Over three decades ago Frankie Smith joined the coaching staff at Tug Valley High School. Originally joining the program to assist then head coach Kent Hoke, Smith would go on to lead the Panthers to their first state title and leave a lasting influence on the program.
“Tug Valley will always be home,” said Smith. “It will always mean a lot to me, and I am proud of what we accomplished while I was there.”
Smith was added to the Panther staff in 1989 but became head coach just a few years later. The Panthers were already a solid program. Unfortunately, they were also in the same sectional as the powerful Williamson Wolfpack. Heading into the 1994 sectional championship at Tug Valley, Williamson had qualified for nine straight state tournaments, winning three Class AA state titles during that time frame. Williamson was heavy favorites in that game, but in front of a wild home crowd, the Panthers battled tooth and nail.
Still, trailing by double digits in the fourth quarter, it appeared that the Wolfpack was about to take home yet another sectional crown. But the Panthers would not be denied as Mike Elkins, Kevin Parsley, Wally Preece, Billy Jack Parsley and crew led Tug Valley back. Preece hit two foul shots with 0:07 left on the clock to give the Panthers a 71-70 win.
“I feel like once we got over that hump it opened up the flood gates,” said Smith. “Everyone could see the results and really started buying into what we were doing.”
One of Smith’s former players Randy Lackey said that his former coach shaped Tug Valley’s basketball identity.
“Coach Smith brought Pitino ball to TVHS,” said Lackey. “And by that I mean we were going to get up and down the court. Press and shoot threes. It was a departure from the previous coaching mentality, but through Frankie and Don Spence’s leadership, they defined a style of basketball that is still demanded at TVHS today 31 years later.”
The Panthers finally reached their first state tournament in 1997, but their opening round opponent was top-ranked Weir. Smith had his team playing man-to-man defense all year but didn’t think that would work against Weir.
“When I looked at Weir, they were so good off the dribble but not a great shooting team,” said Smith. “We decided to play a 1-2-2 zone and was able to make them take a few more outside shots. We were able to take it to overtime and then pull out the win.”
Tug Valley had pulled off a shocker behind players like Jason Ward, Roger Davis and Greg Davis. However, the Panthers fell in the semifinal round to Bluefield.
In 1998, the Panthers had a strong team and possibly had the second strongest team in Class AA. However, they fell to a power Tolsia Rebel squad in the regional finals. Tolsia would obliterate the state tournament field, leaving many to wonder if the two best teams in Class AA played each other before the state tournament. Still, the next season would give Tug Valley its most exciting season of basketball ever up to that point.
Tug Valley took that big leap in 1999. The Panthers only lost two games in the regular and picked up a signature win over then Nationally ranked Beckley Woodrow Wilson. Tug Valley found its way back to Charleston and dispatched of Tucker County before facing the undefeated Richwood Lumberjacks featuring West Virginia University recruit Jay Hewitt.
“I remember seeing some kids from Richwood on that Thursday before our game on Friday,” recalled Smith. “They were wearing shirts mentioning their undefeated season. I thought, ‘Well, it isn’t really an undefeated season until you win a state championship.'”
After a close first half, Smith’s Panthers blew Richwood off the floor in the Charleston Civic Center, setting up a showdown with Bluefield for the Class AA state championship.
Bluefield jumped on Tug Valley early and held a 35-25 lead at the intermission. Behind Greg Davis, Kyle Gillman, Dennis Ooten, Timmy Slone and Patrick Preece, the Panthers started mounting a second half comeback. The Panther defense started taking over, forcing turnover after turnover and chipped into Bluefield’s lead. Tug Valley held Bluefield to only four points in the third quarter to cut the lead to 39-37. Tug Valley was able to pull it out in the final frame, capturing a 65-61 win and setting off a party in Naugatuck.
“Basketball is a team sport,” said Smith. “That team had such great chemistry. Everyone knew their role and played well together.”
Smith then took a position as an assistant coach at Miami (Ohio) under legendary head coach Charlie Coles. Coles retired as the all-time wins leader in the Mid-American Conference.
He remained there until 2007 when he was given the head coaching position at Saginaw Valley State in Saginaw, MI. While there, he was named the 2010 Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. He led SVSU until 2012 when he decided to move back home to be closer with his family.
Sheldon Clark hired Smith, and he led the Cardinals for the next three seasons. Sheldon Clark reached the 15th Region Championship game his first and third seasons, losing to Johnson Central both times.
Smith moved on to Christian County next and won the 2nd Region championship in 2016 but fell in a close opening round game of the Sweet 16.
Smith took the job at Bell County until 2019 before heading to Florida to coach Ridge Community High School. He went 18-9 and 15-5 in his two seasons at Ridge Community High School before taking an administrative position.
While he never wants to say never, Smith is happy with his life now.
“I’ve been coaching on some level for 35 years,” said Smith. “My wife and I actually like each other, so I am enjoying more time at home. I like the life that have here in Florida.”
Photos Courtesy of Michael Browning and Coach Frankie Smith