MORGANTOWN — Robert Joseph Smith, a Charleston native, served West Virginia University with both dedication and distinction as both a player and assistant coach in basketball.
The 6-foot-4, 185-pound forward/guard started all 92 games of his three-year varsity career during the school’s golden era of the 1950s.
Playing one year with Hot Rod Hundley and two with Jerry West, he was a major contributor, under coach Fred Schaus, to consecutive records of 25-5 in 1956-57, 26-2 in 1957-58 and 29-5 in 1958-59.
That combined record of 83-12 remains among the finest in Mountaineer basketball history.
The man they knew as “Voice of the Mountaineers,” Jack Fleming, started calling Smith “Bobby Joe,” and he said recently that the name has stuck with him ever since that day.
He scored 1,127 points for an average of 12.3 per game, pulled down 576 rebounds for an average of 6.3, and dished out 289 assists while playing an average of 30.1 minutes per contest.
WVU finished the 1957-58 season with its only No. 1 ranking and wound up as the NCAA runner-up the following year, being nosed out by California 71-70 in the championship contest at Louisville.
Smith was named to the Southern Conference all-tournament team as a junior.
An all-state star at Charleston’s Stonewall Jackson High, he admittedly enjoyed his undergraduate years at WVU very much.
“It was the greatest time of my life,” said Smith, who’s 70. “And what Coach Schaus did for us at that time made us all winners as far as basketball was concerned.
“But the things he taught us that would affect our lives, we didn’t realize until we got a little older. The older I became, though, the smarter he was. So we adjusted.
“And the togetherness and never-giving-up carried over into our lives.”
Then, after a brief pause, Smith continued: “Personally, Coach Schaus has had more influence on my life with positive things than any other human being.”
Smith received a bachelor’s degree in physical education in the spring of 1959, then was drafted by the Minneapolis Lakers. He was released during the 1960 season, but accepted an invitation from Schaus to join him and West when the Lakers moved to Los Angeles after the 1960 season.
“Then when I didn’t make it there, I went back to WVU and got my master’s degree in guidance and counseling in 1962,” he recalled.
Smith taught and coached in high school at Fairfax, Va., for 15 years.. He earned numerous honors in Northern Virginia basketball circles while there and became good friends with Gale Catlett, then coaching at Cincinnati.
When Catlett returned to WVU as head coach in 1978, he invited Smith to be one of his assistants. Smith stayed for seven years and retired from coaching in 1985.
Since then, he and wife Jean have resided in Naples, Fla. Bob is still working in the real estate business, with focus on golf course and community sales.
“I really enjoyed coaching, especially the seven great years I spent with Gale at the university,” Smith said. “And Fred and Barbara Schaus spent winters in Naples for several years, so we’ve stayed in close touch with them.”
Bob and Jean, a New Jersey native who also attended WVU, returned to Morgantown in December 2007 for a reunion of 19 of Schaus’ former players.
“It was so great to get back and see Coach Schaus,” Smith said
“I know he’s not in the best of health, but it was fun roasting him at our reunion luncheon. He was mad at me all the time when I played - and rightly so.”
The Smiths have been married for 43 years.
They have two sons, Steve, 40, of Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., and Scott, 38, of Roanoke, Va., and one granddaughter, Amelia, 3.