Frank Smith didn’t just win championships over forty years coaching football. He turned great players into great people. Yes, 47 of his UBC players ended up playing in the Canadian Football League, an impressive tally on its own, but ask Smith what he’s most proud of and he’ll cite the untold number who became successful doctors, lawyers, businessmen, and pillars of their communities. This generation of UBC players scattered across the continent remains Smith’s most important career legacy and why he must be considered amongst the most successful university coaches in BC history.
Raised in Depression-era Vancouver, Smith endured a difficult childhood and discovered football as a way to a better life. He first played for Vancouver College under the lights at Athletic Park. Later he hitchhiked into Washington State to see Notre Dame play for an obscene $6 a ticket and this first US college game inspired him to pursue his own football dreams.
Smith played at Olympic Junior College and the University of Washington before the Calgary Stampeders offered him a contract in 1953. He played four CFL seasons with four teams as an undersized 185-lb lineman, helping Edmonton to the 1954 Grey Cup championship.
After BC cut Smith and teammate Cal Murphy mid-season in 1956, Murphy asked Smith to help him coach Notre Dame High School’s fledgling football program. For the next 45 years, Smith rarely strayed far from his clipboard, football fields, and locker rooms.
After three years at Notre Dame, Smith coached the Burnaby Spartans junior team. Then he caught on with Eastern Washington University, followed by stops at Tonasket High School, Centralia High School, Wenatchee Junior College, and Montana State University. He returned north to guide Sentinel High School’s new football program for three years when UBC’s head coaching job became available.
In 1974, UBC football was in shambles, overshadowed by cross-town rivals Simon Fraser University. Over the next 21 seasons, with trusty assistant Bob Laycoe by his side, Smith turned the Thunderbirds into a national power. Compiling a 126-94-4 win-loss-tie record overall and 17 winning seasons, he led UBC to a school-record eight Shrum Bowl victories over SFU, five Canada West Hardy Trophy victories, and four CIAU Vanier Cup national championship appearances, winning UBC’s first-ever in 1982 and another in 1986. Twice, Smith was named CIAU coach of the year in 1978 and 1987. A few of the 47 CFLers he produced included Leo Groenwegen, Kevin Konar, Vince Danielsen, and David Sidoo. Smith’s son Casey took over at UBC in 1995 and won another Vanier Cup in his third season.
Much like his own experience growing up, many kids’ lives were turned around for the better under his watch. One young player wrote to him from Vietnam, noting the lessons Smith taught served him well in battle.
Smith closed out the 1990s by serving six seasons as an assistant coach with Saskatchewan and BC in the CFL.
Written and researched by Jason Beck, Curator of the BC Sports Hall of Fame.