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A Smart Caribbean Pipeline

Story by O’Neil A. Reid
Photos courtesy of Michael Smart Smart athletes.

COACH SMART & HIS  ATHLETES: From left are Kerron Stewart, Kenia Sinclair and Korine Hinds (Jamaica); Trish Bartholomew (Grenada); Marian Burnett (Guyana); Allison George (Grenada); Andrea Bliss (Jamaica); Ayanna Hutchinson (Trinidad & Tobago); Novlene Williams-Mills (Jamaica); and Alleyne Francique (Grenada).

(December 20, 2009):
American coach Michael Smart, the East Orange, New Jersey native and Essex County College (Essex) graduate has been coaching track and field at his alma mater for more than 24 years. In addition to his coaching duties at Essex, Coach Smart has coached teams from the Caribbean islands of Trinidad and Tobago (T&T), St. Vincent & The Grenadines as well as the USA’s 2001 under-25 National Team. He is certified by both the USAT&F (Level 1) and the IAAF. More than 27 of his current and former athletes have represented countries such as Jamaica, Barbados, Grenada, Bahamas and T&T.

During his tenure at the helm at Essex, Smart was named National Junior College Coach of the Year an impressive four times and was honored by the NJCAA Region XIX three times. His women’s teams have won the NJCAA National Championship twice (1997, 2000) and placed second nine times. His track program has a 98% graduation rate and over 90% of his athletes go on to major four-year college programs.

While coach Smarts’ athletes are successful on the track and in the classroom, what is more impressive is the means by and the way in which it is done. His program struggles with the lack of a track of its own, meal plans for his athletes and a dorm to house the athletes. But despite these “setback”, one thing is constant: his athletes are prepared in the classroom and on the track.

Smart fell in love with running by just running around. “When I was at East Orange High School I ran track. I ran the 800m, 1000m and the mile,” he said. “I also ran cross-country, which I really enjoyed. Back in to those days you would run cross-country through the woods.”

He went on to run track at Essex and was named an All-American twice during his years at the college. “I was never a shirt-and-tie kind of guy…when I got out of college, I worked for the East Orange Department of Recreation where I coached the Strikers Track Club for kids.  I eventually moved on to Essex.

Caribbean Connection

Smart coached the Trinidad & Tobago (T&T) CARIFTA team back in April 1996, when it was held in Kingston, Jamaica. He recalls: “I had four athletes from Trinidad and they did very well. Later that year, I ended up coaching the St. Vincent national team at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games. One of my kids at the time, Eswort Coombs, was more comfortable training with me so I was selected to coach him initially; then the rest of the overseas-based athletes joined us just before the start of the Games. Eswort finished 9th overall in a time of 45.36 secs.”

'I have found that the Caribbean kids have the right attitude. They believe in hard work.'

Smart’s first major Caribbean athlete was Jamaica’s Korine Hinds in 1996.  She was sent to him by K.C. Graham, a Jamaica coach. She was injured during her senior year in high school and wasn’t performing well. “In her first year she did not perform well but we put her on a program and then she took us to the national championship. That was when we first got noticed; that open up the gate a bit and then I started getting more athletes,” he said.

In Smart’s view, “Jamaica does not send me their best athletes; I don’t get the superstar athletes except for, maybe, Andrea Bliss in 1999 and Kerron Stewart in 2003. I always get the second-tier athletes. But I take what I can get. Most colleges want a specific athlete and will not take others. I will take a group of three or four athletes just to give everyone an opportunity. That was the case with Melanie Walker, whom Smart said was recruited by several schools that just wanted her. “She decided to come to Essex since she had a few other athletes that she wanted to be around. I take them all, as long as they have the right attitude.”

K.C. Graham also sent him Novlene Williams in 2000, who was not ranked but went to Essex’s program and really got good.  Then her sister Clora Williams came a year later and they both took the college to the national championship.

