At 6-foot-6, Lester Smith has been a towering figure both literally and figuratively at West St. John High School.
The humble, soft-spoken Smith has dwarfed the many girls basketball players and even his fellow coaches in the West St. John athletic program but he has never looked down upon anyone.
“He’ very caring. He loves the kids. He will go out of his way not only for the program and the school, but also for the kids,” said Joshua Bellaire, who has served as an assistant coach of the West St. John girls’ team for the past five years.
“He treated everyone like they were his kids. I know those kids loved him. They loved playing for him and what he represented,” said Robert Valdez, the current St. James head football coach and a former WSJ head coach who worked with Smith.
“As a man, he’s a guy that everybody on our staff looks up to. I love to be around guys that have been around awhile and you can always learn something from him. He’s a role model for how coaches should be and how they should conduct themselves,” Brandon Walters, the current athletic director and head football coach at West St. John, said of Smith.
If the comments from his coaching colleagues sound like a testimonial, they sort of are. After a coaching career that began in the 1970s, including coaching the West St. John girls basketball team since the 1980s, Smith recently announced his retirement as a coach.
He did so in typical Smith fashion.
“I never told anybody I was going to retire. I didn’t tell Walters and I hadn’t met with the team to tell them,” said Smith.
Smith said he didn’t tell anyone in advance because he didn’t want anyone to dissuade him.
“At that point, I made that decision and didn’t want anything to change my mind,” he said.
At age 73 and a career that spanned decades, numerous district championships and a trip to the Class 1A state championship game in 2013, Smith could have retired years ago.
So why now?
“I kind of thought about it for a while and I wanted to make sure that when I decided to leave, the girls basketball team would be in the best shape it could be,” Smith explained. “I wanted someone who would take over and understand the position. I didn’t want them to just put anybody in there.
“When I took the job, I was there to just maybe get the program going. But after years and years, we got the program where we wanted it and I thought we should continue the same tradition at West St. John.”
“My assistant, Josh Bellaire, has been there for about four years. I kind of groomed him. I know he will do it like I did – he will take care of the kids as well. He’s someone who is willing to work with the kids and keep them in the right direction. I know he’s dedicated to the program and is a hard worker,” said Smith.
“I take that as a huge responsibility to come in behind him and be his successor,” said Bellaire. “Coach Smith is the only coach West St. John girls basketball has known and for him to feel like that I have the qualities to come in and pick up where he left off and keep building the program and try and take it to new heights, means a lot to me. That is something real important and I won’t take that lightly.”
At 6-foot-6, the assumption is that Smith played basketball on the high school level and even during his collegiate days at Southern University. Such was not the case.
“I was tall and slim. I probably weighted about 105 pounds,” Smith laughingly said.
His experience as a student teacher got him into coaching.
“When I did my student teaching, I did it at Carver Senior High School in New Orleans, my mentor was a basketball coach. That helped to motived me,” said Smith.
His first coaching job was at Edgard Elementary School in 1974.
“I had the (boys’) eighth grade basketball team,” said Smith, an Edgard native. “The dedication that I had with these kids were we only practiced 30 minutes a day at lunchtime. That’s all we had – there was no practice.
“Out of that 30 minutes, 15 minutes I was on duty. They had to go in there and they would do exactly what I would tell them to do. I had some really good kids that understood. They understood that if we couldn’t practice, we couldn’t play. They would go ahead and do the drills. After they did their drills, we would go over whatever plays we would run offensively and defensively that day.”
He then moved on to the high school level.
“Two years after that, I became the head boys basketball coach at Edgard High School,” Smith said. “I did that for two years. We had a pretty decent little program. I took over for somebody and they were not that concerned with the program. It was going down and we kept it going.
“When the schools consolidated, I became the girls basketball coach at West St. John.”
Not one to count up wins and losses, Smith wanted to be judged in other regards.
“I was more concerned about these kids understood the facts of life – basketball was one thing, but after basketball, what will you have going? I was really fortunate at West St. John in all the years I coached there, I only had one girls to fail out at midyear. That was a plus. They knew that. They knew I was looking for players as well as academics,” he said.
