High school football: influential CPS coach and administrator JW Smith dies at 84

JW Smith, who was one of the most successful football coaches in the public league before introducing many innovations as executive director of sports administration, died on Saturday.

He was 84 years old.

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

His teams have won eight Public League titles and two Prep Bowls, and have advanced to the IHSA playoffs six times.

Along the way, he became a close friend of longtime Robeson coach Roy Curry. Their teams developed a heated rivalry which has become a tradition where they played on the first Sunday of each season at Gately Stadium.

Curry recalled their 1982 meeting: “We both 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 temperature in the 90s and humidity over 80%. The teams battled through rule and in several overtime.

“I looked at my children [and thought], ‘I can’t go anymore,’ ”said Curry.

So he met Smith and the midfielder and they agreed to call the game a tie – a move which Curry said led to the coaches receiving criticism from the IHSA.

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

“Everyone loved JW because he was a great communicator,” Curry said.

The two collaborated again at the end of Smith’s career. In 2000, at his wife’s request, Curry retired from coaching and joined Smith’s staff in the CPS Sports Administration.

“It was obvious,” he said. “We have always been close.

Smith retired in 2003 and his accomplishments were recorded in a resolution of the Illinois House of Representatives.

He noted not only Smith’s many contributions to CPS sports, but the rest of his academic and professional resume as well. He received a bachelor’s degree from northern Illinois, a master’s degree in physical education from Indiana, and a doctorate in educational administration from UIC.

JW Smith in 1996.
Sun-Times archive photo

Smith’s tenure as the public league’s sports chief was notable for a number of initiatives aimed at bridging the gap between CPS schools and their Catholic League and their suburban rivals. Among them:

– A primary school program of 14 sports was launched;

– First year and second year student levels have been established;

– The number of paid coaches per school has been doubled;

– Summer sports camps have been launched;

– The conferences have been realigned to offer a better competitive balance;

– The indoor track has been reinstated and lacrosse, golf, water polo and boys’ 16-inch softball have been added;

– A no-pass / no-play policy has been instituted.

In addition to being a teacher at CPS, Smith also served as Principal of Adam Clayton Powell Elementary School.

“He was a firm believer that interschool athletics positively supported the educational process,” said Thomas Smith, one of Smith’s four children, who followed in his footsteps in CPS sports administration.

“It was one thing to help students learn and be successful,” said Thomas Smith. “It wasn’t just sport for sport.”

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

The services are on hold.

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