High school basketball: A look back on the legacy of Simeon basketball coach Robert Smith

Those who are close to Robert Smith knew this day was coming sooner than later.

The conversations with him over the past few years led you to believe he was taking it year by year. And since the conclusion of the 2021-22 season, another one ending with Simeon winning a state trophy, the retirement thoughts intensified.

I personally remember several talks with Smith over the past year or two where he would openly discuss how he personally found other interests, outside of basketball, during the down time of Covid.

More family time was at the forefront, including being able to watch his youngest, Rob, Jr., play more. But it was just a comfort level he had started to feel in knowing he would be fine if he wasn’t coaching the most iconic basketball program in state history.

It was during Covid that he learned and realized he could move on from coaching, that he wouldn’t miss it as much as he thought.

Smith announced his retirement Thursday. He will coach one more season — a loaded team that is expected to contend for a state championship in 2023– and call it a career.

But with a legendary coach like Smith, it’s so much more than the immediate retirement or why he’s calling it a career. It’s more than what is to come this season and where Simeon goes from here.

This retirement is about all that Smith has meant to the sport and, specifically, Public League basketball.

When rival coach and now friend Tyrone Slaughter of Young heard the news, he didn’t hesitate in making a bold statement.

“More than anything, when the history of high school basketball and basketball in the city is written, Rob Smith will be considered the GOAT,” said Slaughter. “And that’s not even because of all the wins and titles which are obvious. But he took over for a legendary coach [Bob Hambric] and not only sustained the success but clearly surpassed it.”

The accolades are endless and the resume is, quite honestly, unlike any other in high school basketball when it comes to state championships and appearances, along with the individual talent he’s produced.

We’re talking six state championships and four other top four finishes at state that earned state trophies. How about 480 wins and just 92 losses and likely another 25-plus victories coming next year?

He’s coached, mentored and developed dozens and dozens of Division I players, including two of the biggest in state history: Derrick Rose and Jabari Parker.

Simeon coach Robert Smith carries the state championship trophy at a pep rally in 2011.

Sun-Times file photo

But more than what’s on paper or in the record books or who he’s coached, Smith has earned a level of respect from everyone in the sport that so few are truly able to earn. Whether it was colleagues in the coaching business, including high school coaches who were beaten by him or college coaches recruiting his players, the respect was palpable.

More than that, he was respected and liked. That’s a rare combination.

I am one who has had the distinct privilege to be up close and personal with Smith and the inner workings of a program that few truly understand. He was always pretty private. But if you earned the trust of Smith — and it would take time for the few who did, especially in the early years of his coaching career — he would let you in. And I’m sure glad he did.

Smith evolved so much over the years. He made adjustments when needed, changing stylistically at times to even how he managed different rosters.

He instilled discipline with his players and in how they played. Simeon carries themselves the right way. No matter the star or the team, there were never big numbers thrown up at Simeon by individual players. And they generally always played with such pride. Playing for Smith and Simeon absolutely means something to the players in this program, both present and past.

The Wolverines play unselfishly and disciplined, thanks to Smith’s ideals and values of what team basketball should look like. Simeon was always a great reminder that keeping it simple and structured can lead to high-level success.

All the wins, success and talent at Simeon would often mask the substance that was there — as a coach and as a program. As a result, his basketball acumen and work ethic often went unnoticed.

Then there are the many untold stories of how he nurtured players. He looks after so many, both the high-profile ones and those looking for a small college opportunity. As a father-figure coach, he is stern while offering endless support and instilling confidence when needed. He is loyal and sincere. That resonated with his players and assistant coaches.

And while he won — and won bigger than anyone — he never, ever was full of himself or took himself too seriously. All those massive wins on big stages? He is always so stoic.

There wasn’t any fake or forced bravado. Heck, there is hardly any bravado at all from a coach who could have shown a lot of it.

Smith was always handing out compliments to the very few teams that did manage to beat his and to players that deserved it. Did you hear his praise of Glenbard West over the past 12 months? Smith would always provide perspective after losses.

It’s not very normal for such a high-profile program and its coach to be so revered. But that was Simeon. Just ask the fine people of Pontiac how much they appreciate their “adopted” program each December at the prestigious holiday tournament.

Slaughter, who says he and Smith were once “vicious adversaries” but became close friends over the years, saw the class he oozed.

“Rob carried himself with the highest level of professionalism and had the highest level of respect from so many different people,” said Slaughter.

We all have one more year to enjoy it and to celebrate the most successful high school coach in state history.

“I’m sure Simeon will hire a quality replacement,” said Slaugher. “But there is going to be a huge void in our sport, a huge void in city and high school basketball.”

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