TAMPA — In his first year at Middleton High School after retiring from a two-decade career at St. Petersburg College, girls basketball coach William Smith collapsed on campus Tuesday and later died.
Smith, 55, had a history of heart trouble, principal Owen Young said Wednesday. He had missed several weeks of work before returning to campus.
"He was determined to get students on the right track," Young said. "He came from an era of teaching children. He had a commitment that went well beyond instruction. He was like a dad to these young ladies and to the young men as well."
Middleton postponed Florida Comprehensive Assessment Tests until today, and crises counselors were sent to the school Wednesday.
Young said that about noon Tuesday, Williams was outside between one of the athletic courts and the locker room when someone saw him collapse.
School nurse Beverly Smith, who is also his sister-in-law, rushed to try to save him, said Ruth Smith, his wife.
Paramedics and the nurse, using a defibrillator, tried to revive him. He was taken to St. Joseph's Hospital.
Several hours later, the school was notified that he had died.
Before coming to Middleton, Smith of Tampa had coached women's basketball at St. Petersburg College for about 20 years.
He retired but couldn't stay inactive for long, said his wife, 53, an insurance agent. This was his first school year teaching physical education and coaching girls' basketball at Middleton.
"They had a struggling program, but he was determined to turn it around," Ruth Smith said. "He loved the challenge."
Keturah Mills, a college professor who knew Smith for 18 years, said he was a modest and humble gentleman.
"He generally had a love for young people, a passion for basketball — specifically women's basketball," she said. "His love of women's sports comes from big- family sisters."
Ruth Smith said her husband was one of 13 children. He was born in Monticello, a small town in the Panhandle, and raised in Dade City, where his parents still live.
She said her husband's career in coaching wasn't limited to basketball but he preferred working with women.
"I don't want to say that they are more coachable, but he just liked teaching. He coached women's basketball, baseball, soccer and even tennis. But basketball was pretty much his life," Ruth Smith said.
Every summer for the past 10 years, Smith coached at a summer basketball camp hosted by the University of Tennessee's Pat Summitt.
"He was so excited to go again this year," Ruth Smith said. He and Summit "became very good friends, and the camp was happy to have him."
He also worked at camps for the University of Florida and the U.S. Naval Academy, she said.
Though he never moved away from Florida, Smith held an important place in the women's basketball coaching profession, said Erin Gwyn, an associate professor at St. Petersburg College who assisted him for nine years.
She said he was the only junior college coach invited to the U.S. women's basketball training camp for the Olympics in 2008.
"He was a motivator. He walked the walk. He played sports. He had a master's in education," Gwyn said. "He would always tell kids, 'What is your purpose? If you can't figure out yourself, you're going to make bad choices.'"
Gwyn said Smith played college football at Bethune-Cookman University and would have gone to the NFL if not for a neck injury in his junior year. But that personal setback may a fueled him to be an even better coach.
Katy Cole came to the United States from Hungary to play basketball and, after meeting with Smith, decided to play with St. Petersburg College from 1996 to 1998.
"You would want to play on his team," said Cole, now a 46-year-old program manager at a German university. "That was basically his life. He was with us a lot more than he had to be."
Ruth Smith said dozens of women who played for her husband probably feel the same way.
"He was the most caring person that anyone could ever meet."
Funeral plans are not finalized.
News researcher John Martin contributed to this report.