes for a ru … (read more)

Sports

Tiger girls’ lax debuts with home victory

After two weather postponements last week, the Middlebury Union High School girls’ lacross … (read more)

Sports

OV nine topples L&G with late rally

The Otter Valley Union High School baseball team snapped a 4-4 tie with a four-run sixth i … (read more)

Share this story: