Mike Smith announced Sunday he is retiring as coach of the Saline High School girls cross country team. Smith made the announcement at the annual year-end banquet at the high school.
In 1977, Smith came to Saline High School from Grass Lake, where he coached track and cross country. At Saline, where he taught English and AP American History until retiring in 2005, he coached girls and boys cross country and track and field. In 1993, Smith let go of the boys program and focused on the girls program.
Since then, the girls’ team has been a state powerhouse. This year, with over 120 girls on the team, Saline won its 20th straight conference championship and its 14th straight regional championship. The Lady Hornets won the state championship in 2009 and have been a fixture in the top five for years.
Saline High School senior Hannah Cummings, co-captain of this year’s team, had difficulty finding the words to describe the impact he had on her life.
“Words can't describe how much he means to me. I've been with him since my freshmen year and even in middle school I knew that when I entered high school, I was going to be coached by one the of greatest coaches Saline cross country has ever had,” Cummings said. “Can you imagine? Knowing you'll be part of legacies and be coached by a legend. I'm proud of everything he has accomplished and I hope I've made him proud.”
Abby Rentschler, co-captain of last year’s squad, ran cross country at University of Alabama after four years of running under Smith. She said Smith made sure every girl on the team had a positive experience. It wasn’t just the running that attracted 120-140 girls to the program every year.
“He wanted girls to leave the program with fond memories -- memories like pasta dinners, summer cross country camp, having little sisters, senior hill day -- so they could look back on their years as Saline High Schoolers and say they were great,” Rentschler said. “Coach Smith made running fun, and if you ask the majority of the earth's population, that is near impossible.”
Saline High School Principal Julie Helber called Smith’s contribution to the school “extraordinary.”
“Our students and hundreds of students over the years have not only benefitted from Mike's coaching but have learned what it means to be a team under his tutelage,” Helber said. “I would like to thank Mike on behalf of Saline High School for his years of service to our students. He will be missed.”
Athletic Director Kirk Evenson agreed, calling Smith a champion for all of the athletes on his team.
“His attention to detail and positive attitude equate to amazing results. The data is there for everyone to see; The Cross Country program in Saline has been successful for over two decades and Mike Smith's fingerprints are all over it!” Evenson said.
In 2008, Smith was inducted into the Michigan Interscholastic Track Coaches Association Hall of Fame, a year after his friend Tom Micallef, who coached at Ypsilanti and was inducted in 2007. Smith convinced Micallef to help in in Saline in 2007.
“He is a dynamic combination of organization, compassion, competitiveness, honor, honesty, and a genuine father figure to so many girls -- including my own!” Micallef said. “He has stayed up with the times - he has never just been OK with the status quo. He understood the evolution of the sport.”
Smith was MITCA cross country coach of the year in 2005 and 2011.
Carl Spina, coach of the boys’ cross country team, said Smith was an inspiration and a mentor.
“Mike is a giant. Think of how many lives he has impacted as a coach and as a teacher. It's just astounding,” Spina said. “Every public educator gets into the business because they want to make a difference in the lives of young people, and he's been a part of so many lives, we'll never be able to measure his impact. It just goes on and on and on.”
Spina said Smith was supportive when he took over a struggling boys’ cross country program.
“It meant a lot to me to have his support. He'd remind me that it takes time and he always had something supportive to say. When we finally started winning again, he was as excited as anyone,” Spina said. “It may have been 20+ years since he was the boys' coach, but he laid the foundation for us. Mike started this magic that is Saline cross country.”
Saline Area Schools Superintendent Scot Graden learned from Smith in the classroom. He studied English and History under Smith in 1985-86.
“While many now know him as a Hall of Fame coach, he was an outstanding English and History teacher too,” Graden said. “He has set the standard for sustained excellence... the combination of competitive success and a positive team culture over his career is unparalleled.”
Smith will be an assistant in girls track and field next spring. The girls will do their best to make him proud.
“This next season will be more memorable than any other track season. This one is for him,” Cummings said.
Whether or not he returns in some capacity next year, his legacy is secure.
“Even though he is officially retired, he will always be coach Smith. Coach Smith will be greatly missed and will never be forgotten,” Rentschler said.
Mike’s wife, Mary, has also been an integral part of the cross country program. She was also a teacher at Saline Area Schools. They raised three children: Ryan, Travis and Meagan.