AD Smith reflects on the state of Greenwood athletics

AD Smith reflects on the state of Greenwood athletics

It doesn’t seem so long ago that Dustin Smith became the Athletic Director for the Greenwood School District, but he’s now been on the job for five full years after succeeding Jerry Cecil in 2016. Both men have overseen the most successful period in the history of GHS athletics, accounting for more than four dozen state championships in the past two decades and numerous appearances in the state finals of nearly every sport.

“My biggest goal was just to not mess things up,” said Smith when asked to reflect on his arrival in Greenwood. “Being successful in my chair is being sure everything continues to operate at the level that it [was] and is. Mr. Cecil really got things going, and our district invested in athletics, which is part of the educational experience for our kids. That’s a high priority for our district and community.

“We’re only as good as the people we have, including student-athletes, coaches, and the community,” he continued. “The good thing about Greenwood is we have so many people invested in what we do, and they want us to be successful. But success is different for a lot of people. It doesn’t mean that you win every state championship. But at the end of the day, I want our kids to be able to compete and have the opportunity to showcase their skills and be involved in education-based athletics, which is what we offer, and have a good experience doing that.”

The motto of the athletic department Smith oversees is to, “Create champions in the classroom, community, and competition,” and it’s one he and his administrative colleagues take seriously. Every year Greenwood is consistently ranked near the top in both academic testing and athletic competition. The excellence of the school district is one of the big reasons the city of Greenwood has experienced such growth over the past three decades.

“Our kids have been successful,” added Dr. Smith. “Our kids are learning and becoming better people. Our coaches are invested in them. They are having a great experience. We’re able to check a lot of those boxes for our kids as they come through our program. I’m excited about where we are and where we’re going.

“We can’t base [success] off state championships. I want to win those, but I want our kids to have a great experience, to really enjoy what they are doing, and represent our community and school district in a fine fashion, and I think we do that.”

Regarding championships, the numbers are staggering. “We’re over fifty,” Smith revealed. “We added five just this year, and that’s pretty incredible. We also had two or three state runner-up finishes this year alone.”

For the 2020-21 school year, GHS teams won state titles in football, volleyball, wrestling (2), and E-sports. They also finished as state runners-up in girls’ cross country and softball, and in track Greenwood sophomore Taylor Hankins won the Arkansas Meet of Champs in the pole vault. Not bad for one of the smallest 6A schools in the state.

“There are a lot of schools that would give anything to have the chance to play in the state finals,” said Smith. “Before 2000 we had three state titles. That gives us over 40 in the last 20 years, and that’s pretty impressive.

“I think people mislabel Greenwood as a football school, and we’ve had tremendous amount of success in football,” he admitted. Greenwood has won 10 state football titles since 2000 under then Head Coach Ronnie Peacock. The ‘Dogs won eight titles under Rick Jones before winning last fall under Chris Young. They are also currently favored to repeat at 6A state champions in 2021 by Hooten’s Arkansas Football magazine.

“Football gets a lot of the spotlight, but we are more than a football school. We’re good at a lot of things,” Smith added before offering a litany of successes to back up his claim. That list includes volleyball under longtime Head Coach Jennifer Golden, whose teams have appeared in 10 state finals. It also includes the great success of the girls’ basketball program under Head Coach Clay Reeves, who has eight state crowns to his name, five of which have come at Greenwood.

A more recent example would be Head Coach John Kincade and his wrestling program, started in 2012, garnering five state titles in the past three years. Dr. Ken Hamilton and his players and teams made numerous state finals appearances during his long career as the GHS tennis coach. The golf teams excelled under the leadership of the now retired Ronnie Williams and that excellence continues under girls’ coach Ronnie Sockey and boys’ coach Tyler Woods.

Baseball and softball have won championships and consistently reach the state semifinals and finals. Soccer has excelled at times and the relatively new E-sports teams have already won two state titles. Bowling and track athletes have also featured outstanding individual performances on the state level. So, the evidence is clear. GHS athletics is about more than football.

“I want us to win championships, but more than anything I want us to be able to compete, and that was taken away from our 2020 seniors and our spring sports kids, and I hate that. It burns my heart even today,” said the good doctor, reflecting back on the most recent school year impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Asked to analyze the pros and cons of the pandemic on athletics, Smith offered some valid observations about life itself and the ability of young people and their coaches to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances.

“I think it challenged us to not get comfortable,” he began. “Some things that we took for granted we taken away from us and it gave us a different perspective, and I think that’s a good thing. Greenwood Sports Center is a good thing that came out of the pandemic. It gave people the opportunity to watch our games.”

Sports Center, the brainchild and labor of love by parent volunteer Sean Holland, allowed nearly all GHS sporting events to be live streamed over the Internet, even on the road, allowing parents, grandparents, and other fans to view those events during the pandemic when seating was limited and social distancing and masking were being enforced.

“Online ticketing was something else we learned about and had to adapt to on the fly,” said Smith. “But I think it was beneficial in the long run and made us catch up on some things we hadn’t done in the past.” He also mentioned the increased emphasis on good hygiene and regular handwashing as “something we took for granted.”

According to the Greenwood AD, some of the lessons learned during the pandemic and the changes made will continue, regardless of the status of Covid-19. Just days ago, the Greenwood School Board voted that students and staff will continue to wear masks when the new school year begins next week. It may not be a popular decision with some people, but it was done in response to the increasing number of Covid cases statewide. Clearly, the pandemic is not yet over.

“Obviously, there were a lot of negatives and frustrations,” admitted Smith. “There were some frustrated fans, and I get it. But if we don’t learn from those things and see how we can do things better, then we’ve wasted 15 months.” He then recalled the early days of the pandemic and his constant fear that all athletics could cease at any moment.

