Over the last year, an Oregon school provided the playbook for sinking a prep football program into a morass of negativity, and The Oregonian was there to chronicle the disaster every step of the way.
As chronicled to the paper by Lake Oswego (Ore.) Lakeridge High coach Tom Smythe in the months following the final season of his 34-year prep football career, the assistant Smythe hired to groom as his successor orchestrated a power play, transformed the Pacers into "the most undisciplined football team in the history of the game" and in effect forced the legend to resign before the season even ended.
While the Lakeridge football season ultimately ended in the school's deepest playoff run in 15 years, the Oregon School Activities Association has since severely sanctioned the program as a result of an investigation prompted by a penalty-filled state quarterfinal loss to Portland Jesuit in November.
“Their thorough investigation certainly upheld my position,” Smythe told The Oregonian from Germany, where he has coached from February to August the past 14 years. “I would like to make my position clear, the kids were NEVER the problem. Like all players they took their motivation from the coaching staff."
Oddly enough, Germany is where the sinking Lakeridge ship began its voyage, according to Smythe. Prior to leaving for his annual European vocation in January 2013, he hired Chad Carlson, a former West Linn standout whom Smythe had coached at Portland's Lewis & Clark College in the late 1980s. Because Carlson had been fired as head coach of Portland Lincoln following a 2009 altercation with police, he was a controversial hire — one that required Smythe's endorsement to sway the Lakeridge administration.
With his successor seemingly in place, Smythe sent an email to his eight-man coaching staff giving Carlson free reign over personnel decisions, according to The Oregonian. What happened next created a rift between Smythe and Carlson that lasted throughout the 2013 season. While Carlson contends he was simply following Smythe's gameplan from the beginning, Smythe believes his protege urged seven of his eight assistants not to return and seized control of the program in his offseason absence.
When Smythe returned from Germany in August 2013, he was the head coach in name only. According to Smythe, Carlson had assumed the day-to-day responsibilities of a team in apparent chaos. On Aug. 21, a Lakeridge assistant football coach was arrested for allegedly punching a player in the face at practice.
By Week 4 of the season, when the Pacers committed 18 penalties in their first loss, Smythe publicly declared, "We're the most undisciplined football team in the history of the game. It's an embarrassment. Total embarrassment. We talk to them every week about it and we can't get them to shut up."
This past fall, Lakeridge averaged 15 penalties per game while amassing 41 personal fouls and 21 unsportsmanlike whistles, according to The Oregonian. During the season, Smythe reportedly tried to fire Carlson and twice offered to resign, but the Lakeridge administration allegedly encouraged otherwise.
All the while, the Pacers kept on winning, but the contentious relationship between Smythe and Carlson reached a boiling point in the playoffs — at which point the former had reportedly begun only showing up for Wednesday's offense-heavy practices and coaching from a booth rather than the sidelines.
Upon witnessing five unsportsmanlike penalties and three late hits in the team's first-round playoff win, Smythe tendered his resignation. He watched Lakeridge's second-round victory from the stands.
"Perhaps now is the time to set the record straight and let people know what everyone at Lakeridge has known all year," Smythe told The Oregonian at the time, effectively ending his prep career with a coaching record of 274-78-1. "The truth is that I have been an on-paper-only head coach this season. The team has been coach Carlson’s from the beginning and I believe it’s now time for him to get the credit."
Credit for what, exactly, is a separate matter. In a 62-33 state quarterfinal loss, the Pacers committed 21 penalties for 229 yards, including a fourth-quarter flurry that featured one Lakeridge player's ejection. As a result, the Jesuit administration added to the growing list of complaints against Carlson's staff.
"We were really appalled at what we saw," Jesuit president John Gladstone told The Oregonian in the aftermath of his team's victory. "What happened was dangerous, inappropriate and inflammatory. It was beyond what I’ve ever experienced. I think every school in Oregon and the OSAA have black eyes because of what happened. We should be teaching kids leadership and teamwork and fair play. Certainly winning is important, but not at the cost that was evident Friday."
Last week, the OSAA partially completed its investigation of Lakeridge's football program, levying a $2,500 fine, four years probation and other sanctions against the Pacers upon discovering "a significant lack of institutional control." Further penalties could result from the organization's discovery that all 14 coaches on the school's football staff did not meet certification standards and a separate investigation into the transfers of nine students who played for the team this past fall, according to The Oregonian.
“While administrators at Lakeridge spent time in the halls talking to kids about the unsportsmanlike issues on the field, they should have taken the staff into a room and demanded better leadership,” added Smythe. “That didn’t happen, and the Jesuit game was only a culmination of lack of proper leadership.
“I’ll never get over my disgust at how people made excuses for what nearly everyone with any sense could plainly see was happening. The good news is they, the administration, now have an opportunity to fix the problem, by hiring someone with some understanding of sportsmanship, with a track record to prove it, and a knowledge of how to lead teenagers willing to follow any type direction."
The Lakeridge administration is scheduled to officially name Smythe's successor next week. It is unclear whether Carlson is in the running for the position. Meanwhile, Smythe has returned to Germany, where he will coach until joining the Southern Methodist University staff as a consultant. He concludes his prep coaching career with three state titles and the sixth most victories in Oregon prep football history.
“I don’t feel very good about the way he’s going out because he needs to be treated as the legend that he is in this state,” Centennial coach Chris Knudsen told The Oregonian. “They should be honoring him and everything he’s accomplished.”
If ever there were a cautionary tale about the importance of proper leadership in molding the next generation of student athletes, this Lakeridge saga is it. Let this be Tom Smythe's final game plan.
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