OPINION: Frank Smith is already a member of the UBC Sports Hall of Fame and the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame. On Friday he was inducted into the Canadian Hall as, appropriately, a builder.When he was a hotshot quarterback with the Meralomas a lifetime ago, Danny Smith was recruited by both Simon Fraser and UBC.In the mid-’70s this wasn’t much of a choice. More to the point, it was like being recruited by Amazon and Toys ‘R Us. Simon Fraser, which was playing against American schools in the NAIA, routinely attracted the best players in the province.UBC was coming off a winless season and had spent 1½ decades as the punching bag for university teams in Western Canada.
Frank Smith, former UBC football coach.
Ian Lindsay /
Still, Smith saw something in the new coach the Thunderbirds had just hired. In their visits, Frank Smith, the coach, convinced Danny Smith, the 20-year-old player, that he had a vision for the program, that things were going to change at UBC and he was going to be the instrument of that change.“I had friends at Simon Fraser asking me, ‘What are you doing?’” Smith, now 66, says from his home in Nanoose Bay. “I just thought he was going to build a winner and I wanted to be a part of something from the ground up.”Four years later, the Thunderbirds played for the Vanier Cup with Danny Smith starring at quarterback.“That was the thing about Frank,” Danny Smith says. “His guys would do anything for him because they wanted to win. They wanted to be part of something big.”They got all that and more when they signed up to play for Frank Smith.
Frank Smith with wife Diane at the BC Lions’ Orange March 1, 2008.
Friday night in Hamilton, the godfather of UBC football was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame and if you just looked at his record at the Point Grey campus, it’s easy to understand why.In 21 seasons as the Thunderbirds’ head coach, he won two national championships, made the final on two other occasions, won five Canada West titles and compiled a 126-90-4 record which included a 22-game winning streak. He also sent 47 players to the CFL.But wins and losses are how you measure the success of a coach. The success of the man is measured by the lives he influenced, by the young men he helped shape, and the lessons he imparted.Frank Smith won a lot of football games. His real legacy lies in his players.
UBC Thunderbirds football coach Frank Smith circa 1983.
Brian Kent /
“He was tough on you at times,” says Bob Marjanovich, the B.C. Lions’ play-by-play man who played three years under Smith’s steely gaze and coached with him for another four. “You didn’t realize it then but he was preparing you for a lot more than football. Looking back, it was amazing.”And Frank Smith finds himself looking back these days.“I see these guys now and see how well they’ve done professionally and with their families,” the 87-year-old Smith says over the phone. “We got the right guys but I don’t know if I influenced a lot of lives. It was in them and they made it all so worthwhile.”Frank Smith came to believe the power of the gridiron at an early age. Growing up tough in Maple Ridge, he found the game at Vancouver College as a teenager, played for the junior Meralomas team and eventually found his way to the CFL where he spent three seasons as an enthusiastic backup, most notably with the Edmonton Eskimos’ 54 Grey Cup team.He was standing on the sidelines when Jackie Parker returned Chuck Hunsinger’s infamous fumble for the game-winning touchdown.“That’s where I usually was,” he says. “Standing on the sidelines.”NEXT GAMESaturdayB.C. Lions vs. Hamilton Tiger-Cats4 p.m., Tim Hortons Field, TV: TSN; Radio: TSN 1040 AMIn 1956 he was cut by the Lions before starting the football program at Notre Dame with the late Cal Murphy. College stints in Washington and Montana followed before Smith returned to Vancouver where he coached full time at West Van’s Sentinel Secondary and with the Thunderbirds part time.He was offered the head job at UBC for the 1974 season.“There weren’t a lot of coaches jumping to take over UBC at that point,” says Kevin Konar, the former Lion who played four seasons under Smith in the late ’70s.But Smith was a man with a plan.Frank Smith might have been an old-school coach but he understood the modern passing game and, in Danny Smith, he found the perfect centrepiece for his program. Four years after the Smith boys arrived, UBC played in the Vanier Cup where they lost to Queen’s.The larger development, however, took place later that year when the Thunderbirds beat a stacked Clansmen team in a revival of the Shrum Bowl. That win, before 15,000 fans at Empire Stadium, announced the arrival of the Thunderbirds not only to the province but, more importantly, to the province’s best players.“That win made the program,” said Danny Smith. “Frank was the best recruiter I ever saw anyway. But it just took off after that.”Smith, in fact, was many things as a coach and most of his defining qualities weren’t easy on his players.“When I got to the Lions, Vic Rapp was the head coach and everyone said he was a tough guy,” said Konar. “I just thought, ‘I’m prepared for this.’ I didn’t think Vic was too bad after Frank.”But Smith was always prepared and that’s what set him apart. Danny Smith talks about watching film in the ’70s and the coach would break down every player on every school in excruciating detail.“Do you know how hard that was back then?” the old quarterback says.Over the years, the wins piled up as the reputation grew. Smith’s son Casey joined his staff in the early ’90s. The younger Smith also played for the Meralomas and his dad at UBC and one day the old coach confided to Danny Smith: “We’ve had our challenges but you never give up on your kid.”In ’95, Frank Smith was pushed out of his job by UBC administrators. He was succeeded by his son who led the Thunderbirds to a championship in the ’97 Vanier Cup.It was the last game Casey Smith ever coached. He died in November of ’98, a victim of cancer.“It was hard on both of them,” Danny Smith says. “Frank wasn’t ready to go and it was Casey’s dream job.”He continued: “Casey was Frank with one difference. He could really relate to people. Casey would have been as good or better than his father. The program suffered for 10 years after Casey died. You had 21 years of Frank and three years of Frank, the second. All of a sudden there was a vacuum.”Frank would go on to coach with the Lions and the Saskatchewan Roughriders before retiring. He’s already a member of the UBC Sports Hall of Fame and the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame. On Friday he was inducted into the Canadian Hall as, appropriately, a builder along with former Lions’ receivers Mervyn Fernandez and David Williams, former Argo receiver Terry Greer, the late Ernie Pitts, Jon Cornish and former Roughrider president Jim Hopson.Frank Smith is scheduled for a sideline interview on the TSN broadcast of Saturday’s Lions-Ticats’ tilt. He’s thought a lot about what he wants to say in his allotted time.“I hope I get a moment to talk about my boy,” he said. “He was a great guy and everyone loved him.”“I look at (Frank) now and he’s a softy,” says Konar. “But before he arrived no one gave UBC much credit for anything. It’s amazing what you can do with a good coach.”And what a great coach can do for email@example.comTwitter.com/willesonsportsCLICK HERE to report a typo.Is there more to this story? We’d like to hear from you about this or any other stories you think we should know about. Email firstname.lastname@example.org