Willie Ray Smith, Sr. was a ‘One of a Kind’ coach

Published 12:00 am Saturday, February 16, 2019

Willie Ray Smith, Sr. suffered a severe leg injury that left him walking with a limp when he was a young man. He was unable to play any sports.

Smith graduated from Prairie View College where he obtained the credentials to become a teacher.

At college, he met Georgia, the lady that he would marry. The newlywed Smiths both began teaching at Dunbar High School in Lufkin.

In 1942, the football coach at Dunbar was drafted into the army for service in WWII.

Smith was ineligible for the draft due to his handicap and was asked to become the football coach. He had never played football and did not know much about the game, but he took the job.

Smith studied football at night so he would know enough to coach the team the next day. He took a mediocre program and built it into a competent team.

Unfortunately, when the war ended the former coach was discharged and he was given the coaching job back, Smith became unemployed.

He and Georgia moved to Orange. He had been hired by Emma Wallace to coach football at Wallace High School.

The job at Orange was a challenge because there had been no football program at Wallace.

In 1946, Smith began building a football team with boys that had never played organized football.

Forty-three of the 70 boys in the school went out for that first football team. The Wallace High School Dragons became part of the Prairie View Interscholastic League, the governing body for the Negro schools.

He did so well that in 1947 the Wallace High School Dragons played the Blacksher Panthers from Taylor for the State Class A championship.

The game was played in Orange. The Panthers won the game 13-0.

In 1948, the Dragons played for the state title once again. They lost to Dennison Terrell High 13-0.

The 1949 Class A championship game was once again played in Orange with the Dragons facing Victoria Gross High School.

The Dragons won the title by outscoring Victoria 33-13.

The Wallace Dragons won their second state title in 1954 when they defeated Greenville Carver High School 39-0.

Smith was becoming recognized as a coach with a unique ability to judge talent and bring out the best in his players.

Joe Washington, Sr., a longtime coach at Port Arthur Lincoln High School, said “Willie Ray Smith is the best judge of talent I have ever seen. He puts the best kids in the best spots with no politics and no negotiations.”

Smith was a strict disciplinarian.

His method was what he called “the strap system”.

He did not hesitate to give any of his players “licks” at any time he thought they needed them.

If a player made two mistakes in practice, Smith would give him five licks. If a player messed up an assignment in a game, Smith would pull him off the field, give him licks with the strap and sit him on the bench.

Bum Phillips grew up in Orange and said, “I once saw Smith line up players at halftime of a losing game and give each player a swat on the rump with a leather belt in front of 5, 000 fans.”

Smith insisted on a full commitment from his players.

He had a curfew for his players—a time that they were supposed to be at home and in bed. To ensure they were following the curfew, he went to each player’s home and did a bed check.

He was tough, and very strict. His players respected him and wanted to do their best for him. The parents supported his methods. Some of his players said that if they got licks from the coach and their parents found out they were likely to get licks at home also.

Home games for the Dragons were always well attended, as popular with the white fans as they were with the Black community.

Smith was so respected and supported that a local businessman gave him a new station wagon in appreciation of his efforts and accomplishments.

Emma Wallace retired from her long career in education.

The new principal at Wallace High School became jealous of the adulation that Smith received. Friction between the two men led to Smith resigning from Wallace High in 1957.

He was immediately hired as coach at Charlton Pollard High School in Beaumont.

His record as a winning coach continued there for 18 seasons. Smith retired after a 33-year career as a coach. He had won 235 games and two state championships. Twenty players he coached, including his three sons, had careers in the professional football leagues.

In 1984, Willie Ray Smith, Sr. was inducted in the Prairie View Interscholastic League Hall of Fame.

He died in 1992, survived by his wife Georgia and sons Willie Ray, Jr., Charles Aaron (Bubba), and Tody.

He said he “always considered Orange home.”

“And now you know.”

— By Mike Louviere