Chadd Cripe

Lyle Smith kept this secret for 101 years. His sister let it out at his memorial

Laughter was shed along with a few tears at a celebration of life for Lyle H. Smith, who died July 26 at 101 years old. Bill Smith, center, spoke about his father at Thursday’s service: “The greatest honor for him was when a kid called him, ‘Coach,’ ” Bill said.
Laughter was shed along with a few tears at a celebration of life for Lyle H. Smith, who died July 26 at 101 years old. Bill Smith, center, spoke about his father at Thursday’s service: “The greatest honor for him was when a kid called him, ‘Coach,’ ” Bill said. kjones@idahostatesman.com

Lyle H. Smith lived for 101 years — and not even his oldest son knew his middle name.

That changed Thursday, when Smith’s sister informed hundreds of the legendary football coach’s admirers at his celebration of life that his middle name was Hilton.

Barbara Bryant, who was born nearly six years after her brother, wrote a letter that her daughter read at the service. The letter included a story about Lyle trying to scare Barbara by yelling “Ghost! Ghost!” when they delivered newspapers to a secluded house in their childhood neighborhood.

“One final comment,” the letter read. “Throughout his life, Lyle refused to tell anyone his middle name. So in retribution for his yelling ‘Ghost! Ghost!’, I’m yelling, Lyle Hilton Smith, rest in peace, dear brother.”

Lyle Smith died last week and was heralded on Thursday at Boise State as a father, coach, friend, mentor and leader. He coached the Boise Junior College football team for 20 seasons, winning a national championship, and was Boise State’s athletic director for the university’s first 13 years as a four-year school. The field at Albertsons Stadium bears his name, and a statue outside the stadium honors his contributions.

Here are some anecdotes from the memorial service at the Stueckle Sky Center, which was attended by the Boise State football team and coaches.

Boise State football coach Bryan Harsin discusses Lyle Smith, the former BJC coach, who died at 101.

▪  The service was hosted by former Boise State player David Hughes, who runs a small ministry in Seattle. Smith asked Hughes several years ago to speak at the service. “Tell them, ‘I did it for them,’ ” Smith told Hughes. “Is that not the man we’ve all come to know and to honor and to celebrate today?” Hughes said. Earlier, Hughes said, Smith “gave society more than society gave him.”

▪  Bill Smith, Lyle’s oldest child, took his dad to a doctor appointment last year. The doctor asked, “When did you start smoking?” “When I was 5,” Lyle told him. A neighbor where Smith was born in Steptoe, Wash., gave Smith an occasional puff of her pipe, Bill said.

▪  At his 1981 retirement, Smith said of his former players: “I always knew what they meant to me. I never realized what I meant to them.” “The greatest honor for him was when a kid called him, ‘Coach,’ ” Bill said.

▪  Daughter Marge Swint told stories about her dad at home. He insisted that letters to Santa include requests for other children around the world to receive gifts and he loved to sit in the sun, even in his later years. He was hooked on “Wheel of Fortune.” “He would say Vanna White is his girlfriend — she doesn’t know it, but she is,” Swint said.

▪  Stepdaughter Julie Savage Wade, daughter of Smith’s longtime wife Eleanore, drew closer to Smith while her mom had dementia. Her mother stopped speaking, so Wade would talk to Smith during visits. Eleanore died in 2012. “When my son was killed six years ago, I couldn’t talk to my mom,” Wade said. “Lyle was there for me.”

A statue honoring former Boise Junior College coach Lyle Smith was unveiled outside Albertsons Stadium on Thursday.

▪  Dave Wilcox, a Pro Football Hall of Famer who played for Smith, wrote a letter about his experiences at BJC. Wilcox is in Canton, Ohio, this week for Hall of Fame festivities. Smith brought Wilcox and his two brothers to Boise, and he sent them handwritten Christmas cards for the past four decades. The Wilcoxes were among at least four sets of brothers from Vale, Ore., to play for Smith.

▪  Lenny Chow, who played on the 1958 junior college national championship team and was part of Smith’s Hawaii pipeline, said the coach stopped the team bus on one road trip so the Hawaiian players could play in the snow. The team held a snowball fight. After the game, Smith asked what was wrong with one of his players. The guy’s bridge had been knocked out of his mouth by a snowball. The team stopped on the way home and found it.

▪  Boise State football coach Bryan Harsin, whose staff helped celebrate Smith’s birthdays and insisted he use the team weight room for his exercises, placed Smith’s obituary on the first page of the team playbooks distributed Monday. “What an example,” Harsin said. “... Any time you talked to him, he made you feel a whole lot better about yourself.”

Legendary Boise State football coach Lyle Smith spoke to a crowd of well-wishers at his retirement party in 1981 in this video provided by the Boise State University Library Special Collections and Archives.

Chadd Cripe: 208-377-6398, @chaddcripe

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