Spring 1975. The sound of hammers pounding nails into wood echo across the St. Thomas Aquinas campus in Fort Lauderdale.
It was the sound of a program being built.
George Smith was there, hammering nails and pouring concrete into what would become the visiting bleachers at the football stadium.
Thirty-six years later, Smith’s athletic program is an unquestionable success and well-known on a national level.
“This has been a steady – not so much planned – but an attempt by the school, the administrative staff, the teachers, the parents and the players of all sports to get to where we’re at,” Smith, 62, said. “That took a lot of work on everybody’s part. And that took vision.”
On an unceremonious afternoon in the building named after him on campus, Smith announced his retirement as coach Monday.
Smith, who amassed a 361-66 record in 34 seasons at Aquinas and won six state championships and two national titles, will stay on as athletic director. He said the decision to step down had been made “for a while.”
“I just think that now is the time for a smooth transition,” Smith said, wearing his 2008 national championship ring on his right hand. “Any time you’re in a place like this for a lot of years, decisions like this are tough.”
Taking over as football coach will be defensive coordinator Rocco Casullo, who led a squad that allowed just 101 points (6.7 points per game) during a 2010 season that culminated with a state title and ESPN national championship.
Legacy is secure
Smith, who was first hired by St. Thomas in 1972 as wrestling coach, has been elected to the Florida High School Athletic Hall of Fame, Florida Athletic Coaches Hall of Fame and Broward County Sports Bureau Hall of Fame.
In 2008, when the Raiders won their first national championship, he was named USA Today’s National High School Football Coach of the Year.
“This is the George Smith Center for a reason,” Casullo said. “He built this legacy. I owe a lot to him. He’s almost like a second father for me. … In the same respect, I can’t be a George Smith. I never will be George Smith. There’s only one George Smith.”
Smith retired as football coach after St. Thomas won its first state title in 1992, but he returned for the 1995 season.
“Back then it was much different,” Smith said, explaining his 1992 “retirement” compared with this one. “There was much thought going in to getting a degree in administration at the time. … I was 40, whatever the heck. I’m not 40 anymore.”
Smith informed his players of the decision in the school’s gymnasium, and the assembled crowd listened to the news solemnly.
“You don’t expect him to step down like that, but at the end of the day everybody is eventually going to get to the point where they know what they want to do for the rest of their life,” Raiders quarterback Jake Rudock said. “Ending in such a great way as he did, you can’t say enough about that.”
Senior offensive lineman Austin Barron realized that even if Smith isn’t coaching, his presence still will be felt.
“He won’t be coaching, but he’ll be there,” Barron said. “If he’s there or if he’s not there [on the sidelines], he’ll be there in our hearts.”
Dream come true
Casullo remembers growing up in Syracuse with his father as a football coach and reading the national high school polls.
It was there that he first saw St. Thomas Aquinas’ name. Even as a high school student, he thought he would love to coach the Raiders one day.
The 2011 season will be a transition year for the Raiders without Smith at the helm, but that shouldn’t slow their state or national championship aspirations. In about two weeks, St. Thomas is expected to announce a 2011 football schedule that is competitive on a national level.
“What Coach Smith has done is put St. Thomas Aquinas on the national map, so we want to play the best,” Casullo said. “We’ll see how much higher we can go.”