If Robert Smith has his way, he one day soon will leave Simeon and the program that changed his life and the Chicago basketball scene.
For what he hopes is seven more games, the program is still his.
The 41-year-old coach of five state championship teams and a 252-40 record walked through the Simeon hallways Thursday, calling out greetings to students, peeking his head through doorways to speak with teachers and pointing out academic facilities with pride.
He said he loves going every day to Simeon, where he first arrived more than 25 years ago off a Chicago city bus from the LeClaire Courts housing project. But he wonders whether a day like Thursday should be one of his last.
"At this point, my thing is I might be getting too big for this. I have to sit down and evaluate," Smith said. "…When I started here as the varsity coach, I wanted to put this place back on the map and make it a national program, which I thought it should be. Then I wanted to have the most state championships, coaching-wise.
"After that, it's like you can keep winning, you can get close to winning them, but you need a new challenge. A challenge would be to see if I can be successful on the next level."
Smith began his day with a commotion.
His office is a room inside a classroom. The walls are decorated with a poster of Derrick Rose, a collage of basketball camp photos, a personalized license plate from Jesse White — and, as a focal point, a photo of Smith wearing a state championship medal with his now-7-year-old daughter, Yahri.
His morning was a jumble of tasks from his roles as dean of students, coach and father.
He scribbled notes and diagrams as Marist game film played on his computer. He talked cartoons with his 1-year-old son, known as Little Rob, on the phone. He reviewed disciplinary slips as troubled students waited in desks in the classroom for detentions to be over or parents to arrive.
One girl tried to escape, bolting down the hallway before a group of adults descended, a security guard picked her up and Smith instructed she be carried to the main office.
Smith never imagined he would be working as a dean in a school, but he first went to Simeon for the discipline and structure he now seeks to provide.
His parents separated when he was 12. When he was 14, his father, Robert Gates, moved to Mississippi, and they lost contact for more than 15 years.
Smith has since talked to his father a couple of times. He said he doesn't hold a grudge, would still hug him and say he loved him if Gates walked into his office today. But Smith acknowledged his family struggled compared to others he saw.
Sharon Smith also was a tough disciplinarian and worked at a telephone company to provide for her five children. She couldn't provide a male influence for her four sons, so she sent them to LeClaire Park for youth programs. A worker there pointed Smith, the family's basketball player, toward Simeon and coach Bob Hambric.
His siblings went to neighborhood schools, but Smith rose early to catch two city buses to Simeon, where he "didn't know a soul."
"Now that I'm older and I'm around kids all the time, young men do need a male to help raise them," Smith said. "A mother can only do so much because she's a female. … (The park district worker) knew what was going to help me become a better person. That was Coach Hambric."
The manager of young men
Smith and Jabari Parker rolled toward the Chicago skyline in Smith's car on their way to Thursday's press event for the weekend's City-Suburban Showdown.
Their chit-chat about college basketball and the NBA was quiet, familiar. On the way back to school, Parker napped in his coach's passenger seat.
Some Simeon players have fathers in their lives. Some do not. Parker does, but still he spoke of Smith as someone who molded him beyond basketball.
"He taught me how to be a better man — a better basketball player, but mostly a better person," Parker said.
Smith said the same of Hambric, who preached responsibility, respect and intelligence.
After Smith played point guard for Simeon until 1990, he bounced from Casper College (Wyo.), Baylor and the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma until his playing career ended with an ACL tear. He assumed his career would veer toward broadcasting until a stint as a sophomore coach at Curie turned into an offer to return to Simeon as an assistant under Hambric. He took over as head coach in 2004-05 after Hambric retired.
"It was challenging to get some young men to respect you, understand you, listen and believe in you," Smith said. "It's something easy to fall in love with, and that's what I did."
He's drawn from many influences. He talked with former Robeson coach Charles Redmond about teaching the game. He often calls upon former King coach Landon "Sonny" Cox about managing a wealth of talent. He admired from afar former Warren coach Chuck Ramsey, who he believed was one of the best in Illinois.
Smith's discipline, delivered in direct, feverish bursts, came from Hambric and scared Parker and Jaylon Tate into submission early in their Simeon careers.
"I wasn't used to a coach getting on me like that," Tate said. "It hit me, 'This guy is for real. He's not just some sweet coach who lets his players do what they want to do.' "
Among Smith's tactics are motivational taunts, directed at many of his best players, like Tate and senior classmate Kendrick Nunn.
"He used to tell Derrick (Rose), 'Hey, that guy's going to score 30 on you,'" Simeon assistant coach Leonard Thomas said. "I think Derrick believed him because you would see him on the court really getting down, playing defense."
Smith stood in the center of a huddle of towering teenagers, lecturing about effort as his team prepared for the state playoffs.
"If you ain't gonna come help us, don't come," Smith said. " …We're trying to win state, some of us."
That goal might have been easy to lose sight of this season, the most challenging of Smith's career.
Among the problems were the ineligibility of three transfer students, his team's postgame skirmish with Morgan Park and his four-game suspension for his verbal altercation with Morgan Park coach Nick Irvin. Protecting his name is important to Smith, and he has struggled with that in a season with the most controversy since the Rose grade-changing scandal, which Smith said didn't affect him because he wasn't involved.
"Coach Rob is the type of guy who in his nine years was a couldn't-do-any-wrong type of guy," Thomas said. "This year it seems everybody's trying to find things he's doing wrong. I'm pretty sure it's been tough. The season has seemed pretty long. … He's a stand-up guy. He'll brush that off and he'll come back and we're going to win state this year."
If Smith's try for a sixth state championship is his last, he said he won't move on a college assistant job until after Simeon's final game. But he already has plans to attend the NCAA Final Four as a sort of job fair.
"If nothing turns up, and I have to come back here, believe me, I don't think there's a better (high school) job in the country than this one," Smith said. "I'm pretty sure Oak Hill and Montverde have some great situations, but being a public high school, there's not a better job than this one in the country, with the reputation we have and the history we have."
At the end of Thursday's practice, Smith called out his trademark — "Bring it up" — and Parker vocalized in the huddle one more challenge left at this level.
"State championship on three," he said. "One, two, three."
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