Nearly 25 years later, Jeff Smith still remembers the excitement while making that drive to the Metroplex to begin his coaching career.
A Baylor graduate, Smith’s drive from Waco marked the beginning of a path that would span more than two decades in the coaching and administrative ranks. His destination at the time: Plano ISD, where Smith got his start at the middle school level in 1996.
“We were moving from central Texas and a smaller situation in Waco, so coming up to Plano was exciting — just the growth and the amazing schools,” Smith said. “I remember how excited we were driving into town and interviewing and getting going in Plano a long time ago and just the tradition of excellence. Everything about it excited us and it was the perfect place to start our career.”
Fittingly enough, it’s now where Smith will embark on his greatest undertaking of that very career after being named PISD’s athletic director on Tuesday. Just the fifth athletic director in PISD history, Smith takes over for Gerald Brence, who retired in December.
“It’s been overwhelming. Just the outpouring of friends and former players and coaches that I’ve worked with who have reached out and encouraged my family as we transition into this role in Plano ISD, it means the world to us,” Smith said. “It’s always really special to hear from those people you’ve connected with over the years on top of the warm welcome we’ve received here in Plano.”
Smith returns to Plano after a near-two-year run in Prosper ISD as assistant athletic director. During his time in Prosper, Smith oversaw two district championships, 64 academic all-state athletes, regional appearances in football, volleyball and girls basketball, as well as a top 10 spot in the UIL’s annual Lone Star Cup standings, which acknowledges the state’s most successful, well-rounded athletic programs.
Smith said becoming an athletic director was always something he had his sights on, even during his coaching days. Timing played a big part in the decision, both in stepping away from the football field in 2018 when made the move to the administrative side and ultimately when choosing to apply for PISD’s athletic director position.
Smith credits the wealth of experience he has cultivated over the years in aiding the comfort of that transition.
“I feel like I’ve been blessed at all the schools I’ve been at — Prosper, McKinney, Richardson ISD, Lorena ISD, Plano ISD — they’ve all provided experiences that have helped me grow and prepare me for this role,” he said.
Smith initially worked in Plano from 1996-2003, gaining experience at the top three levels of the PISD totem pole — from working at Schimelpfenig and Robinson Middle Schools, to being named athletic coordinator at Vines High School and working as an assistant coach with the Plano Senior football program.
Smith then returned to the Waco area where he coached at Lorena as an offensive coordinator — along with chipping in with the high school’s boys and girls basketball programs, as well as its track and field team. In 2007, Smith resumed his coaching career in the Metroplex as the defensive coordinator at Lake Highlands — a post he held for three years before heading north to McKinney for his first-ever head coaching job at the varsity level.
Smith coached the Lions for eight years before moving to the administrative side in Prosper ISD.
“It was an incredible opportunity. Whenever you move out of coaching, there are always things you miss,” Smith said. “As a coach, you’re in the trenches and with the kids and your other coaches and the day-to-day routine of trying to improve as a team. When you’re taken out of that role and you’re having to help serve and empower your coaches and students, it’s a different role that takes some getting used to.”
Although it meant a title change and myriad new responsibilities, Smith has still held onto those roots.
“I’m always going to be a coach, even in this role,” he said. “That’s where I started and I’m very proud of that, but I also embrace and love the opportunity to help our coaches provide a great experience for kids as they use athletics to help them in life, because that’s what we want. It’s an exciting piece of this role from a larger perspective.”
Even in his time away from PISD, Smith has been within earshot of the school district at several turns. He coached against the three Plano schools for years during his time in McKinney and joined Prosper just as the Eagles began their acclimation as a Class 6A school — fittingly enough, joining the same athletics district as PISD in 2018.
“He’s a great guy — smart, very ethical, hard-working and high-character,” said Jaydon McCullough, Plano head coach. “I’ve known coach Smith for a long time. He’s a great guy and will be great for our school district. I thought they made a great decision and I support him 100%.”
“Coach Smith has always had a love for Plano. Anytime you give someone their first chance, you always have a bit of a loyalty to them,” added Valerie Little, Prosper ISD athletics director. “He’s always loved Plano, he and his wife both worked there and they still have a lot of friends there. He is the best man to lead that district right now.
“There are a lot of people that say they need all this change, but what you really need is someone who has been there a while ago and understands the tradition of Plano, and I think he is the perfect person to step into that role and take that district over.”
Smith said the first couple of days since Tuesday’s announcement have been busy, currently in a transitional phase in finishing up some work in Prosper while getting acclimated in Plano. In the time he has been able to make it to Plano, Smith has been trying to meet as many people as possible — be it during things like attending the district wrestling meet on Thursday or stopping by a middle school basketball game. Smith looks to hit the ground running soon, as he leads PISD into the next chapter of its athletic horizons.
“The biggest thing is I want to help serve and lead in a great way and give everything I’ve got every day to this job, as well as this community, the coaches, kids and parents,” Smith said. “We just want to create a positive experience through athletics for these kids. Our expectation is for these kids to gain so much from being in our athletic programs so they can be ready for life.
“We want to create the very best and we want excellence. We’re going to push for that and the best possible outcome for the programs that we can provide for our kids.”