Chuck Smith, former UMSL basketball coach

Chuck Smith, retired UMSL basketball coach, and his 1968-69 team went on to win the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics District Championship. (Photo by Leon Photography)

By JACK CROSBY

Enthusiastic and determined basketball fans shook off the subfreezing air Jan. 18, 2007, as they filed into the Mark Twain Athletic & Fitness Center at the University of Missouri–St. Louis. They came to cheer on men’s and women’s basketball. But this night was special: The crowd also was on hand to pay tribute to Chuck Smith, the founding father of b-ball at UMSL.

Shortly before the men’s game tipped off, a collection of university coaches, administrators and former basketball All-Americans gathered on the court, where the Department of Athletics formally unveiled and named the playing surface for Smith, who in 1966 became the university’s first athletics director and first head coach of the men’s basketball team.

It’s unlikely that any of the people assembled that night on the new Chuck Smith Court were aware of a pivotal fact regarding Smith’s tenure at UMSL: He almost didn’t take the job.

“I turned them down twice,” Smith said in a recent telephone interview. “The dean then asked me to serve as a consultant to the program. Eventually, he made me the athletics director, and I took it.”

Another reason Smith said he accepted the job was the building in which the court dedication took place. The Mark Twain center opened in 1971 as the Multipurpose Building. Built at a cost of $3.5 million, the complex houses equipment, classrooms and offices for intercollegiate athletics, physical education programs, intramural athletics and recreational activities.

The building’s centerpiece is the 4,736-seat basketball arena. The first game was played there on Dec. 6, 1971, when a capacity crowd saw UMSL defeat the Razorbacks of the University of Arkansas, an NCAA Division I team, by the score of 85 to 79.

Chuck Smith, former UMSL basketball coach

Chuck Smith stands inside the Mark Twain Athletic & Fitness Center on the playing surface that was named for him in January 2007. Chuck Smith Court is now home to UMSL basketball. (Photo by August Jennewein)

But the building existed in mind only when Smith joined the university. In fact, the men’s basketball team was nothing more than a concept at the time. That’s when the Bellerive Country Club, which previously owned the land where UMSL was built, came in handy.

“They had a club team (at Bellerive),” Smith said. “They played the local junior colleges, Sanford-Brown, those kinds of teams. So they made up the bulk of the team, and I only had to recruit three players, all of whom started.”

Recruiting got even easier, once the plans for the center were finalized.

“Well, that’s what attracted me,” Smith said. “Of course, we had to coach five years before moving into the building, but it was a great recruiting tool. Just showing a mockup of the Multipurpose Building was a big help in recruiting players.”

The 1971-72 team, in addition to their season-opening victory against Arkansas, amassed 21 wins (and only five losses) and earned an invitation to the NCAA tournament.

“I really enjoyed the fellows on that team,” Smith said. “They were just outstanding people.”

Smith went on to coach UMSL for 13 years, compiling a 171-143 career record. He remained athletics director for another 13 years, retiring in 1992.

Smith began coaching at high schools in Leadwood, Mo., and Bonne Terre, Mo., before moving back to the St. Louis area, where he coached basketball and baseball at Parkway Central High School.

From there, he landed the head-coaching job at his alma mater, Washington University in St. Louis. Smith and his WU teams enjoyed success, going to the NCAA tournament three times in six years. In the 1964-65 tournament, they faced Southern Illinois University Carbondale, whose star was Walt “Clyde” Frazier. He was drafted by the New York Knicks and went on to become a Hall of Famer.

“We had the lead at halftime,” Smith said. “But Frazier came out hot in the second half and beat us up pretty good.”

Smith spent a year as the basketball coach at the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg before he was persuaded to accept the UMSL post in the fall of 1966.

“My former dean at Wash U came over to UMSL,” Smith said. “He was one of a group of people who were responsible for getting the athletics program going. My first boss was Harold Eickhoff, dean of students.”

With no facility of their own, the UMSL team lived something of a vagabond existence.

“We practiced at Normandy Junior High,” Smith said. “The court was 10 feet short of regulation size, but they let us install the square glass backboards we needed to practice on.”

At the court dedication in January, Jack Stenner, a former UMSL star athlete who played on Smith’s early barnstorming squads, described what the program’s beginning was like.

“The old (Bellerive) clubhouse was serving as the administration building in those days,” said Stenner, who was named the university’s first All-American in 1969. “Games were played all over the place, Normandy Senior High, Florissant Valley, Concordia Seminary, even the old Arena and Kiel Auditorium. I can’t think of a better exclamation point to his career than to have this court dedicated in coach Smith’s honor.”

Visit http://www.umsltritons.com/ for more information on the UMSL Department of Athletics and its history.


This story was originally published in the spring 2007 issue of UMSL Magazine.

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