Marv Smith awoke each morning this fall and braced for the worst.
“I was never confident at all that we were going to make it to the end of the season,” Smith said. “Right up to the end, I was afraid it wasn’t going to happen.”
But while the spectre of COVID-19 was never too far from anyone’s thoughts during the fall sports season, infections among Iola High School students were avoided.
That allowed Smith and his Mustang and Fillies cross country runners to put together a full campaign, which will be capped today with both varsity squads running at the Class 4A State Meet in Wamego.
It’s also the final event in Smith’s storied 56-year coaching career, the last 41 as cross country or track coach at IHS.
As is his nature, Smith quickly shifts the focus from his pending departure to the athletes behind Iola High’s successful 2020 season.
The senior triumvirate of Jack Adams, Riley Jay and Nathan Louk are running at state for the fourth consecutive year. They helped keep Iola at the top of the Pioneer League standings all through high school, which is another story in itself.
Smith rewinds the tape four years, when this year’s seniors were eighth-graders. Iola was coming off of another league championship, but was graduating its top three runners.
“I just thought, ‘OK, this was it. We’re gonna struggle a few years,’” Smith recalled. “Then those three freshmen came in as my top runners, and we won league again the next year.
“As far as team titles, I can’t remember many years where I was more excited than when these kids were freshmen.”
(Mind you, he’s had multiple team and individual state champions under his tutelage in cross country and track.)
“I’m old enough, I guess I can look back at all these little things and enjoy those.”
With those fresh faces, Smith made himself — and his runners — a promise. He’d remain in charge for those freshmen until they graduated.
Smith spoke with the Register’s Tim Stauffer recently about how his childhood coaching dreams had nothing to do with track or cross country; attributes that serve cross country runners better than athletes in other sports; and why nobody fully believes him when he says he’s done coaching for good after today.
SMITH has fielded several calls and messages in recent months from friends and colleagues, former athletes and other passing acquaintances, particularly with retirement growing ever closer.
Most calls are the same. They’re filled with well-wishes, perhaps a chuckle, and of course a little dose of cynicism.
“They’re all somewhat skeptical,” Smith said.
Skeptical, because Smith has tried this retirement route before.
He stayed an extra year as chemistry teacher at IHS to ensure the school had a suitable replacement, a dream that came true when IHS alumnus Dana Daugharthy earned his teaching degree.
Smith also stayed an extra year longer than planned as track and field head coach, because he was hoping to find a worthy successor. (Again, Daugharthy answered that call.)
Then, his planned departure from cross country was deferred because of the kids within the class of 2021.
“After I retired (from teaching) I probably would have coached until I was 90,” he continued — if he could.
But where the spirit is willing, Smith’s body is beginning to fuss.
Back surgery a few years back resulted in some nerve damage and a subsequent drop foot diagnosis.
Smith has greatly curtailed many of his duties as coach, with students taking over such duties as preparing water jugs and other setup for daily practices.
“And I just can’t get around, up and down the trails like I need to,” he said.
SMITH grew up in a small town in Oklahoma. So small, his high school had neither a track nor cross country program.
“My favorite sport was basketball,” he recalled. “I thought that was the sport I’d probably coach. But I only coached that for a year, out of necessity.”
Smith coached two years in Galena, then moved to Iola, where he coached football for 14 years.
It was there that Smith was approached by Iola’s other coaching legend, Dale “Doc” Stiles.
“Marv, you’re big ole tall, lean, lanky boy?” Stiles noted. “I need somebody to coach hurdles for us. Did you ever run hurdles?”
He had — sort of.
“I could jump a 3-foot fence with a watermelon under each arm, with a shotgun blasting at us,” Smith replied.
“Sounds like a hurdler to me!”
“I got into track that way,” Smith laughed. “They dragged me kicking and screaming into track.”
All along, Smith figured he’d stick with football. But when Stiles died, Smith inherited the head coach position. It was an assumed obligation that with track and field came cross country duties in the fall.
“I didn’t really want to leave football,” he recalled, but he relented and took the track and cross country gigs.
Turns out the only question he asks now is why it took so long to switch.
“That is the funnest thing I’ve ever done,” he said. “I’ve never done anything I’ve enjoyed more than being a part of cross country.”
The appeal lies with the participants, he explained.
It takes a special breed of attitude, work ethic and discipline to excel at such a sport.
“Doc Stiles told me, to be a good cross country runner, a kid has to be a little flaky,” Smith said.
What he discovered was that students who excelled in several other disciplines, from music to art to academics, tended to thrive at cross country.
“The thing is, if a kid is disciplined in one thing, and if they like cross country even a little bit, that discipline boils over,” he said. “That is exactly the key to having successful cross country teams: the types of kids you have.”
Smith warmly recalled one such former student, Kyle Carswell, whom he enticed to try out for cross country as a freshman, at the urging of former Iola Middle School PE teacher Terry Lower.
Other students were gifted with more athletic ability, and as Smith noted, “He was so shy, he may not say a word to you all season.”
But it was Carswell’s earnest dedication — not his ability to run a 4-minute mile — that piqued Smith’s interest.
“Kyle was a good kid, gave us no problems. And he came in and ran every day.”
By his junior year, Carswell was an all-league runner.
“It’s that dedication in everything they do, in the classroom or forensics, that carries over to track and cross country,” Smith said.
And while physical ability carries its obvious benefits, it’s the mental aspect that separates cross country, he contends.
“So much of cross country is mental,” Smith said. “I’ll take hard work over talent any time. But then again, I haven’t had many talented kids in cross country who also didn’t put in the work.”
ASK him to name his favorite athlete, and the normally talkative Smith begins to clam up.
“They always say, ‘If you’re gonna start a team, who’s that one kid?’” he notes. “I can’t name one.”
Even if he were to name a dozen, Smith realizes he’d think later of somebody he’d forgotten.
Still, Smith thinks they should be recognized.
For years, he maintained a record book listing the top 20 marks for Iola athletes in track and field.
His proudest moments?
“I’ll go to other schools and look up their record books,” Smith said. “And I’ll look at some of the marks, where our kids who may be 12th or 13th here would be record holders there.”
SMITH admits it’ll be hard to hang up his whistle for good.
“Oh, man, I’ll miss this terribly,” Smith said. “It’s been a big part of my life for a long time.”
“You pick out a time when you’ll think it’ll be easy to give it up,” but his joy for seeing those athletes across the finish line hasn’t wavered an iota.
That’s why he promised this year’s senior class as freshmen he’d stick around for them.
But there are other talented underclassmen he’d love to see go through as well.
You must think a lot of those youngsters, he’s asked.
“Absolutely not,” Smith joked. “The next coach may kill those kids.”
With that levity comes the realization the end is near.
“It’s just a part of my routine,” he said. “It has just become a part of me. I have no idea what it’s going to be like to go a year without these interactions.”
So is there a chance Smith’s “retirement” is temporary?
“I really don’t see me coming back,” he said.
He promises this time.