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J.W. Smith, one of Chicago’s great high school football coaches and an innovative CPS sports administrator, dies at 84

J.W. Smith, who was one of the Public League’s most successful football coaches before introducing numerous innovations as its executive director of sports administration, died on Saturday.

J.W. Smith with some of the standouts on his Julian football team in 1989.
J.W. Smith with some of the standouts on his Julian football team in 1989.
Sun-Times file photo

J.W. Smith, who was one of the Public League’s most successful football coaches before introducing numerous innovations as its executive director of sports administration, died on Saturday.

He was 84.

Smith began a 40-year career in Chicago Public Schools in 1963, serving as an assistant football coach at Harlan and Kenwood before taking over as head coach at Julian.

His teams won eight Public League titles and two Prep Bowls, and qualified for the IHSA playoffs six times.

Along the way, he became close friends with longtime Robeson coach Roy Curry. Their teams developed a spirited rivalry that grew into a tradition where they played the first Sunday of each season at Gately Stadium.

Curry recalled their 1982 meeting: “Both of us had great teams. I had the team that finished second in the state [in Class 5A], he had the team that won the [Public League] championship.”

It was a sweltering afternoon, with a temperature in the 90s and humidity above 80%. The teams battled through regulation and into multiple overtimes.

“I looked at my kids [and thought], ‘I can’t go no more,’” Curry said.

So he met Smith and midfield and they agreed to call the game a tie — a decision which Curry said led to the coaches getting some flak from the IHSA.

But Curry still thinks it was the right call, and he thinks it says a lot about Smith.

“Everybody loved J.W. because he was a great communicator,” Curry said.

The two collaborated again late in Smith’s career. In 2000, at the urging of his wife, Curry retired from coaching and joined Smith’s staff at CPS sports administration.

“It was a no-brainer,” he said. “We always were close.”

Smith retired in 2003 and his achievements were recounted in an Illinois House of Representatives resolution.

It noted not just Smith’s many contributions to CPS sports, but also the rest of his academic and other professional resume. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Northern Illinois, a master’s in physical education from Indiana and a doctorate in education administration from UIC.

J.W. Smith in 1996.
J.W. Smith in 1996.
Sun-Times file photo

Smith’s tenure as the Public League’s sports chief was notable for a number of initiatives that sought to close the gap between CPS schools and their Catholic League and suburban rivals. Among them:

- An elementary school program of 14 sports was launched;

- Freshman and sophomore levels were established;

- The number of paid coaches per school was doubled;

- Summer sports camps were launched;

- Conferences were realigned to provide better competitive balance;

- Indoor track was reinstated, and lacrosse, golf, water polo and boys 16-inch softball were added;

- A no-pass/no-play policy was instituted.

Besides serving as a teacher in CPS, Smith also had a stint as principal at Adam Clayton Powell Elementary.

“He strongly believed that interscholastic athletics positively supported the educational process,” said Thomas Smith, one of Smith’s four children, who followed his footsteps into CPS sports administration.

“It was a thing to help students learn and succeed,” Thomas Smith said. “It wasn’t just sports for sports’ sake.”

J.W. Smith’s survivors also include his wife, Deborah; and daughters Ginger Bryant, Sheila Morris and Kelli Smith.

Services are pending.