They don’t make coaches like him anymore
Published 10:20 pm Wednesday, January 24, 2024
GATESVILLE – Nearly three and one-half decades have passed since the last time Leon Harrell “Pete” Smoak blew his whistle at a practice session or witnessed his Gates County High School football team scoring a touchdown.
The Georgia native, who grew up in Elizabeth City, had a passion for coaching the game he so dearly loved, all while developing young minds on and off the field.
Smoak, who died Jan. 8 at the age of 88 in St. Augustine, Florida, led the Barons to several Albemarle Conference titles. His 1971 squad won the NCHSAA Class 2A state championship. Along the way, several of his standout players enjoyed success at the collegiate and professional levels while others succeeded in the game of life.
Donnie Umphlett was Smoak’s starting quarterback on the 1970 and 1971 teams. Umphlett recalled that football in the county took a turn for the better when Gates County High School and Central High School merged through integration in 1968. Smoak had arrived at GCHS as a coach a few years earlier.
“In the fall of 1969, we had an 8-2 record with our only losses to Williamston and Edenton, and Edenton went on to win the state championship,” Umphlett said. “That was the only year we beat Ahoskie.”
In 1970, the Red Barons posted a 9-1 record, with the lone loss (8-6) vs. Ahoskie, who captured the state title that year.
“1971 was our year and coach Smoak made it our mission to put Gates County football on the map,” Umphlett stated. “We were undefeated (13-0) and beat Southern Guilford, 34-8, in the state championship game.
“Coach Smoak had some good teams after that and a lot of good players,” Umphlett added. “But the thing I remember the most about him is that he treated everyone the same, no matter if they came from rich families or poor families. And, yes, he could be ornery and stubborn at times, but he had a good heart. I’ve seen him pull money out of his pocket and buy a kid a bag of popcorn at a basketball game.”
After high school, Umphlett enrolled at Elon College, gaining preferred walk-on status with the football team. But he decided to concentrate on his education. He double majored and received degrees in Accounting and Business Administration. From there he worked in accounting for five years at a firm in Franklin, VA before opening his own CPA business in Gatesville that he ran for 25 years.
“I enjoyed my years playing football for him and later, as adults, we played golf together,” Umphlett said. “He was a very intelligent man. He may have been stubborn at times, but always determined. He was the type of individual that once he made a decision to do something, he didn’t back away from it.”
Steve Tinkham was an All-East quarterback on Gates County’s conference championship team in 1973. That squad made it to the Eastern Regional finals, losing 14-12 vs. Tabor City.
“That game still haunts me to this day,” said Tinkham, now retired after a combined 43-year career working with The Virginian Pilot and Cox Communications. “Coach Smoak had us prepared to win every game, and teams knew they would be in a hard hitting contest when they played his Red Barons.”
Tinkham remembers the losing seasons experienced by Gates County High School’s football program, which was established in 1964.
“Coach Smoak was named head coach a couple of years later and our school immediately started to play competitive football,” Tinkham recalled. “In just seven years after the football program began, Gates County won a state championship. How many schools can say that? Plus, Gates was one of the smallest 2A schools in the state, and many people thought that team could have won the 3A or 4A championship.”
Tinkham also played baseball for Smoak for three seasons.
“Unlike Perquimans and Williamston and other schools that had strong summer baseball programs, coach Smoak had boys that played in cow pastures and used barns for backstops and we came within a game of winning conference baseball championships in multiple years,” Tinkham noted.
But of all the athletic success enjoyed at Gates County during Smoak’s tenure, Tinkham stressed that his former mentor should be remembered for something far more important than winning games.
“During the first years of integration, several counties surrounding Gates County experienced turbulent times adjusting to merging black and white high schools,” Tinkham recalled. “Due to people like Coach Smoak, Gates County bonded between the races because he was demanding but fair, regardless of race or economic means. He was the reason many boys got an opportunity to attend college, impossible without his lessons on discipline, self improvement and purpose.”
Doug Lilley, a 1975 GCHS graduate, was the starting quarterback on the 1974 team that won the Albemarle Conference championship.
“We had a great run of quarterbacks before me. I was an average player, but the whole team took pride that it was up to us to keep the winning tradition going,” Lilley noted. “Coach Smoak instilled confidence in us.”
Lilley remembered that Smoak only had three rules for his players to follow: keep your hair trimmed, do your homework, and give it your best on the field.
“He stressed that we could choose not to follow any of those rules, but if we did then we were no longer part of the team,” Lilley said. “He was very strict.”
A few years after moving back to Gatesvllle, Lilley and Smoak were neighbors.
“We would get together and talk about football,” Lilley recalled. “He loved to reminisce about former players and I loved to hear those stories. He was a great guy and fun to be around.”
Lilley, now retired after a 35-year run with Case International in Sunbury, added that “if all of coach Smoak’s players over the years had the opportunity to talk about him that would be a heck of a book to publish.”
Walter Odom, who after leaving Gates County was a football standout for four years at North Carolina Central and had a shot to play for the Oakland Raiders, stressed that his foundation was built by Pete Smoak.
