By Wayne Bennett
For The Register-Herald
With March Madness running rampant, basketball enthusiasts tend to make comparisons among teams, players and coaches past and present. One name that always seems to come up in local conversations is Bill Smith.
When Bill Smith was born, an aunt likened him to another relative named “Butch.” and the nickname stuck.
Butch Smith learned to play basketball at Stanaford Elementary and was coached by Dr. Chuck Akers. After a successful elementary career which extended eight years in those days for out-of-city teams, Butch went to Beckley Junior High.
It was there he learned a little about the occasional unfairness of life. After signing up for basketball tryouts, he was cut before he ever touched a ball. His misfortunes carried over to Woodrow Wilson during his sophmore and junior years when he was informed in the basketball meetings, “If you didn’t play last year there’s no use in you trying out.”
During those years, Butch was able to keep playing ball in the Open Men’s League for Bob Cernuto and the West Virginia Glass team. By his senior year, word got around about Butch’s talent and Beckley’s Flying Eagles needed some help.
Coach Lawrence “Preach” Wiseman asked him to come out for the team, but was reluctant to promise anything else. Butch not only made the team; he started and was an All-Coalfield Conference player.
The year was 1964 and Beckley returned to the state tournament, only to lose to Ron “Fritz” Williams and a Weirton team which had won the state championship the year before. Some other members on that 1964 Beckley team were Buddy Gravely, Rudy Coleman, Bobby Short, Fred Lewis, Ron Kyle and Ron Lilly.
After high school, Butch received no college basketball interest, so he worked a couple of years and then entered the Air Force. During his time in the Air Force he was stationed outside of Charleston, where he played in the men’s league.
This was a period in the late 1960s that Morris Harvey College (now University of Charleston) was an extremely successful team nationally in the NAIA division. Dennis Blair, a friend of Butch’s and also a student at Morris Harvey, watched the Golden Eagles play quite often. He told Butch several times, “You can play with these guys. They’re good, but they are no better than you.” Blair even approached Morris Harvey coach Rich Meckfessel about Butch but nothing ever happened.
During this period, open basketball tournaments were very popular in West Virginia and many were held to raise money and showcase basketball talent. Fans never knew who would show up for these contests but were seldom disappointed. Former professionals, college players and star high school athletes usually were the makeup of the teams.
In one such tournament in Fayetteville, Beckley College coach Joe Cook was there to watch a couple of players. He immediately noticed Butch and made an offer. The only problem was that Butch was still in the Air Force and was getting ready to be shipped overseas. Coach Cook, being persistent, told him to look him up when he got back. When Butch was released from the Air Force, Beckley College gave him a full scholarship in basketball. He was almost 24 years old at the time.
Back then, Beckley College was the only two-year school in the West Virginia Conference. They mainly played four-year schools and several that were always nationally ranked. In Smith’s sophomore year of 1972, he led the conference in scoring with 23.6 points per game and his high game was 37 points. He also averaged 13.2 rebounds a game. Considered a small forward at 6-foot1, he once grabbed 22 rebounds in a single game.
His physical style of play and coach Cook’s unfamiliar 1-3-1 defense made the Blue Hawks fun to watch. Even current Michigan and former WVU coach John Beilein took notice of this defense and style of play and has borrowed from Cook’s playbook.
During Butch’s two-year career at Beckley College, he was always looked upon as a leader. The probable reason for this was because he always played hard and was six years older than most of the players. He was often referred to as “The Old Man.” Some of his Blue Hawk teammates were Jerome Smyre, Larry Spangler, Gary Kirkpatrick and Milton Arrington.
After Beckley, Butch attended Concord College (University), where he was WVC All-Tournament in 1973 and all-conference in 1974. At Concord, Butch played against some outstanding local guys, like Bluefield State’s Tommy Pritchard and West Virginia Tech’s Tom Chaney. He also competed against some national stars, like John Drew of Gardner-Webb, who played several years for the Atlanta Hawks in the NBA, and Lloyd B. Free (World B. Free) of Guilford College, who also had an outstanding professional career.
When Smith graduated from college he was 28 years old. He continued to play men’s basketball in open leagues several years after college. The open competition had always been his bread and butter and had opened many doors.
He taught school for six years at Woodrow Wilson High School and coached girls basketball for four years.
His 1977 team was the first girls team from Woodrow Wilson to qualify for the state tournament. After teaching, Butch entered the mining equipment sales business, where he still works today.
With the West Virginia high school basketball tournament celebrating its 100th year and the fall and failure of the WVIAC, Butch spends some of his time with a torn reflection.
“Not being able to play three years of high school made me a little bitter but it also made me play harder in college because I felt like I had to prove something,” Smith said.
“When I played in the West Virginia Conference there were 15 teams and every year the tournament would be played in Charleston from Tuesday through Saturday and each session would be sold out. It’s sad to think that the conference no longer exists.”
Butch now lives at Flat Top Lake with his wife Becky. Their daughter, Ashley, is a doctor in Morgantown.