There was an epidemic going around Sebastian County this past spring, a very peculiar bug that seemed to infect only athletic directors. Jerry Cecil of Greenwood and Jim Rowland of Fort Smith both tendered their resignations after decades of loyal service to their respective school districts.
Both positions have since been filled, leading to yet another high profile vacancy when University of Arkansas at Fort Smith (UAFS) Athletic Director Dustin Smith resigned his job to succeed Jerry Cecil as Greenwood's new Director of Athletics Operations.
Cecil served Greenwood Public Schools for 31 years, the last 17 as Athletic Director. He was also an assistant superintendent and former high school principal with the district. Under his leadership, the Bulldogs and Lady Bulldogs captured 27 team state championships, 23 individual state championships, were state runner-ups 29 times, and earned 63 conference championships.
Cecil intends to remain involved with Greenwood athletics in an unofficial capacity and in a greatly reduced role requiring less time, responsibility, and energy. He plans to continue serving as a volunteer and was very helpful to Smith in his first few days on the job.
"I have the utmost respect for Mr. Cecil and what he did, and how he built this program and the success we've had," said Smith, speaking as the district's new AD. "I'm looking forward to being part of what's going on here at Greenwood. I think they've really built a dynamic athletic program, and it's one I'm excited to be a part of."
The school administration is also happy to have Smith join its team. “We’re really excited about having Dustin with us here at Greenwood,” said Assistant Superintendent Kevin Hesslen. “We’ve had a lot of good tradition at Greenwood, and performed very well under Jerry Cecil’s leadership.
"We had several very strong candidates, but we felt like Dustin, with his experience, would be a great fit here.” In a restructured hierarchy, Smith reports to Hesslen and Superintendent John Ciesla.
But for Dustin Smith (a.k.a. Dr. Smith) the journey to the top spot in Greenwood's athletic department has been a long time coming. "An AD job is not an easy job to get," said Smith. "They don't come around very often, especially at a program the caliber of Greenwood."
So how did he get here and why choose Greenwood? The answers to those questions shed a great deal of light on Smith, both as a person and as a professional.
For Smith, it all began in the small town of Pawhuska in Northeast Oklahoma, where he was raised as part of a large family, the seventh of nine children. "Mom never wanted us inside the house, so we were always outside [playing]. We'd grab a glove or a ball or bat and just go play whatever sport we wanted," said Smith of his childhood.
His early love of sports led Smith to organized athletics in high school. "I played football and wrestled and played baseball," he said. "When I was growing up, I was a small guy. In Oklahoma wrestling is huge, so I always wrestled at the lowest weight class, 101 [pounds] in high school and 75 in junior high. I was a wide receiver and a defensive back [in football]."
But athletically, Smith's first love was and is baseball. "If I had to choose, baseball is my favorite sport to play. If I had known back then what I know now, I would have been a lot better football player than I was. But there's not a sport I don't like. Baseball just happens to be my favorite.
"I really wanted to play for the Chicago Cubs," admitted Smith. "That was my goal when I was a little kid. But my ability ran out long before my dream did. If they called me today, I'd go play for them," he said with a smile, "but they aren't making that call."
Asked how he became a Cubs' fan, Smith said, "I was a victim of the Superstation. It was either WGN [Chicago] or TBS [Atlanta]. For some reason, when I was growing up we didn't get many Cardinals' games or Royals games. But there was always a Cubs' game on [WGN]. My mom was from the Northeast (Connecticut) and she got me started watching the Cubs."
"I went to college on a baseball scholarship," Smith continued. "I went to Northwestern Oklahoma State, but my freshman year I tore my shoulder up. I was a shortstop in high school, but in college they put me in [right field]. In practice one day I threw [the ball] and heard something pop, so that ended my baseball career a lot earlier than I wanted.
"After my baseball career ended, I realized I still wanted to be around athletics. It meant a lot to me, and basically made me who I am. It's my passion. I would have loved to play baseball a lot longer than I did, but the Good Lord had a different plan for me.
"So I fell back on my education," added Smith. "Communications was my original major and I got a bachelor's degree in that. I was a sports journalist and reporter. I did radio and television."
Smith went on to earn a doctorate in education from the University of Arkansas (2012), and holds bachelor’s degrees in mass communication (1999) and physical education (2002) from Northwestern Oklahoma State University, and a master’s degree in sports administration from East Central University, also in Oklahoma.
Prior to his arrival in Arkansas, Smith was the transfer enrollment manager at East Central University (2004-07), and director of recruitment at Northwestern Oklahoma State University (2002-04), and also worked as student activities coordinator at Murray State College of Oklahoma.
Before becoming athletic director at UAFS, Smith served as assistant AD during the 2007-08 season. In that role, Smith guided the program through the first year of the two-year exploratory phase required for membership in NCAA Division II, and assisted in day-to-day operations of the athletic department. He was promoted to athletic director the following year.