Along with basketball, Smith has had a long tenure as an assistant football coach at West St. John. Mostly, he coached special teams and has kept stats at football games for years.
Like with his life in many other regards, Smith had a simple philosophy toward basketball and football.
“I just had three goals – if you don’t turn the ball over, if you get in foul trouble, and you give yourself an opportunity to win a game in the fourth quarter – you will be successful,” said Smith, referring to basketball.
“I think coaching has changed,” he continued. “I think we made coaching more complicated that what it probably is. In football, it’s blocking and tackling. In basketball, you can call it what you want, but it’s putting the ball through the hoop.”
Smith served as a mentor to younger coaches at West St. John and all have a story to recount concerning his calming demeanor.
For Valdez, it came when Smith’s girls’ team was in the state tournament in 2013.
“As basketball coach, we were playing in the state semifinals. He had Maya Trench on that team,” recalled Valdez, referring to perhaps the best girls basketball player in school history. “The night before we played in the semifinals, they played a game on us. We did a room check and we couldn’t find them. What they were doing, they were hiding on us. Every time we would go to a room, they would run out and get in somebody else’s room. I was about to throw a gasket.
“Coach Smith, as cool as he is and as level-headed as he is, he was like, ‘they are having a little fun. We are all right. Don’t worry.’”
“I had been on road trips with them and they get excited but they were always in one room. I knew they weren’t going too far because they knew of my stand. It was a business trip and not a pleasure trip but you can’t have just business. They were young and excited to be making that big step for the first time,” said Smith.
Walters recalls Smith as a calming influence in the press box.
“A couple of times, we had some coaches that would holler and scream and this and that,” said Smith. “The kids will react the way you react. People on the sidelines would jump on the officials and I would tell the guys, ‘it might be a different result, but I can’t question it.’
“They would say, ‘you always side with the officials.’ I would say, ‘No. I don’t want him to come back down the line when you had been hollering at him and he misses a call.’”
Long associated with officiating on the recreational level, Smith, said Walters, was a guru of the rulebook.
“We had a bad call in the Hahnville game last year where a touchdown was given to the team after they blocked a field goal on a field goal try,” Walters recounted. “We knew it wasn’t a good play. The referee came to me during the game and he was like, ‘that was the call, we’ve got to go with it but at halftime, we will go in and check it out and make a few calls.’ I said, ‘we’ve already called our guy,’ and we were talking about Coach Smith. I was on the phone with him (Smith) at the time when I was talking to the referee and he was like, ‘no, that’s no good. They can’t do that.’
“When they came back after halftime the official said, ‘yeah, Coach, you guys were right.’ I said, ‘yeah, I know. That guy up there, he’s never wrong.’”
As Bellaire takes over for Smith as girls basketball coach, he too learned valuable lessons from the veteran coach.
“We had a little joke. I broke a lot of clipboards in the five years we have been working together. He would always say, ‘man, how many clipboards will you break this year.’ We would always laugh about it and it was all in good fun. He definitely kept me at an even keel,” said Bellaire.
As Smith contemplated the right time to retire over the years one natural time would have been after reaching the state finals or coaching through Trench’s senior season. Still, there were always younger players who came along who urged him to continue through their senior seasons.
Smith, who will continue to teach physical education at West St. John, said he considered retiring as a football coach following the 2014 season.
“I had told Valdez that I wasn’t going to coach football in 2014. I told him that right after football season to give him time to get somebody in my place,” said Smith.
Before the start of the 2015 season, however, Valdez left for the head job at Scotlandville and Walters was named the interim coach.
“Coach Walters came in at kind of a rough time. We lost the head coach, offensive coordinator and defensive coordinator in the summer. I couldn’t leave him like that. I couldn’t leave the program.”
Those who have been in his orbit over the years at West St. John are quick to offer their take on Smith’s impact on the school.
But how does he wish to be remembered?
“I just want to be known as someone that when you look down at kids who graduated, they are a doctor or lawyer or an engineer or schoolteachers, that I played a part in their lives and maybe helping them out. The wins and losses, that’s for other people to worry about.”