He taught Mid boxers how to win outside ring Former students gather to honor legendary coach

June 30, 1996|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN STAFF

It's been decades, but the former midshipmen boxers still groan when talk turns to their endless workouts: legs wobbly from running the sea wall, abdomens burning from a dropped medicine ball, arms leaden from pounding the heavy bag.

And this was all before they climbed into the ring at McDonough Hall and heard the incessant instruction from the squat coach with the well-worn face.

"Keep your hands up, your chin down and your feet moving."

Yesterday they gathered by the dozens at the Naval Academy, coming from all over the country to honor Emerson P. Smith, the legendary coach who taught them far more than how to land a combination and slip away.

A father figure and mentor to countless midshipmen during his more than 20 years at Annapolis, he was remembered as someone who threw a meaty arm around their shoulders and guided them through the grueling academy experience.

"Oh, look at this," said Smith softly, surprised by the throng that gathered at Alumni Hall.

The graying -- and sometimes paunchy -- fighters came forward one-by-one. Some shook hands. Others hugged the 76-year-old former coach, slowed by age and health problems.

Smith recognized many. "Tom, you son-of-a-gun. You threw me off with that mustache," he said to Tom Flaherty, a 1970 graduate who boxed in the heavyweight division.

"They're all in different weight classes now," joked Marine Col. Fred Peck, another 1970 graduate and champion fighter.

Rick Lottie, who came from Texas for the surprise party, had one thought when he was a plebe, or freshman, and first set eyes on Smith in 1965: "I hope I don't have to get in the ring with that guy. He looks like a block of the hardest wood with legs on it."

Yesterday, Lottie read letters from a dozen former Mids who couldn't attend, including Craig Gillaspie, a 1969 graduate and skilled boxer.

"You were like a second father to me," wrote the former rule-breaking Mid, as Smith listened with his family. "The boxing program enabled me to take out my frustrations and provide me challenges enough to keep me from getting thrown out of the academy. You helped so many mixed-up young men like me."

Finally ambling to his feet, the coach turned to his fighters and said his academy years produced "the finest memories of my life." He smiled and recalled how his wife, Louise, would ask each day how long he planned to spend at the gym.

"You just being here means a lot to me," Smith said quietly. "Thank you and God bless you."

An Ohio native, Smith boxed in the Navy during World War II and put on demonstrations in the South Pacific with Gene Tunney, the Shakespeare-quoting Irish fighter who took Jack Dempsey's heavyweight title in 1926. After years of coaching basketball and track at schools on the Eastern Shore, Smith arrived at the academy in 1964.

But it wasn't long before the midshipmen -- all of whom were required to take boxing -- soon saw a gentle side.

After surviving a serious car crash during his plebe year, the academy's 1967 brigade champion in the welterweight class said, the coach visited him in the hospital nearly every day. "He's a lovely man," remembered that champ, Oliver L. North.

"He cared about each and every one of the kids he taught," North said in a phone interview, noting that he devoted several pages to Smith in his 1991 autobiography, "Under Fire: An American Story."

"This guy is so much a part of who I am," North said.

In the ring, Smith emphasized defense, making sure "my boxers" were not only conditioned to take a punch but expert enough to dodge one.

His caution frustrated some of the more aggressive boxers of the academy's program, who wanted blood to be drawn at each match.

"What he wanted to see was two skilled boxers who worked hard at learning the fundamentals," Peck said. "He didn't want to see anybody get beat up."

Smith trained his fighters to "outpoint, outthink and outmaneuver" an opponent, said current boxing coach Jim McNally. Such training is essential for a military officer, he said. Not only does it teach self-defense but also endurance and keeping a cool head in the most stressful situations.

Smith was obsessed with the sport, recalled many of the former midshipmen, crouching in position to show a jab or chattering about the fighters he knew well, such as the great Rocky Marciano, who refereed some of the academy fights.

But Marine Brig. Gen. Charles Bolden, a 1968 academy graduate and former deputy commandant, said the boxing part was "minor" for many midshipmen.

They benefited from his advice when they had problems or dreamed of fleeing the regimented lifestyle of Annapolis. "Which was often," Bolden recalled.

"He would get you to focus on what you were doing, what you wanted out of life," said Bolden. "Anything that we wanted was worth working for."

Rear Adm. Tom Watson, a 1970 graduate who boxed for Smith in the 175-pound class, said, "He physically or figuratively had his arm around your shoulder. We're his boxers, no question about it. We want to be."

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