But when the Greenwood AD job became open, Smith could not pass up the chance to go for it. "For me, this was an opportunity to take a position that obviously is very coveted in the state of Arkansas, especially in high school athletics," he said.
"It also gives me the opportunity to be closer to my family and to be part of a winning program at Greenwood. Mr. Cecil has done a great job of building that program, and I'm honored to have the [chance] to be part of that.
"It's an opportunity to be involved in my kids' lives and what they're doing. We live [here], so it's a natural fit for us. Obviously the family time is great. I get 15 hours of my life back each week not having to drive back-n-forth to Fort Smith, so the commute is a lot easier."
Obviously, family was a huge factor in Smith's decision to seek the Greenwood AD job, and it all began with his wife of eight-and-a-half years, Jennifer. "She's a Greenwood girl – a 95' grad. We met when I got to Fort Smith. She was the cheerleading coach at UAFS."
Formerly Jennifer Organ, Mrs. Smith is the mother of two young children, Riglee, age seven, and Raelynn, age two. The Smiths also have an older child, Alec Armstrong, over whom they have guardianship. "Alec will be a senior," said his uncle and surrogate dad. "He's my sister's [son]. We've had him since he started eighth grade year here. He plays basketball and started last year as point guard.
"My wife is a Cardinals' fan, and I'm a Cubs' fan," explained Smith when asked about his oldest daughter's unusual name. "So when [Jennifer] got pregnant she said, 'If it's a girl, you can name her. If it's a boy, I want to name him.' So [she's] named after Wrigley Field. I tried to make it unique, because Smith is such a common name. 'Riglee' will be in second grade at Westwood Elementary," said her dad.
The Smiths' reason for coming to Greenwood was not unlike that of hundreds of other couples over the past two decades. "We moved here four years ago [in September 2012]. We built a house near Lake Jack Nolan out in Deer Woods. Once our kids got school age, we wanted them to be here. We just believe in the Greenwood school system, and [think] the district is phenomenal. Jennifer is a product of that. It was near and dear to her heart, so we made a commitment that [our kids] would be in a great school system," explained Smith.
"Greenwood is a special place," he added. "I've lived in "smaller" towns, but I've never come across anything like Greenwood. It's neat. It's kind of like the 'Cheers' theme. You want to go where somebody knows your name. People know people here, and the community is very supportive of anything Greenwood, and that's refreshing to see. There's not much division, which is a lot of fun to be a part of. We go to First Baptist, and Greenwood is home for us. It's always been home for her, and it's become home for me. It's just a phenomenal place to be."
The hometown vibe and supportive nature of Greenwood people, especially toward education and athletics, plus the top-notch administrators, faculty, coaches, staff, and facilities that make up the school district, all factored into the Smiths' decision to settle in Greenwood permanently and raise their family here. The new job as Greenwood's Athletic Director was simply icing on the cake.
Smith has spent his first few weeks as Greenwood's new AD simply getting to know the folks that make Greenwood, its school system, and athletic department the envy of so many people around the state. For Smith, it's all about building relationships with both colleagues and kids.
"For me this move was about being part of something I think is really special – this community – of which I've been a member now for some time, and the opportunity to impact kids," said Smith. "It's not that I didn't get that [chance] at UAFS, but the kids I can [influence] now are at a very pivotal time in their lives. It's an opportunity for me to help prepare them and have a bigger impact.
"At the collegiate level you can build great relationships, but they're often very independent people, and the influence isn't as strong at that level. I was a youth and music minister for a couple years, and I love the opportunity to just invest in kids," he continued.
"If you look across the state of Arkansas, there's not many programs that will rank with Greenwood, if any at this level. It was the opportunity to be a part of something that's been so successful, to influence and impact kids, but also to spend a lot more time with my family and be involved with them a lot more."
Smith has been asked more than once to justify his move from the collegiate ranks to the high school level. "To me it's not a step down whatsoever," he said. "It's a different environment than what I was in, but it's an opportunity for me to be more invested and involved in kids' lives.
"There will be some differences," said Smith, contrasting the two jobs. "The weekends won't be as mandatory as they were at UAFS. The relationships will be different. Obviously it's a different age group and some different requirements from the NCAA to the AAA.
"Some of it will be just learning as we go. You can map out a lot of things, but you can't map out everything. I tell my wife all the time that a firefighter never knows when he's going to be called out, he's just got to be ready to go. Sometimes being an AD you just have to put out fires, wherever they are. They may not be physical fires, but situations come up and you just have to be able to adjust.
"The role of being an AD I don't think is any different, whether it's at the high school or the college level," he explained. "You're still managing people, you're still interacting with people, you're still planning and administering events or game days. That stuff is not going to change.
