If ever there was ever a coach who is associated with his hometown and school, it’s former Mulberry High School boys basketball coach Collins Smith.
Smith was born and raised in Mulberry, attending Union Academy because it was before integration.
The fiery and sometimes volatile Smith first was an assistant football coach when he arrived at Mulberry High in 1969, then became head basketball coach in 1972, remaining there as head coach and until 2002-03 season. He won numerous district titles, took the 1989-90 squad to the state tournament, finishing as state runner-up. He nearly took the ’98-’99 squad to state, but the Panthers lost a heartbreaker to Tampa Catholic 53-51 in the regional final.
So it’s understandable that when Chris Jesse returned as head coach two years ago, he thought a long overdue honor for Smith needed to be addressed. Jesse began the effort to get the gym named after Smith, and it received final approval from the Polk County School Board on Tuesday night to make it official.
In the final regular-season home game on Wednesday, there was a ceremony naming the Mulberry gym the Collins Smith Gymnasium.
“I was totally shocked,” said Smith, who was inducted into the Polk County Sports Hall of Fame in 2015. “I was excited. You start out (a career) just doing a job you enjoy.”
And it’s hard to imagine anyone who enjoyed what they were doing more than Smith.
When he stepped down as head coach, he stayed away for a couple of years.
“When you do something you enjoy for 34 years, you don’t right away get over it,” he said.
But Smith never really went away. He returned to coach JV and assist Jesse for a couple of years. He’s also involved in the booster club, helps run the concessions and became even more heavily involved in the community.
Smith, who played football at Bethune-Cookman and was roommates with future Miami Dolphins guard Larry Little, successfully ran for City Commission after he retired as head coach and is currently the vice mayor.
Of course, wearing multiple hats isn’t anything knew for Smith. During his 34 years at Mulberry, where he coached physical education, he spent many years as an assistant football coach and head track coach.
As a coach, Smith had a great influence on the lives of many of his players, including Jesse, who took over the program in 2003. Jesse moved to Mulberry when he was 15 and was introduced to Smith by Bart Ross, who played basketball at Mulberry.
“He gave me a shot,” Jesse said. “He took me under his wing and made me feel at home. That meant a lot to me.”
Jesse was one of the eight players on the 1989-90 squad that reached the state tournament.
“That group was very special,” Smith said. “They believed in each other and was so easy to coach.”
That squad included Lester Hunt, who coached basketball at Mulberry in between Jesse’s two stints. It also included David Rhodes, who starred at Central Florida as a wide receiver and is now an Orlando lawyer.
There’s no doubt that Smith is popular in the Mulberry community.
“Once I started doing this (getting the gym renamed), everyone though it was a great idea,” Jesse said. “Everyone was very positive.”
For his part, Smith isn’t looking at this as an individual honor.
“I feel like this is part of them as well,” he said.