“Our student-athletes and coaches were very resilient,” he said. “To see that was very impressive to me. They (coaches) hated to get emails from me because some of that stuff changed on an hourly basis. Sometimes it was a moving target on what they had to do. But they were extremely disciplined. The screenings, the contact tracing, making sure people were spread out. Those were difficult times and some hard lessons we had to learn. The pandemic showed us that we don’t control a lot of things, but we do control how we react to the things we don’t control.

“Our kids were able to be in school and be around their classmates. I was just trying to get through each day and adapt to whatever curveball was going to be thrown at us. We did our very best to follow every one of those restrictions the best we could to ensure safety and an opportunity for our kids to participate.”

Asked if he was looking forward to a more normal school year in 2021-22, Smith replied, “What does normal really mean? We’ve operated in a different normal this past year,” adding that he’s hoping to see stands full of fans, to have the GHS band on the road at football games, among other normal things, but the jury is still out on his wish list.

Asked where he would place Greenwood in the pecking order of high school athletic programs in the state, Smith said, “If you’re asking me, I would say we are at the top. In our classification everybody looks at us. Jonesboro had an incredible year, but it blows my mind to look at our body of work. We want to be excellent in everything we do.”

Asked about his schedule and duties during the summer, Dr. Smith indicated that he uses some of the time to rejuvenate and refresh, but he remains quite busy preparing for the coming school year. It seems the job of Athletic Director at one of the state’s top schools is a year-round obligation.

“A lot of planning, scheduling games, a lot of professional development for myself, and figuring out ways to help our coaches become better at what they do,” explained Smith. “This last year was hard, and what we accomplished – we didn’t lower our expectations, even with a Covid year we wanted to win at a high level, and it was difficult.

“[Summer] is a time for me to recoup and relax and recharge a little bit. We get eight competition days for sports in the summer, so [some] kids are still competing. Even though the academic year has ended, we’re starting that engine again and getting ready for what the fall looks like.”

One of the blessings of this summer is that Smith didn’t have to hire any head coaches. All of them remain in place for the 2021-22 school year. There have been some changes among assistants, almost all of them involving football, but those were made relatively early in the summer in coordination with Head Coach Chris Young. There are two new assistants on the varsity staff and a new addition on the junior high level.

With Chase Meyers leaving the coaching profession to become assistant principal at the high school, and Zach Watson becoming head coach at Elkins, former GHS quarterback Stephen Hogan has joined the varsity staff as QBs coach and co-offensive coordinator. Hogan played at Arkansas State and formerly coached in Oklahoma.

Smith and Young also promoted longtime junior high offensive coordinator Josh Holloway to the varsity staff as special teams coordinator and running backs coach. Most recently, the athletic department hired former GHS quarterback Luke Hales to take over Holloway’s former position on the junior high staff under Head Coach Shannon Rhea.

Fortunately, hiring is not a problem at Greenwood. “There’s a lot of people who want to be here and have been here for a long time. It’s a big draw. There’s a lot of interest in coming to Greenwood,” said Smith.

“I want to continue to invest in our coaches. It’s my job to figure out ways to make that work. We can’t compare ourselves to anybody else. My standard is Greenwood. I’m not worried about what anybody else does. I’m just trying to make Greenwood better, our coaches better, and our student-athletes better. I want to put us in a position where we continue to grow,” added the Greenwood AD.

“We’re in a people business and we’ve had an incredible run of success. The climb has been difficult, but staying on top is difficult as well. It takes effort, it takes sacrifice, it takes time, it takes work, and we can’t be afraid of any of those things.”

Asked to explain Greenwood’s incredible success over the past 25 years, Smith offered, “There’s a lot that goes into that. But we just outwork [others]. Success breeds success. We’ve been successful because our kids work hard and buy in to what we’re trying to do, and coaches who strive to be better. They want to continue to improve, and I think that’s become our standard and expectation.

“I am big on constant evaluation, [but] I use that term loosely,” he continued. “It’s [really] constant communication with our coaches. When their seasons are going on I’m highly invested in what they are doing, because I see them on a regular basis. During the off-season it’s more of ‘How can I help you get better?’ I want it to be an open door with opportunities for them to bounce ideas off me as well. Evaluation is kind of a weird term for me. If we communicate throughout the year, I think that gives them an evaluation of where we’re at.”

As for the traits he seeks in new coaching hires, Dr. Smith said, “I look for people who are a magnet for kids, who will invest in our kids and do things absolutely the right way. I live by the philosophy that there’s never a wrong time to do the right thing. There are hard times to do the right thing, but there’s never a wrong time.

“I want coaches who are completely invested in kids and how we do things here. It’s about giving [kids] the best opportunity to succeed. We want to prepare them for life to help them become better people. [I want coaches who are] open and honest [and] they have to communicate well.”

Finally, asked about facility upgrades or changes during the summer, Smith said there was nothing major on the horizon. “We’ve always been a trendsetter as far as facilities are concerned. We’re constantly evaluating what that looks like and what we need to improve upon. Whether that’s scoreboards or locker rooms, [whatever].”

Smith went on to mention the installation of a digital display board at the arena with a touchscreen allowing fans to visually reminisce about past seasons in a variety of sports. He also touched on the ongoing transition from Under Armour to Nike. “There will be some cosmetic stuff,” he said. “Right now there are a lot of discussions ongoing about a multitude of things.”

Included on that list is a major renovation to the press box and seating on the home side of Smith-Robinson Stadium and the addition of a press box on the visitor’s side of the field. But fundraising efforts have been hampered by the pandemic with no immediate plans for construction. But fans will notice one improvement this coming season with the recent installation of new LED lighting at the stadium.

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