Retiring Madison basketball coach celebrates 400 wins: ‘There have been emotional moments’

Madison High School boys basketball coach Jeff Smith got off the bus upon returning from a game at Tipp City Bethel to find a note taped to his door.

Smith had just collected his 400th career win as his Mohawks beat Bethel 72-52 on Jan. 28, and former player, 2015 graduate Brad Malott, had beat him back to the school to leave a congratulatory note. Malott wrote about what it had meant to play for Smith and how glad he was to see him reach such an impressive milestone.

Those are the types of things Smith will remember most about his time as a high school basketball coach, the meaningful connections he made with the players he has always tried to make an impact on. Smith will retire from coaching at the end of this season, ending a 32-year career that included 23 seasons at Madison. He plans to teach for three more years.

“There have been emotional moments since then,” Smith said of the night he got win No. 400. “I heard from so many former players that night, and that’s what I’m going to miss the most is the relationship with the players. I heard from so many of them and that made me reflect a lot. Being with the kids, I’m just trying to absorb all of it as it’s winding down — the crowd, the band, the competition, everything that you love about high school basketball.”

Smith began his high school coaching career at Middletown Christian in 1984, back when the Eagles were playing as an independent program. Three years later, they joined the OHSAA and soon enough Smith was guiding the program to its first sectional tournament victory.

In 1989, Smith left to become an assistant at the University of Dayton, but he and his wife, Denise, decided high school basketball was a better fit so after one season with the Flyers, he returned to Middletown Christian, where he remained until 1994 when he left for Madison.

Smith took a brief sabbatical in the middle of his time with the Mohawks to spend more time with his kids but couldn’t stay away for long. This time, he doesn’t plan to return in the same fashion, though he still plans to stay close to the game as a private shooting coach or to run camps.

The 60-year-old coach informed his players of his decision the day prior to that 400th win.

“I knew it started to leak out a little bit, so I wanted to be the one to tell the kids,” Smith said. “I told them it was something I had thought about for a while. I love basketball but it’s time to step aside and look at things differently. There’s just so much work that goes into it. I told them I’m stepping down at the end of the season, and I think they were supportive. I told them we have a lot of ball left to play and we’ve got a lot to play for still. Doing it that way, they were like, ‘OK.’”

Now it seems Madison wants to send Smith out on a high note.

The Mohawks (17-2) won their next two games, including one at Middletown Christian where Smith was recognized on Feb. 1 and a rematch against Preble Shawnee, which handed Madison its last loss on Jan. 10.

The Mohawks remain in position for a third straight Southwestern Buckeye League Buckeye Division title, which they shared last year with Waynesville after winning it outright in 2017-18. If Madison and Waynesville both win Friday – the Mohawks play at Northridge – their meeting Feb. 14 at Madison will be for the title. Both are 8-2 in league play. Madison won the first matchup 77-69 on Dec. 6 and the only other team to beat the Spartans was Northridge.

“We’ll have our hands full this weekend, but if both our teams win Friday it will come down to Madison-Waynesville next Friday night,” Smith said. “The last two years we won back-to-back league championships, which hadn’t happened since the 1970s. We would love to tack on a third one this year.”

These last few years have been especially memorable for Smith, as was the 2010 season when the Mohawks went 24-1 and finished as a regional finalist. Smith believes this group has potential to make a tournament run as well. The tournament draw will take place Sunday.

Madison, led by SWBL top scorer Grant Whisman (25.9 ppg), is 15-0 when the entire starting lineup is healthy.

“I really like this team,” Smith said. “It’s been one of the most fun teams I’ve coached. They bring it, for the most part, every day. They come ready to compete. They enjoy each other and love basketball like I do.”

Smith is grateful to have had a lot of talented, fun-to-coach players over the years. He wouldn’t have his 402 wins without them, and others, and now he hopes they can get a few more together before it’s all done.

“Nobody has success in a vacuum,” Smith said. “I’ve had a lot of good players through the years and my assistants certainly played a big role. And, of course, my wife deserves a lot of credit, too. She’s put up with a lot over the years, and you can’t do this job without a supportive family.”

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