Tracy Smith seriously thought he might coach until he turned 80.
Every year more runners would come into the program whom he knew he could mentor, kids with untapped potential he knew he could help unleash.
But after more than two decades as the cross-country and track distance coach at Prineville’s Crook County High School, Smith resigned last month.
“I feel sad,” says the 74-year-old Smith. “I was kind of thinking I still have a lot to give. But I’ve got other things. I need to spend more time with my wife and go camping in the fall, which we’ve never been able to do. I used to bow hunt, and I haven’t done that in years. I think they bought in to the way I did things at Crook County, and they liked the system of training and so forth. I think they’ll carry on and do a really good job.”
Smith, a Bend resident since 1994, will no longer have to make the 64-mile round trip drive to Prineville for practice.
A longtime special education teacher in the Crook County School District who retired from teaching in 2013, Smith coached several state champions during his coaching career at Crook County, which started in 1997.
He coached Michelly Foley to a Class 5A state cross-country title in 2007, then guided Michelly’s younger sister Kellie to a state title in 2008. More recently, he coached the Crook County boys team to a 4A state championship in 2017 and a 5A state second-place finish last year.
“I’d been waiting a long time to get our team to a position of winning a state trophy, and they did,” Smith says. “The last two years were really great feelings of finally getting the team to do it. But I loved the slowest runners as much as the top runners. Those people had to suffer longer out there because they had to run for longer. I think I got just as much satisfaction out of seeing kids brighten up when you would be there encouraging them when they were way behind in workouts, and even in races.”
Crook County track and field coach Ernie Brooks has coached with Smith for the past 16 years and calls him “an amazing man, part of the foundation of our program.” Brooks notes that the Cowboys have won district titles in track five of the last six years, due in no small part to the strength of their distance runners.
“He’s always wanting to give back and pass on his passion to the kids,” Brooks says of Smith. “He’s always reaching into kids’ lives and changing their outcome and their path. We’ve been from the low of lows, to him winning a state title in cross-country. Every year he’d say he was retiring and every year I would talk him off the ledge. This year he came to me and I couldn’t talk him off the ledge.”
An Olympic past
Born and raised in Southern California, Smith won the state championship in the mile for Arcadia High in 1963 and received a full-ride scholarship to Oregon State. He finished second in the NCAA Division I cross-country championships in 1966, but he says he struggled in Corvallis.
“I had trouble going from Southern California to a dreary Oregon winter,” he reflects. “And I kept getting injured because the training was almost double what I did in high school.”
Smith left Oregon State after two years and moved back to the Los Angeles area. There he started training with Mihaly Igloi, a renowned Hungarian coach who guided many record-setting runners in the 1950s and ’60s through intense interval-style training.
Under the tutelage of Igloi, Smith got invited to the World Cross Country Championships in Morocco, where he finished third.
“It was the highest finish for an American up to that point,” Smith recalls. “That was one of the bigger accomplishments for me on a world scale. They went out so fast and there was about 150 runners — Kenyans, Ethiopians, and Europeans. I just kept working my way through the field and I was in second place with 50 meters to go. I could hardly believe it. I just kept my pace even and it was like I was streaming by these guys.”
Smith qualified in the 10,000 meters for the 1968 U.S. Olympic Trials, which were staged on a temporary track deep in the forest in Echo Summit, California, about 15 miles south of Lake Tahoe at an elevation of 7,300 feet. The idea was to qualify the athletes best suited for the elevation of Mexico City, where the Olympic Games would be staged.
Smith says he might have had an advantage at the trials because his father owned a fishing resort in the small town of Bishop, California, and he worked there every summer and trained in nearby mountains at 9,500 feet.
During the 10K finals, he recounts, he stayed in the pack of lead runners as everyone else began falling off the pace except for him and two runners ahead of him.
“I was yelling at them, ‘If we keep this position, we’ll be on the team!’” Smith recalls. “The last 300 meters I was in third and a bunch of people I knew in the infield were cheering me on and I just thought, I’m going for it. So I sprinted the last 200 in 27 seconds.”
Smith won the race in 30 minutes, 0.4 seconds.
“That was probably my biggest highlight,” Smith says of his competitive running career. “I couldn’t sleep for a couple days after that. Going into it were Gerry Lindgren, Billy Mills (1964 Olympic champion), and Kenny Moore … all these big names, but I really had a good spring and set a world record in the indoor 3-mile.”
Smith finished 11th in the 10K at the Mexico City Olympics but was the first American. He ran 15 seconds slower than he did at the trials.
“I was disappointed in that,” Smith says.
For the 1972 Olympic Trials, held in Eugene, Smith focused on the 5,000 meters. He finished fifth in the final, failing to qualify for his second Olympics, after finishing second to the legendary Steve Prefontaine in a trials qualifying race.
Smith would race a total of four times against Prefontaine, the University of Oregon star who set American records at every distance from 2,000 to 10,000 meters before his death at age 24 in a car accident.
In 1969, Smith defeated Prefontaine, then just 17 and still at Marshfield High School in Coos Bay, in the 3-mile AAU national championship in Florida. It was one of six AAU national titles for Smith.
“I heard about this kid who ran in the low 8:40s who was going to be in the race,” Smith recalls. “I said, ‘No high school guy is gonna beat me.’ I barely beat Lindgren, and Pre was fourth. But he (Pre) was just too much for me after that. He was amazing. He was a great runner, very charismatic. He was something. But I have one claim to fame, I beat him — even though he was in high school!”
On to Central Oregon
After the 1972 trials, Smith finished his degree at Long Beach State and moved to Bishop with his wife, Carolyn, and their three children. They now have five grandchildren.
During his running career, Smith set world records in the indoor 3-mile in 1967, 1968 and 1973.
In Bishop, Smith worked as a youth pastor and teacher and coach at a Christian school before moving to Central Oregon in 1994 to find a more permanent teaching position.
At Crook County, Smith had a knack for getting the best out of his runners in the biggest meets.
“By the end of the year, every year, our kids run the fastest at districts and state,” says Brooks, the Crook County track coach. “He had the plan and the formula for that.”
Most of Smith’s runners were aware of his past success, and he recalls how one of them once found the YouTube video of his 13:07 world record indoor 3-mile run from 1973.
“It was nice to know they knew about my career,” Smith says. “I think it helped with their confidence and was inspiring to them.”
— Reporter: 541-383-0318,