Jim Smelcher cleared path for Johnny Majors

Former Bearden High School football coach Jim Smelcher poses for a portrait above the football field at Bearden High School on Friday, July 1, 2011. He coached at BHS from 1964 to 1973. Smelcher will be inducted into the Greater Knoxville Sports Hall of Fame on July 28.

Photo by Amy Smotherman Burgess

Former Bearden High School football coach Jim Smelcher poses for a portrait above the football field at Bearden High School on Friday, July 1, 2011. He coached at BHS from 1964 to 1973. Smelcher will be inducted into the Greater Knoxville Sports Hall of Fame on July 28.

Jim Smelcher

Jim Smelcher

The most basic element in athletics is the primal desire to compete.

As much as any of the Greater Knoxville Sports Hall of Fame inductees, former Tennessee lineman and Bearden High School coach Jim Smelcher embodies that characteristic.

There will be 10 new Hall of Fame members inducted on July 28 at the Knoxville Convention Center. Tennessee basketball legend Bernard King will be the featured speaker at the banquet, which raises money to support the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Tennessee Valley.

Smelcher, 76, earned all-state honors in basketball and football at Lake City High School before earning a football scholarship to play football for coach Bowden Wyatt at Tennessee from 1954-57.

At 180 pounds, Smelcher was known as the "Smallest Tackle" in the SEC, playing offensive tackle in addition to doubling as a defensive guard for the Vols.

What Smelcher lacked in size, he more than made up for in his determination, according to his former UT teammate and fellow GKSHOF member Lon Herzburn.

"When I played and coached, I treated it like it was war, and Jim was the guy you wanted next to you on every play,'' said Herzburn, who after his playing career and a high school coaching stint at Fulton initiated Tennessee's weight program in 1969 and coached the Vols' linebackers from 1969-76.

"Jim might have been the smallest tackle in the SEC, but it's hard to lose if you won't let someone beat you, and he had that same competitive spirit even when he was coaching.''

Former Tennessee coach Johnny Majors, who made his run at the Heisman Trophy with Herzburn and Smelcher blocking for him, said Smelcher's induction to the GKSHOF is only appropriate.

"Jim has outstanding character, a big heart and he's very intelligent,'' Majors said. "I remember nobody would mess with Jim on the football field; I don't ever remember him looking for a fight, but there was no one looking for a fight with him, for sure.''

Smelcher said he approached football with discipline and respect, and he insisted his players do the same when he became a high school coach.

"The most important thing a coach needs to do, is you've got to sell the kids on what you're doing,'' Smelcher said.

"I would say if you talked to any of the kids I coached, they would say I was a tough disciplinarian. I simply believed there were things we had to do to win.''

Smelcher chuckled and added that not all of those things might have made sense at the time, such as Bearden's uniform inspections on Thursdays.

"We wanted them to come to the Thursday (walk-through) practice with clean uniforms, clean socks, and polish on their shoes, so they could look like players,'' Smelcher said.

"We had a couple of incidents where we didn't let kids play because they didn't shine their shoes.

"Kids would always come back to me later and say, 'Coach, you were right, you need to look like a player and act like a player before you can really be a player.' "

Smelcher led Richmond Academy in Augusta, Ga., to state title game appearances in 1960 and 1961, and after two years of coaching at Franklin High School, he went on to coach Bearden High School from 1964-1974, winning Coach of the Year honors in 1966.

"The thing Coach Smelcher brought to Bearden was winning football, which it had never really had before,'' said Dr. John Staley, who played quarterback for the Bulldogs from 1967-70. "He was a very inspirational coach who gave a lot of motivational speeches that inspired success.

"Our practices were so tough and demanding, that come game time we were in as good as shape as anyone; Coach Smelcher brought a physicalness, and nobody was going to out-hit us,'' Staley said. "Coach was way ahead of his time with organizational skills, discipline, preparation and his ability to instill a winning spirit.''

Staley said evidence of Smelcher's ability to instill discipline and preparedness was that Bearden didn't lose a fumble running the option over a two-year span.

Smelcher, who owns and operates his own insurance business, was inducted into the Anderson County Hall of Fame in 2009 and in 2010, Bearden named its $700,000 state-of-the-art football fieldhouse after him.

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Comments » 5

pingkr62 writes:

Another excellent example of a Vol for Life candidate.

tensie2004 writes:

Now that is what I call A Vol For Life. Congrats Coach Smelcher, the Big Orange Nation is proud of you.

gillblog writes:

Dr. Staley was a fairly small qb even for those days and their success with a player of that size running an option offense is another point of testement to Smelcher's coaching.
But, damn, when little John Staley was easily hitting 20 and 30 ft jump shots as West Hills' point guard, you could see this guy was a gifted athlete !
(West Haven was to Dr. Staley as UF was to Peyton...for some reason he never could beat those guys)

voloffaith writes:

Ah yes my Alma mater's beloved coach....Jack Stroud and many others...Rocky Goode SEC referee as RB there. Coach was tough alright...

bluevols#618409 writes:

General Neyland recruited Jim Smelcher out of Lake City,"because he liked to fight". Smelcher's coaching style emulated Neyland and Wyatt (without the single wing).His Bearden players were fortunate to learn and benefit from his rich Tennesse football experience and the legacy of General Neyland.

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