Gary Smith had a great influence on Suffolk County soccer — high school and college — for almost five decades. (Photo courtesy of St. Joseph’s College)
By Michael Lewis
The man known in many quarters as the Johnny Appleseed of Long Island soccer has passed away.
Gary Smith, who planted the seeds that kick-started four programs at three distinct different levels — high school, junior college and four-year college, has died. He was 74.
Smith passed away Sunday.
“Gary was an outstanding person and great friend to Suffolk County soccer,” a Suffolk County Soccer Coaches Association statement said. “The SCSCA sends their deepest sympathies to his son Neal Smith and entire Smith family.”
The SCSCA large school playoff game MVP award is named after Gary’s father, Huron Smith.
A service for Smith will be held at the Riverhead United Methodist Church Saturday at 10 a.m. The church is located at 204 East Main Street in Riverhead, N.Y.
In lieu of flowers, the Smith Family is asking for donations, in Gary’s name, to the American Kidney Fund.
Smith’s remarkable journey and influence on soccer in Suffolk County began at East Islip High School in 1965, continued at Commack South High School in 1969, moved to Suffolk Community College West (Brentwood) in 1983 and before finally settled at St. Joseph’s College in Patchogue in 1986. He retired from soccer at the end of the 2011 season.
In a story for BigAppleSoccer.com in 2011, Smith admitted he hadn’t thought about his influence of hundreds of young men over nearly five decades.
“It’s been quite a run to have been a part of four pretty successful programs,” he told this writer. “I’ve had the full range of experience during the years.”
In 2011 Smith put the finishing touches to a remarkable career, completing his St. Joseph’s tenure with an appearance in the ECAC playoffs. Smith, who was 69 at the time, decided to step down due to health issues. He was not be specific.
“I’ve had some health issues in the last couple of years,” he said at the time. “I can’t physically do the kind of things I’ve done. To go any longer it would be selfish. It was a good time to go away.”
But not before leaving a giant footprint on LI soccer, just by touching the lives of so many students.
“When you get rid of the wins and conference champions, what do you have left? You have left the young people. That’s what matters most to me,” Smith said.
“I’ll miss the players the most,” he added. “It is so precious to me.”
Smith admitted he was hoping to coach long enough to be around for St. Joseph’s new athletic complex near the school.
“It didn’t come to pass,” he said. “I figure I led the college up the road to it.”
St. Joseph’s athletic director Don Lizak realized what he and the school had in 2011.
“It is never easy to say goodbye to an old friend and a great coach,” he said. “Gary Smith has done so much for SJC and all of the student-athletes that have passed through his programs. We celebrate his accomplishments and are grateful for his 26 years of service and dedication. We wish him happiness and good health in the years to come.”
Given his background, it should not be all that surprising that Smith would create four soccer programs. After all, his father Huron started the boys’ soccer program at Sayville High School in 1956.
“At that time, you could count the number of high schools playing soccer on one hand playing on Long Island,” Smith said.
“It has been night and day,” he e added about the quality and quantity of programs. “I’ve seen the evolution of it.”
And more importantly, he had been a vital part of the evolution of the game.
Smith did not play soccer until he was a senior at Patchogue-Medford High School. He fell in love with the sport and played it at SUNY-Albany. He earned his masters degree and wound up working at East Islip High, which was known as a football power. So, starting a soccer program from scratch — a sport that was essentially foreign to most youngsters — was a challenge and a half. The birth of the Long Island Junior Soccer League was a year away and the kickoff North American Soccer League was three years away.
So, Smith would go into the East Islip cafeteria on a unique recruiting trip, trying to convince students and aspiring athletes “that wearing short pants against wearing shin guards was something they wanted to do,” he said.
“The recruiting aspect was difficult because you can recruit only in your own district.”
Smith went on to begin programs at Commack South and SCC. Dealing with students at the junior college level was unique because “some of the kids were academically challenged.”
In 1986, he joined the faculty at St. Joseph’s in Patchogue, N.Y., where he stayed for 26 years, establishing men’s and women’s soccer programs and the women’s softball programs.
“We were starting brand new,” Smith said. “There were no dorms. We’re a community school. You’re not going to recruit 100 percent, but 15 percent. You have to know what you’re dealing with.”
St. Joseph’s is a Division III school, so the blue-chip prospects usually attend Division I and sometimes Division II schools.
Smith learned quickly. He compiled a 317-197-23 record in soccer, including a 13-9-0 mark in his final season in 2011. The Golden Eagles won two Skyline Conference championships and the Hudson Valley Athletic Conference crown on five occasions and were the NAIA District 31 champions once.
St. Joseph’s captured the Skyline regular-season title with a 9-0 mark, but lost in the tournament final to SUNY-Maritime, 2-1, denying them an NCAA Division III berth. Instead, St. Joseph’s participated in the ECAC Division III men’s championship, dropping a 4-0 decision at Rutgers-Newark in the first round Nov. 11.
On Oct. 22, 2011 St. Joseph’s honored Smith for his accomplishments and longevity with a post-game celebration. Smith admitted he was taken aback.
“To establish a program and to be one of the most successful college programs here, to stand in a room with 200 people applauding you, it is unbelievable, overwhelming,” he said. “So many people give you credit. How many people work their tail off or years and years not get recognition for the job they do.”
NBC sports announcer Bob Costas, a Commack South graduate, was manager of one of Smith’s teams. He could not attend the celebration, but sent a video from the Major League Baseball studios that was shown at the party.
“He was such a character,” Smith said. “He said, ‘I can’t play soccer. I might as well do something.’ ”
Smith gave credit where it was due — his wife, Paula, for putting up with Saturdays and week nights directing the Golden Eagles.
“Not many people have coached as long as I have coached,” he said. “My wife has been very supportive of me. You don’t do this without support. She has been a coach’s widow.
“I know no man is an island. You can’t do it by yourself.”
And that meant his staff as well. Tim Trava, his assistant for the past six years, took over the program for the 2012 fall season.
Trava, a 2003 St. Joseph’s graduate, led all Division III players in scoring and was an All-American.
Starting in 2012, Smith and his wife had the fall off — for the first time since the mid-sixties. Smith said they were considering going on a cruise.
“I couldn’t go anywhere because I had soccer going on,” he said.
Smith, who liked to keep active, admitted he hadn’t decided what he wanted to do in retirement.
“Maybe I’ll volunteer somewhere,” he said, “maybe at an animal shelter.”
“I’ll miss it. I’ll probably not miss it until 2012. You don’t do anything this long without missing it. . . . You can’t go on forever. This is the right time to do it.”
Even for the tireless Johnny Appleseed of Long Island soccer.