Valley Center tried everything to reverse its terrible football fortunes after Mike Smith left to become coach at Garden City in 2001.
Smith, who coached for Dave Meadows in Clinton, Okla., and again in Garden City, was 64-22 during his 10 seasons at Valley Center and the football life was good. He was one of those guys born to coach and success followed him.
After he left Valley Center, though, the success he left behind didn’t know where to go. So it disappeared. Jon Bishop, T.J. Solansky, Shane Harden, John Black and Pat Haxton each took a shot at coaching the Hornets and none lasted. Valley Center was 17-80 from 2002-12.
Enough was enough.
Valley Center went back to the Smith tree and plucked Mike’s son, Caleb, to coach. He had been defensive coordinator at Derby under Brandon Clark, one of Valley Center’s favorite sons and a former standout tight end at Kansas State.
Finally, something made sense.
“Caleb loved Valley Center when he was growing up there,” said Mike Smith, who is nearing retirement as he helps coach the eighth-grade football team in Garden City, where he is still track coach. “He enjoyed being in that community and being around the spirit. I think that was kind of his dream job, really.”
Caleb was just 26, though. You had to wonder whether he was ready for the rigors of being a head coach, especially in a place that hadn’t been winning.
Plus, he had it good in Derby, which was winning.
“It was a tough decision to leave,” Caleb Smith said. “But this is where I wanted to be.”
And he seems to be doing what his father did at Valley Center almost 25 years ago — making the Hornets viable again.
Valley opened the 2016 season last week with a 27-9 win over Salina South. The Hornets, who were 0-8 in 2013, Caleb Smith’s first season, are 10-11 since.
“I think the key is trying to make football fun again,” Caleb Smith said. “There was kind of an attitude in the school that football wasn’t the cool thing to do. We had kids walking the hallways who could have really helped the program, but they weren’t playing football. The culture is changing. Football is cool again at Valley Center.”
It helps, too, that the Hornets are loaded with 24 seniors who were in on the ground floor of this rebuild.
“We have a good core of underclassmen, too,” Smith said. “We’re actually pretty solid all the way down and we have more players out for football this year than we’ve had any time since I’ve been here, close to 100. Once you’re able to establish your program and get some consistency, it makes things a lot easier.”
Junior quarterback Wyatt Lange passed for 243 yards and three touchdowns in the opener against Salina South. Smith, a former quarterback at Garden City Community College and a walk-on at Kansas State, says he’s an offensive-minded coach despite his years running the defense in Derby.
“Brandon Clark hired me right out of college,” Smith said. “He played for my dad at Valley and there was already that connection. And I kind of caught on with him as he was in the middle of rebuilding Derby back to where they are now. There are a lot of things Brandon does at Derby that we’re doing here now.”
Mike Smith, who plans to move his family back to Valley Center after he retires, said he goes to all of the Hornets’ games and helps Caleb where he can.
“Caleb is his own person,” Mike Smith said. “One thing about him that is different from me is that he’s very organized. And he’s very good at technology. He’s also really good with people and his assistant coaches.”
Caleb’s best attribute, though, is that he’s taken heed of the advice his dad gave him years ago about coaching.
“I always told him the biggest thing was to build relationships with your players,” Mike Smith said. “Care about them and love them like they’re your own and make football fun for them. You learn a lot from the coaches in your life and you’ll learn some bad things, too. But I think Caleb does a little bit of what I do, some of what Brandon Clark does and some of the stuff he learned at Kansas State when James Franklin (now the head coach at Penn State) was the offensive coordinator.”
It’s too early to say Valley Center has overcome its long football drought, filled with apathy and sadness. But in bringing back another Smith to take control, the Hornets appear to be on the right track.
“I loved Derby and I wasn’t wanting to leave,” Caleb Smith said. “Really, the only job I would have left for anytime soon was this one. It’s been good getting back home, knowing the community and how it’s been done before to become successful and trying to make it happen again.”