Former Camel great Earl Smith passes away

Coach Earl Smith
Coach Earl Smith

Wednesday, August 8
at Jernigan Warren Funeral Home, Fayetteville, N.C.
11:00-12:00 p.m. Visitation
1:00 Memorial Service

The Fayetteville Observer

Athlete, coach, professional scout, adviser, husband, father, grandfather, storyteller and yard-sale picker were just a few of the things that made Earl Smith one-of-a-kind.

But it was Smith's achievements during a coaching career spanning five decades that earned him spots in three separate sports halls of fame.

Smith, who turned 95 in May, died early Sunday morning at Cape Fear Valley Medical Center. The long-time Fayetteville resident had been hospitalized since last week and died from natural causes, according to a family member.

"He was special to a lot of people, especially me,'' Lumberton mayor Ray Pennington said. "He's the most amazing person I've ever known for remembering people who played for him over the years. He was a special person to many, many people, and he'll be missed.''

Smith recruited Pennington to play football at East Carolina in 1953 while an assistant coach for the Pirates. Pennington also played baseball for Smith, who doubled as head coach of that ECU squad.

Greenville is near where Smith grew up along the banks of the Little River near the tiny Johnston County town of Micro. A natural athlete, Smith went to N.C. State where he competed in boxing, baseball and basketball.

The time in Raleigh was short-lived due to an academic roadblock that the executive director of the N.C. Sports Hall of Fame, Reese Edwards, described during Smith's induction to that elite club in May 2003.

"He couldn't pass chemistry,'' Edwards said that night. "But for the next 50 years he had no problem with chemistry. As a coach, he had only one losing season in any sport.''

Smith transferred first to Campbell, which was a junior college at the time. He then moved to East Carolina, where he played for the football, basketball and baseball teams from 1937-39. ECU is also where Smith began his coaching career for one season as basketball coach and produced a 16-9 record.

A year later, Smith headed back to Buies Creek for a six-season stint in which he directed the football, basketball, baseball, tennis and cross country teams for the Camels. He led the Campbell football team to three consecutive North Carolina junior college championships and twice took the basketball squad to the JUCO nationals.

East Carolina called Smith back in 1953 to work as an assistant in football, basketball and baseball. It was during that time Pennington first met Smith, who had come to scout him playing high school football in Greensboro.

"He was an old-school guy,'' Pennington said. "He recruited me in high school, and I've stayed in contact with him ever since. He was just a great person and someone who has had a tremendous impact on my life.''

Smith was promoted to head basketball coach for the 1959-60 season and would lead the Pirates to a record of 53-40 in four years before taking over the baseball program in 1963. ECU had a baseball record of 185-103-2 under Smith between 1963 and 1972. Four of Smith's teams tied or won outright the Southern Conference championship, and his 185 victories are still third-best in school history.

Only five years removed from coaching his last game for the Pirates, Smith was inducted into the ECU Athletics Hall of Fame in 1977.

Smith began a new career after departing ECU as a professional baseball scout, spending many of his 20 years working for the San Diego Padres.

Campbell added Smith to its athletics hall of fame in 1986, followed by his induction into the N.C. Sports Hall of Fame in 2003. Smith called the latter "the greatest moment of my life'' during induction ceremonies.

"As well as being a respected coach, Earl Smith was also a loving husband and friend to his wife of 29 years, Florence, and was loved being around his children and grandchildren,'' Smith's family said in a statement. "His influence on and off the field will never be forgotten.''

Staff writer Sammy Batten can be reached at or 486-3534.
Editor's Note:  Coach Smith guided the Camels to three-straight North Carolina Junior College football titles from 1946-48.  He also led the Fighting Camel basketball teams to the 1949 and 1952 junior college national tournament in Hutchinson, Kan.

During his seven-year coaching stint at Campbell, Smith guided the football, basketball, baseball, tennis and cross country teams.

A native of Micro, N.C., Coach Smith attended North Carolina State for one year (1935-36) where he was a member of the basketball and boxing teams.  He then transferred to Campbell (1936-37) and earned all-league honors in football and basketball.

A 1939 East Carolina graduate, Smith was a three-sport standout in baseball, basketball and football for the Pirates.

He returned to his alma mater in 1953 and served as head basketball coach (1958-63) and head baseball coach (1963-72).

Smith guided the Pirate baseball teams to four Southern Conference championships and five NCAA playoff berths.  He later spent a number of years as a professional baseball scout with the San Diego Padres.

Coach Smith was the sixth individual with Campbell ties to be honored by the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame.  He joined former baseball coach Mike Caldwell (1998 inductee), former basketball coach and athletic director Fred McCall (1994), co-founder of the Campbell Basketball School and former Wake Forest coaching great "Bones" McKinney (1970), as well as brothers Gaylord and Jim Perry (1973) in the Hall.