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Supporters question Smith's treatment
The coach's resignation left some befuddled.
Robin Cole recalled that not long after he moved back to Cape Girardeau in March 2003, one of the first people he met from the Southeast Missouri State athletic department was B.J. Smith.
He called the meeting serendipitous.
"I was looking for a way to resume the player of the game sponsorship that my father had done for many years," Cole said. "I had it on my mind to restart it to honor him. It's grown into more than I dreamed."
Cole, who operates the Connect-Rite Nextel dealership in Cape Girardeau, has been a supporter of Southeast's women's basketball program since his return to Southeast Missouri.
While he remains a strong backer, he had some concerns about the university's handling of Smith's recent circumstances. The coach was placed on leave by the university on Nov. 9 and the parties came to an agreement this week that led to Smith's resignation. John Ishee will serve as acting coach for the remainder of the season.
"I think that it is very disappointing that after last year, when the women's basketball program achieved national recognition and legitamacy, that we've lost the coach that got us that legitamacy," Cole said. "It's an astonishing turn of events after you take a small Division I program to the NCAA tournament in basketball."
The turn of events included a preliminary report from The Compliance Group on behalf of the Ohio Valley Conference that found seven areas of violations by the program. The university accepted the report's recommended sanctions, including the expansion of roles for the compliance department, and Smith headed into the 2006-07 school year with a three-year contract extension.
Cole expressed concerns about the administration's support of Smith with his new role of teaching a class at the university, which is reported to be a reason for his leave.
"It is inconceivable to me that it would be in anybody's best interest to generate an opportunity to fail," Cole said.
Franqua Bedell, who was on Smith's staff in 2003-04 and 2004-05 and now is an assistant for the nationally-ranked junior college team at Southeastern Illinois, was more blunt in his assessment.
"I don't have anything to say other than he got screwed, if I can say that in the paper," Bedell said Thursday. "A lot of the way you measure a coach is on job performance, and he performed well and he did his job. He won.
"He'll land on his feet. He could go to a junior college and do really well, have a top-five program and contend to win another national championship. He's a good coach."
In Smith's three seasons at Northeastern Oklahoma A&M, his teams were perennial national junior college contenders, including a runner-up finish in 2002 before he came to Southeast.
Tiffanne Ryan, a senior guard on last year's NCAA tournament team and the only player who played for Smith during all four of his years at Southeast, said she believes she speaks for most of Smith's former and current players in wishing him only the best in the future.
"You hate to see this happen to somebody like that. Playing for him for four years, I know how much he cares about the game and his players," Ryan said. "I definitely felt like he would be at SEMO for a while, or after he took us to the NCAA tournament last year, maybe get a bigger job.
"Of course we had our rough spots when I was a hard-headed freshman. But I enjoyed my four years there. He was a good coach, and hopefully he'll coach someplace else."
Bedell, who served on the staff in the 2004-05 season when Kevin Emerick was brought in as an assistant, believes Smith may still be coaching at Southeast if not for that hire.
"I really believe that," Bedell said. "In hindsight, you never know, but Kevin Emerick did not leave on a very positive note."
Emerick had previously been the athletic director and compliance officer at Oklahoma Panhandle State during a period that led to an investigation and landmark NCAA action against the university and its president, who eventually resigned.
Smith, contacted by the Southeast Missourian on Thursday, would not comment directly, saying, "I made some mistakes in the past, personnel decisions, that hurt me."Emerick, now the coach at Jefferson College, acknowledged Thursday that there were tensions with Smith in his year at Southeast.
"I saw some issues building and that's why I left," he said. "I truly don't think that was a catalyst to what happened."
Citing the ongoing NCAA investigation, the university has not disclosed what information led university president Dr. Kenneth Dobbins to ask in January for the OVC investigation, which led to the NCAA probe.
That unsettled probe may be part of the reason Southeast will not launch a search for a new coach until the spring, but Cole was concerned about the university's timetable.
"We need a head coach now," Cole said. "Waiting to start the search seems like it puts the entire program on dry ice for a period of time. We need a coach to start the recovery and lead the team.
"I'm not saying I have hesitations about coach Ishee at all. The team has gone against the best and played with tenacity and dignity."