When Lew Smiley announced his retirement recently as head coach of the Grand Rapids/Greenway (GRG) girls tennis team, it signaled the end an era for tennis in this area.
Smiley has been a mainstay on the tennis scene for more than four decades and has coached a number of athletes and teams who competed in state tournament action. He said he felt the time was right to retire as coach of the Lightning.
Smiley’s wife, Karen, started the girls tennis program at Greenway in 1974, and coached there for five years before turning over the coaching reins to husband Lew in 1979. He was at the helm ever since.
“It was a hard decision because the girls are great,” said Smiley, 70. “I have been doing it for so many years and I really enjoy it, but I have a knee replacement in a few weeks and as you get older it gets harder. My wife and I want to do some traveling and there never really is a good time. It just seems like it was the time. I will miss the girls and coaching with Chris Granley.”
Throughout his long coaching career, Smiley was not just a tennis coach although it was his predominant sport. Besides coaching the GRG girls team, he coached the boys tennis team for many years . He also coached the tennis programs for Itasca Community College when they were operating. He was a junior high football coach for seven years and also coached junior high basketball for 3 years and was the girls basketball coach at Hill City for one season.
In addition, Smiley – who played hockey at Dartmouth College – coached for five years in the Greenway boys varsity hockey program as an assistant to Paul Rygh, and he and David Troumbly were instrumental in getting the girls hockey program started at Greenway.
Smiley said when he graduated from high school, he was really into baseball, hockey and football, but he got a job working at a tennis center at a country club when he was 17, and he said he fell in love with the sport of tennis. He said he learned so much about the game by picking the brains of and playing with the head pro Frank Voigt, a doubles runner up at the US Pro Championships, and Dave Stearns, captain of the University of Minnesota tennis team. He said he enjoyed tennis so much then because it was so athletic and a great complement to his team sports. It has since become a lifelong passion.
“I loved coaching in everything I did, football, hockey, basketball, tennis, all the sports I have done at different times,” he said.
One highlight of his career was having the opportunity to coach son Perry and daughter Kara, both exceptional high school athletes. Kara earned a berth in the state meet all six years she was a member of the Greenway tennis team. While she never claimed a state individual championship, she placed third at state in three seasons.
“I just enjoyed coaching all the kids,” Smiley said. “We had some great players throughout the years. We were always competitive, and we went to state several times. It got tougher in the last few years because we had to play Elk River, Duluth East and Princeton, programs that are really tough.”
Asked what highlights stick out in his mind of his coaching career, he recalled the first time Greenway went to state in 1980 and what a thrill that was. Then several years later the Raiders went to state three years in a row 1996-1998. A couple years later with seventh and eighth graders filling the spots, Greenway struggled and won just one meet.
“The parents all thought I was going to retire, and I had thought about it, but we had a nice group of girls and they needed some work,” Smiley said. “I stayed on and that group of kids that won one game when they were seventh and eighth graders; four years later they went to state. The same girls went from the bottom of the barrel to the top. I guess that is about as good a memory as you can get.”
In 2007, Greenway and Grand Rapids combined girls tennis. Smiley recalls, “At first I was worried how two such bitter rivals would work out together as one team. It was touch-and-go for awhile, but by the end of the season they were all good friends who loved to root against each other at Greenway versus Grand Rapids sporting events but really supported their teammates at their tennis matches. To top things off, Emily Erickson from Greenway and Sara Stejskal of Grand Rapids won a berth to the state tournament representing GRG tennis. “