HOBART | Earl Smith Jr. always gave it his best effort during his 56 years in the Gary school system.
The city athletic director since 1998 with much of his life devoted to teaching, coaching and administration duties, the Roosevelt grad and lifelong resident is walking away with some regrets.
The old Northwestern Conference has only three schools left in West Side, Lew Wallace and Roosevelt.
Smith saw Wirt and Horace Mann close due to declining student enrollment.
He watched his city fight a negative image for what seems like forever; an image of violence, drugs, gangs and poverty.
He's seen the scheduling of suburban high schools become increasingly difficult, forcing Gary teams to seek competition outside the region.
He's watched an alarming coaching turnover while the numbers of students in minor sports dwindle.
But along the way, the Indiana Hall of Fame coach has influenced the lives of hundreds of young men and women, many of whom still keep in touch.
"To me, that's what it really was all about," Smith said. "I got involved not only with my own players, but across the city, I was instrumental in getting a lot of guys into school.
"That was part of my responsibility — to bridge that gap."
Smith coached in some capacity at Wallace, Froebel, Emerson, West Side and Tolleston high schools.
Friday night at Avalon Manor, a crowd of nearly 300 attended Smith's retirement dinner, including IHSAA Commissioner Bobby Cox and a veritable who's who of former coaching and athletic greats.
Two who easily stood out were former hoop stars 7-foot-1 Wallace Bryant and 6-11 Frank Smith, who played for Smith at Emerson.
Asked how Smith impacted his life, Bryant was quickly overcome with emotion.
"I wouldn't be who I am today. I wouldn't be nowhere close," said Bryant, who starred at the University of San Francisco and enjoyed a lengthy pro career, including a tour with the Bulls in 1983-84.
"He was a friend. He was a coach. He was a mentor. He was a father figure. He was pretty much everything I needed at the time. God put him in my life for a purpose," Bryant said of Earl Smith.
Bryant lives in Stockton, Calif., and is studying to be a minister. Frank Smith starred at the University of Arizona, now resides in Fort Worth, Texas, and works in sales.
"Coach Smith also taught me discipline and how to be a man. I became something to be reckoned with, in a basketball sense," Bryant said.
"At the time, I was having problems. My parents were separated and Coach Smith and his family stepped in and carried the ball, you could say."
Smith took an interest in all young kids, not just jocks.
"He's a people person, no matter what," Bryant said. "He sees potential in people. He's almost like an angel. He can work with you or around you to make you better -- if you allow it.
"He's heaven-sent to a lot of people."
Frank Smith said he remembers college recruiters coming to Emerson and Earl Smith "promoting" all the other region talent as well.
"When I heard about this dinner, no way was I not going to be here," Smith said. "He's done so much for so many people. He's a great guy, a special guy."