By STEVE KRAH
Ron Smith’s career has taken him away from his hometown.
A 1974 graduate of Elkhart (Ind.) Memorial High School, he played baseball and basketball at Furman (S.C.) University, coached basketball at Miami University-Middletown (Ohio) and Middletown High School and was head baseball coach for 23 years at Furman, resigning after the 2016 season and still resides in the Palmetto State.
“I love South Carolina,” says Smith, who is in both the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame and Elkhart County Sports Hall of Fame. “But Elkhart will always be my home.”
It was as a first grader that Smith began playing baseball at the City With A Heart’s Hawthorne Little League. He lived about two blocks away from Pierre Moran Park, wandered up one day and was on a team the next.
After that came Studebaker Park and Babe Ruth League at Elkhart FOP Park.
“We had good coaches throughout,” says Smith. “It was a great experience.
“I was so fortunate to grow up in Elkhart.”
It was also in elementary school that Smith learned from a coach that at his size he had better develop both hands as a basketball player.
“I really took that to heart,” says Smith, who shined on the court for head coaches Keith Dougherty (Elkhart), Jim Powers (Elkhart Memorial) and Joe Williams (Furman).”
The year before starting at Furman, Williams guided Jacksonville and Artis Gilmore to the NCAA championship game against UCLA.
On the prep diamond, Smith played three years for Dick Siler — one at Elkhart and two at Memorial.
“I took a little bit from all of those people,” says Smith. “Their influence was certainly impactful for me.”
Smith was the starting shortstop in his sophomore season of 1972. Steered Siler, Elkhart won the Elkhart Sectional and South Bend Regional and bowed 3-0 to eventual semistate champion Hammond Morton in the semifinals of the South Bend Semistate.
The following year Elkhart split into two schools.
“I think we would have been a state championship team the next year,” says Smith. “But instead we split. Central and Memorial had two pretty good teams. But they did not have the pitching depth to be really good.”
Smith says he would have loved playing as a teammate of Tom Calhoun instead of trying to fight through a Tom Eastman pick while guarding Calhoun in crosstown Memorial-Central rivalry basketball games.
Beginning with the fall of 2020, athletic teams in Elkhart began playing as one and were called the Lions. The town again has one high school.
“I was very happy to see a united Elkhart,” says Smith, who attended a few Lions football game with great nephew Quinn Rost (Class of 2025) as sophomore quarterback. “It’s really neat.”
Smith is uncle to Jacquie Rost, who is head volleyball coach and an athletic director at Elkhart and married to head baseball coach Scott Rost.
“I’m so proud of her and Scott,” says Smith. “(Class of 2021’s Dylan and Quinn) are the kind of boys I would love to have on my team.
“They are ‘team’ guys.”
Teachers — like Coe Strain — were also helpful to Smith along his journey.
An ardent follower of sports, Mrs. Strain got choir singer Smith involved in drama.
“I was probably the only athlete involved in the first musical,” says Smith. “But my senior year there were five or six.
“I developed an appreciation. The teamwork that is required for a drama production or a musical is very similar to that in the athletic endeavor.
“Everybody has to execute. Everybody has a part to play.”
Smith, a three-year letterwinner in tennis, basketball and baseball, earned the Tim Bringle Memorial Award as Elkhart’s top senior male athlete in 1974.
He was at Furman when he was selected in the ninth round of the 1977 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the Philadelphia Phillies. He spent parts of five seasons in the Phillies system, including five a Triple-A. The first few years he was still playing basketball at Furman during the winter.
After leaving college in his senior year, Smith went to spring training in Clearwater, Fla., with hopes of making the Double-A team in Reading, Pa.
“I had a good spring and felt good about things,” says Smith, who was one of 175 minor leaguers competing for 125 roster slots on five teams. “They called me in and said you really did but we like this Ryne Sandberg. I said, ‘Sandberg can’t make the play in the hole’ — which is true — but they moved him to second base and he had a Hall of Fame career.”
Smith also spent time playing behind future long-time major leaguer Julio Franco while also sitting near the manager when he was not in the game.
“I listened and learned,” says Smith.
When he was released as a player, Smith accepted an offer to manage the Phillies team in Helena, Mont., in 1982.
“I think I was the youngest manager in all of professional baseball,” says Smith.
When a new ownership/front office regime came to Philadelphia, Smith was among those to be let go.
“That was fine,” says Smith. “I was really into coaching basketball.
“I was ready to get out (of baseball).”
Then came the opportunity to possibly coach baseball at Furman.
Smith was enjoying his time at Middletown High when he was having a conversation with a mentor about his situation.
“He said — first of all what does your wife want to do?,” says Smith. “Then think about this: How many (NCAA) Division I baseball programs are there in the country? How many high school basketball jobs are there?”
In 23 seasons, he won 580 games with a Southern Conference championship in 2005.
This at a school with high tuition and far less than the limit of 11.7 scholarships.
“Furman is an expensive school,” says Smith. “It was hard to compete.
“But I feel like we got as much out of our players as anyone. As a coach, you want to see them improve individually. As a team, you want them to have that synergy — that something that allows them to achieve beyond the individual components that they have because of their working together.
“That is the most rewarding thing as a coach.”
Upon taking over the program, Smith had four goals: graduate on time, grow up (develop as a person), get better (improve on the field) and win championships.
“We faithfully stayed with that approach and as a result we had a tremendous graduation rate
anybody who stayed for four years graduated,” says Smith. “I’m so proud of the players that came out of the program — really fine young men, successful family men and good people.”
Ron’s wife — Elizabeth “Beth” Jordan Smith — died Oct. 25, 2021 at 58.
Forty five former players came from all over the country to Greenville to attend Beth Smith’s memorial service.
“It really meant a lot to me,” says Smith, 66. That validated my career in many ways.”
Since his wife’s passing, Smith has been taking some time for himself and has been able to travel and play golf with friends.
For the past three years, Smith has been a color commentator for Clemson (S.C.) University baseball home games shown on video
Smith’s approach is to comment on the game like he’s watching it on TV with a buddy
“It’s a lot of fun,” says Smith.
Not a rookie to broadcasting before the Clemson gig, Smith was a radio color commentator for Furman basketball for six years.
He’s also followed MLB.
“I’m glad they’re going to have a time clock for pitching,” says Smith. “The games have gotten too long.”
While he sees why some teams are based around power, there is more to the game than the three-run bomb.
“I really enjoy some of that small-ball stuff that maybe people don’t appreciate nowadays,” says Smith. “I don’t think there’s a better game than baseball when the ball is in-play. There’s a lot of down time.
“But when the ball is hit, it’s just a perfect game.
If you field it cleanly, the guy is out by a step at first base.
“What’s more exciting than seeing a guy hit a ball in the right-center gap and trying to stretch it into a triple? It’s great.”
In May 2020, Furman announced the elimination of its baseball program.
“It’s in a state of limbo now,” says Smith of Paladins baseball. “The field still intact and still pretty well maintained.
“I’m hoping that in the near future it will be reinstated.”