"But for me, it's an exciting challenge because it's a whole different environment. The pressure is there, and I get that, and I embrace it. I want to be somewhere where the expectations are high, not just to be okay, but excellent, and this school system preaches that. It fits my philosophy and my vision and what I want to do," said the 39-year-old Smith.
"I'm going to feel things out and figure out if we can do things more efficiently. Obviously we've been successful, so it's not that we have to fix something. It's just a matter of observation and a different sets of eyes looking at things.
"There's some phenomenal people here, some great people who have poured themselves into kids, and I get to partner with them, and that's a lot of fun," he said. "The administration believes, and I believe in impacting kids and making a difference in their lives."
There are many people who must work together to make an athletic program great, but the tip of the spear are the coaches, and according to Smith, Greenwood has some of the best.
"Our coaching staff is a great group of people," he said. "They're just really good people that fit what Greenwood preaches, and I think that is "excellence". They [show] that in how they live their lives and how they impact kids, and I think that's something really impressive.
"They are salt-of-the-earth people – good quality people who understand that we're all pulling on the same rope. We're trying to make Greenwood schools the best they can possibly be, whether it's extra curricular activities or academics. And when everybody is pulling on that rope in the same direction, it's a pretty special thing.
"Success breeds success. When you have successful people, they are driven and motivated and want to be surrounded by [others] that are the same type of people. I don't ever want a coach who doesn't want to win, so winning is also part of the equation."
Smith continues to huddle with his coaches to get to know them better and assess their philosophy and their programs to better meet their needs. "I'm meeting with them individually – head coach and assistants – junior high and high school, it doesn't matter. We have a coaches' meeting every year. We'll all get together and we'll give them a coaches' manual. The good thing is there are no new coaches. They are all "repeat offenders", if you will," he said with a mischievous smile.
"It's important for me to sit down with each coach, and get to know them and build that relationship that I don't have. I've got experience, knowledge, and schooling – all of that stuff – but I don't have that relationship with every one of them.
"So I've taken time to sit down with each of them to start a conversation to understand their program, their vision, and understand who they are, and to tell them my philosophy, what I will do and what I want to be a part of, and how I will be visible and how they will see me.
"I'm not Jerry Cecil, and that's not a bad thing. Jerry was very successful in what he did, and I completely respect what he did, but I'm a different person with a different set of eyes, and he would tell you the exact same thing," said Smith.
"I want the coaches to know that I'm here for them. I'm here to support them and make sure that their job is as easy as it can be. But we're still dealing with kids, and influence doesn't take a day off, so you've got to be consistent in your delivery of who you are and what you are, because you're always on display. There's never a time when you aren't a coach. You're going to have that title no matter what you do, so make sure you have a life that reflects that.
"I think this first year for me is [about] observation," said Smith. "Just figuring out what game day looks like. Seeing what happens. Seeing how we can do things more efficiently, more effectively. Just how we can operate better. What we can do to continue to improve. It may be small portions or small steps at a time. I want to set goals that we are able to achieve. And once we accomplish those, I want to set bigger goals."
Smith played organized baseball and football as a youngster, and still tries to remain physically active, though like most people, is finding it harder to do with age.
"I do try to be active," he said. "I try to play golf as much as I can. An old baseball coach once told me [about golf], 'You're not good enough to get mad.' I do it for stress relief. Running used to be that for me – just me and the pavement. I still like to do that. I enjoy running, but I don't run as much as I used too. Alec (son) and I will run some 5Ks together, sort of a father-son deal. I'll play golf. I'll go play tennis if the opportunity presents itself. I'll go out and throw the football around.
"I'm just not as active as I used to be. I'd like to get back to a routine where I could go run and play golf on a consistent basis. But I'm also a husband and a dad, and I take great pride in those two things, and I try not to take away time from [them]," said Smith.
The new AD also talked about some of the changes being made to the district's athletic facilities over the summer, including a new track around the football field, which won't be completed until December. Other changes include a new floor in the "old gym" at the high school and improvements to the athletic facilities at East Hills Middle School.
"We're doing a lot facility-wise this summer," said Smith. "There's been a lot going on. [Jim] Bynum has been doing a phenomenal job," he said of the district's Director of Operations. "The new freshmen center is going to be a huge benefit for our student athletes. It impacts far more than athletics. It's going to [provide] space for our kids and teachers to create the best learning environment possible.
"I've just been seeing what our facilities are, seeing what we're doing, and getting a vision of where we need to go and how we can improve. My knowledge base isn't huge, so it's been [mostly] about building relationships, not just with the coaches, but with central office staff and the principals at the different campuses, getting to know them, and also learning people at the conference and state levels.
"A lot of my time has been [spent] just absorbing things like a sponge," said Smith. "It's been a lot of learning how this system works. Just taking time to get to know people and understand their perception of things, and how that knowledge can be beneficial for me. Evaluating where we're at and where we want to go, and trying to develop that vision."