Coach Smith's Belief In His Athletes Fostered the Saline Cross Country Sisterhood

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The late Saline cross country coach Mike Smith works with the Saline girls' team at Mill Pond Park in 2011.

The Saline High School cross country community is mourning the death of Mike Smith, the former Saline High School teacher and coach who died Friday, June 25, ad the age of 72.

Smith, a native of Jackson, died as a result of pancreatic cancer. He taught English and history at Saline High School for 25 years, retiring in 2005. In 2016, Smith retired from coaching after building an unparalleled cross country program. Smith coached the Saline girls' cross country team to an astonishing 20 straight conference championships and 14 straight regional championships. In 2009, Smith and the Hornets won the team state championship. ( Read Mike Smith's Obituary)

In 2016, Smith received the National Scholastic Athletics Foundation Mike Byrnes National Coach of the Year Award for outdoor track.

Smith's contributions to Saline go far beyond the mind-boggling winning streaks, championships and national awards. Smith's cross country program, from students to alumni, was a tight community within Saline, built on self-belief fostered by coach Smith.

“The community coach Smith has built, the love he has created, and the values he has instilled were greater lessons than any class I took,” said Aviva Shwayder, who ran cross-country and track and was class of 2012. “Coach Smith taught me how to live life, to be resilient, and to work hard. And I know that I am not alone in feeling like my life is richer and more beautiful for having had the privilege to be on Coach Smith’s team. He raised a generation of women to be strong. I only hope I can pass these lessons along to others some day, to share his leadership.”

One of Smith's runners passing those lessons along is Eileen Creutz. She won individual state championships in 2004 and 2005 running for Smith. After winning in her junior year, Creutz struggled with the pressure to repeat and also endured injuries in her senior year. Coach Smith clipped out newspaper articles about races she lost or articles where someone projected someone else to win, and then he would circle them and write "None of this matters on November 5th," which was the day of the state meet.

"He just had a way of believing so strongly in his athletes that I had no other choice but to rise to meet him. If he believed I could do it, then it must be possible. And on Nov. 5, 2005 - his belief carried me across the finish line to my second state championship," Creutz said.

Today, Creutz is the coach of the Saline girls' cross country team. She remembers being nervous about "screwing up" the program Smith built, but he helped put her mind at ease.

"We met for breakfast one day to talk about it and I remember he told me to stop worrying about messing the team up and to make it my own. As long as your focus is on making it the best program you can for the athletes, that's all that matters," Creutz said.

In 2020, Creutz's girls won the SEC Red conference.

Coach Smith consoles one of his cross country runners after a tough meet in 2015.

Carl Spina, coach of Saline boys' cross country team, spoke of the impact Smith made on so many people in the community.

"Mike had a giant heart, and he shared it with so many people, so there’s this small army of former runners, former students, and friends of Mike’s that feel like he gave a piece of himself to help them," Spina said. "I know that Mike shared a lot of himself with me, and I’m better for having known him. There’s also a lot of his friends, colleagues, and former athletes that can say the same," He’s a giant in our sport and our community because he was a giant in so many individual lives."

Spina said Smith's values are central to the Saline cross country programs today.

"So much of what we do in Saline cross country today is what Mike taught us about taking care of kids and building a great program," Spina said.

Spina described Smith's coaching ability. Smith, he said, was patient with his runners but had the ability to help them create their own goals. And the ability to help runners believe they could achieve those goals.

"If there’s one thing a lot of his runners talk about, it’s that coach Smith believed in them and helped them to believe in themselves. So part of what was happening in Saline, part of that magic around the cross country program here, was kind, caring Mike Smith sharing his big heart with a huge group of highly-motivated young people," Spina said. "And that’s a formula a lot of coaches and teachers try to get right, but Coach Smith mastered it."

Track and field coach Al Leslie worked many meets with Smith over the years. He said he viewed Smith as a coaching mentor.

"I tried hard to emulate his work ethic," said Leslie.

When you see Leslie running around the regional track meet, stacking hurdles and loading starting blocks, it's behavior learned watching Smith.

"He was a master at all the little details that had to be done in order to run a regional meet at the highest level. He was a driving force behind Saline getting a regional and every year, he set out to run the best regional in the state. How did he do that? The little things were planned out. Food for the hundreds of volunteers, bins to carry athletes' clothing after a race, posting the results so all could see them near the bleachers," Leslie said, listing some of the details. "He was a servant leader. No job was too small for him to do! No detail was too small for him to plan out and execute."

While Smith had the kind of winning streaks that coaches would envy, Leslie found it remarkable that Smith seemed unfazed by his championship streaks.

"I  appreciated that his athletes meant more to him than wins and losses. When he was on a streak of 14 regional titles in a row, it was the people around the program that cared more than he did. He just wanted to see his girls run their best races," Leslie said. 

Leslie, like so many others, was glad to see Smith at the regional meet in Saline this spring.

"In his last month on earth, he was exactly where he should have been - out working at a meet and wanting to see kids succeed at their highest levels," Leslie said.

One of Smith's friends in the local track coach circuit was Tom "Mick" Micallef.

"He was passionate but compassionate. He was kind. He cared. He loved competition - was humble in victory and graceful in defeat. He carried himself with grace," Micallef said. "He went to work every day and sought perfection in his work. If things weren't perfect today, he would fix them tomorrow. He was a hero."

The Sisterhood

For the hundreds of girls who ran cross country every year, Smith was the father of the sisterhood, running alongside the girls in sweltering summer heat or chilly mornings in the fall.

"Coach Smith was never on the sidelines. No matter how many miles or how hard the workout, he was running alongside us," Shwayder said. "He taught us grit and resilience. And he created a positive running community. Whether you finished first or last in a race, you were equally important to the team."

Smith's belief in his athletes was as important to the girls' successes as it was to the team's successes. Creutz passed along something her sister wrote after learning of Smith's passing.

"What can you say about a man who changed not only yours, but thousands of lives; a man whose belief in you made you believe you could take on any challenge, no matter how great? What can you say about a man who knew exactly how to celebrate your highs and exactly what to say when picking you up from your lows; a man who showed you with his own life how to navigate the road when the road got rough?" Creutz said, quoting her sister. "It was a privilege and a gift to have been mentored and coached by someone so generous, honorable, and talented. I don't know if I'll ever be able to find the right words to portray the impact that he had on my life, but it was immeasurable and unending. The Saline cross country community is heartbroken today, but I can think of no better therapy than to lace up our running shoes and head out for a run."

Mike Smith (right) is pictured with his last SEC Red championship team in 2015.

Happy Trails to you, until we meet again.

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