After receiving the biggest awards of their coaching careers, Jerry Smith and Rex Wilson both acknowledged the athletes that competed for them in the past.
The Kansas Cross-Country and Track and Field Coaches Association named Smith and Wilson assistant coaches of the year Jan. 11, with a combined 94 years of experience shared between the two.
“I’ve been lucky,” Wilson said, turning and pointing to the trophy case at Marion’s sports and aquatics center. “Most all those trophies up there were my teams, so I had some studs.”
Wilson began his coaching career in 1960 at Isabel High School after graduating from college at Fort Hays State. He coached basketball, track, and baseball, which was a fall sport in place of football at the time.
In his first year coaching basketball, the team started four freshmen and one sophomore. They won three games that year, all against the same team.
“I’ll never forget that experience,” he said. “I learned an awful lot about myself and the sport of basketball. After a couple of years of that I said you could have your basketball.”
Four years later, Wilson began coaching at Marion. He spent time as the head track and cross-country coach, and now serves as an assistant, coaching throwing events.
He said he chose to continue coaching at Marion the last couple of decades because of the coaches he has been able to work with.
“Jerry Smith came here as the head coach, and Grant (Thierolf), both those guys believe in the sport,” he said. “They both work their tails off to try to put the program together, and that’s what it’s all about.”
Smith, who has coached football and track at Marion for 25 years now, said his athletes’ work ethic makes coaching fun.
“Track is different,” he said. “You’ve got to want to be there. If you don’t, it’s a lot of hard work running around that track and getting in shape.”
Smith coached for several years in both Courtland and Pawnee Heights before coming to Marion as the head track coach. He now coaches pole-vaulters, recruiting new athletes when he substitute-teaches at the middle school.
“When I’m doing pole-vault, it seems like those kids would stay there all night if I let them,” he said.
Shawna Johnson, a former Marion pole-vaulter, said Smith was like a father figure for her and the other vaulters. She placed second in the state track meet in 2000, and third in 2001.
“More than anything, his passion and dedication made you want to be the best you could for him,” she said. “I’d definitely say my times with coach Smith were some of the most memorable of my high school career.”
Smith said the biggest lesson he learned over 40 years of coaching was persevering through highs and lows.
“Be cool,” he said. “A lot of my vaulters get a little upset with me early in the season because they’re not going as high as everyone else or they’re not progressing like they want to, but by the end of the year when it comes time for league, regional and state, we’re doing our best jumping.”
Smith said he continued coaching because he enjoyed working with the student-athletes, a sentiment shared by Wilson.
“I’ve thought quite a bit about the fact that it’s a privilege to work with kids that want to be good, and that makes it not a job,” Wilson said. “That makes it sheer pleasure when you’ve got kids like I have right now.”