“I was devastated upon hearing the news that one of my heroes has passed on,” said Odom, now “somewhat retired” (in his words) and living in Virginia.
“Coach Smoak excelled when it came to drawing out the best in a person,” Odom continued. “He was great at picking your brain and smoothing out the rough spots. His goal was for you to go out and be the best you could be for four full quarters.”
At the high school level, Odom said some of the players had exceptional talent and some had average talent.
“Coach Smoak was able to mesh the two. He would purposely line you up with an exceptional player so you could see first hand what that level of talent was all about,” Odom said.
Odom arrived at GCHS the season after the Red Barons won the 1971 state championship.
“We still had some talent, but I remember every team we played came after us hard because we were the defending champions,” Odom recalled, adding that he played fullback and defensive end. “Coach Smoak and coach [Willie] Williams had us ready for that.”
Upon graduating from NC Central, Odom went on to work as an educational administrator at Winston-Salem State University, Texas A&M, University of Tennessee, and Norfolk State University.
“The people that fostered that foundation were coach Smoak and coach Williams. They both had a major influence on my life. The world today could sure use more men like them,” Odom concluded.
Eric Knight was a standout athlete at GCHS from 1984-87. He was a versatile performer on the gridiron, seeing action at quarterback and safety as well as handling the kick-offs and punting duties.
“It was challenging to play for coach Smoak,” said Knight, who graduated in 1988. “I thought he didn’t like me because of how hard he was on me. But he saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. He got the best out of me.”
Knight added that Smoak wasn’t the type of coach to pat you on the back and offer accolades about a player’s accomplishments on or off the field.
“I remember having a big game against Currituck that we won 35-12. That was the first time he gave me some props for the way I played,” Knight noted. “In my senior year he said I was one of the best ones he had coached, so you can imagine how shocked I was to hear that coming from him.”
After graduating from GCHS, Knight attended Winston-Salem State University on a football scholarship.
Knight now lives in Sunbury where he owns a trucking business. When asked what impact coach Smoak had on his adult life, Knight was quick to answer.
“Always give 110 percent 100 percent of the time,” he stressed.
Will Hinton, GCHS Class of 1975, called Smoak “one of a kind.”
“He was tough, but he was fair,” said Hinton, now retired and living in Louisburg where he taught art for 40 years at Louisburg Junior College.
“Coach Smoak taught me a lot about life, to include how to live in the moment,” Hinton recalled. “I feel so blessed to have come along at a time when I had men like Ethwell Perry, our principal, Willie Williams, a great man and a great teacher, and coach Smoak as our mentors. None of them played favorites. They established structure in our lives and expected us to follow that structure.”
As an offensive and defensive lineman in high school, Hinton recalled coach Smoak always scheduling larger schools to complete against non-conference.
“That made us tougher and had us prepared to play when we got to the conference level,” he noted.
Upon graduating from GCHS, Hinton landed a football scholarship and an art scholarship to what was then Chowan College.
“At 5-foot, 10 inches and weighing 220 pounds, I knew my future wasn’t going to be in pro football, so I decided to concentrate on art and do what coach Smoak taught me…to live in the moment,” Hinton said. “I went on and got a degree in Fine Art from ECU and then went to graduate school in upstate New York.”
Devane Harvey, who now lives in Selma and works with UPS in Raleigh, graduated from Gates County in 1992. He was on the 1990 Red Barons team, the last year that Smoak coached at GCHS.
“My older brother, Spencer, also played for coach Smoak. I remember hanging around with the team back in the mid-to-late 80’s, so I got my in indoctrination then about the discipline it took to play for coach Smoak,” Harvey stated.
“He was an old school coach,” Harvey continued. “I was going to quit my freshman year, the second day of practicing in pads, but the guys talked me out of it. The next thing I know, coach Smoak started working me out at quarterback. He saw something in me and was looking to prepare me for the future of the program.”
Even though Smoak departed prior to Harvey’s graduation, the coach’s influence helped pave the way for the young player to develop, which eventually landed him a scholarship to play football at Catawba College, where he was a four-year defensive starter.
Harvey then played professionally for two teams in the Arena Football League.
“Coach Smoak laid the groundwork for that, teaching and emphasizing over and over the fundamentals of the game. He was a real technician of the game.”
Elton Winslow, retired from Gates County Schools and now the mayor of Gatesville, joined Smoak’s coaching staff in 1973 as an assistant. The two stayed together for nearly 20 years.
“He was a hands-on coach. In practice he would line the players up and tell them the job they had to do. There’s were no x’s and o’s, nothing drawn out on paper; the entire game plan was in his head,” Winslow recalled. “But he had a knack of judging skill levels and he would put the right players in the right places.”
Winslow added that Smoak wasn’t a “rah-rah” type of coach.
“Do your job, that’s all he expected of his players, and your reward was not having him to chew you out for messing up a play,” he stressed.
“I enjoyed working with Pete; he was a lot of fun had a great sense of humor. I learned a lot from him. They don’t make coaches like Pete Smoak anymore,” Winslow concluded.
Funeral services for coach Smoak are pending.
Contributions in his memory may be made to The Boys and Girls Clubs of America or the Gates County High School Athletic Booster Club.