Coach Smart also has a reputation of developing talent. “When 800m runner Kenia Sinclair came to the program, she did not know how to run,” he recalled. “She had the right attitude and worked hard and really excelled after she left Essex. She said that her success came from the training she got at Essex.”

He also speaks proudly of Kerron Stewart, the 2008 Olympic and 2009 World Championships silver medalist. “After the Olympics, a reporter asked Kerron what prepared her for the Olympics. She said that Essex County College prepared her, because of the training she got there.” Kerron went on to say that at Essex ‘you have to show up everyday, study hard and work hard.’”

No Track Facility

Despite being handicapped by the lack of a track facility, Smart does not short-change those under his his charge. “I am hard on my kids because I have only two years to develop them.  I have no track facility and I have to get things done in a relatively short period of time. We practice indoor on the basketball court and sometimes the kids get hurt because of the facility.

During both indoor and outdoor seasons, coach Smart tries to schedule meets to give his athletes national exposure. In spite of his limited budget, the athletes get a chance to compete at major meets in Boston, New York and Pennsylvania. Yale, Harvard, Bucknell are just a few of the universities where you can find his athletes competing. The annual Millrose Games at Madison Square Garden in New York is also a staple on his schedule. 

Notwithstanding the limited resources, lack of adequate facility, and the fact that most young athletes are turned off when they hear of Newark and no facilities, Smart’s selling point is that the kids will get a degree in two years. He points to a 98% graduation rate and the success they enjoy. “The kids in my program are held accountable and must have the right attitude to work hard.  When they come in we set up a training program which they must follow,” he said. 

It is often said that Coach Smart seems to favor Caribbean athletes, a view that he has defended: “The fact is kids in New Jersey do not want to come to Essex for various reasons. Some just want to go out of state to colleges in nearby New York or Pennsylvania. Most of the time I am so desperate and I will take any athletes. Over the years I have found that the Caribbean kids have the right attitude. They believe in hard work, they are willing to work hard, and they are used to working hard so I know that I can push them to work harder in my program.”

Criticism 

He went on to say, “the number one criticism I get from the Caribbean Community is that I am not using the kids right. They want instant results. They have to understand that everything we do here at Essex is geared toward preparing the kids for the national championship and beyond. I don’t want to mentally and physically burn out my kids. If they do well for me, they will go out and do well nationally and internationally.”

Smart and Melaine Walker during a training session. An example of such an athlete is Melanie Walker (the reigning Olympic and Worlds 400m hurdles champion). “When I had Melanie she would tell me that people were telling her that she should be running faster times. She was upset, disappointed and confused because she was winning her races in dominating fashion. I told her not to worry but that she should stick to her training. Now, look at her.”

When asked which of his former athletes he admires the most, Smart named Alleyne Francique, who went to Essex from Grenada in 1998. He was 21 years and was running 47.00 in the 400m. According to Smart, his handlers did not want him to come to Essex and he went against their wishes and came. Francique did very well at Essex and went on t o LSU where he broke the

Smart and Jamaica's Olympic and World 400m hurdles champion Melaine Walker during a training session when she was at Essex.

NCAA indoor 400m record.”  He later won gold in the 400m at the 2004 and 2006 IAAF World Indoor Championships. Smart recalls: “Alleyne told me that coming to Essex was the best decision he could have made.”

Then enter Natasha Ruddock and Sasha-Kay Matthias (Jamaica) and Demetrius Pinder (Bahamas), who were on his roster last season and now compete for Texas A&M University.

After quarter century in the business, Smart has seen athletes come, deliver and go. However, there are some things that remain needs for his program. Topping the list are a meal plan, books, a dorm and coats for the athletes. “We would love to have our own state-of-the-art training facility; however, we can make do for the time being. We have been asking various organizations for help, but so far we are unsuccessful,” he says.

But the irony of his situation, Coach Smart says, is that people oftentimes say to him, “you don’t need any help, your program is doing fine, look at how successful your program is.”

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