By Rick Scoppe
Special to The Times
Two years ago in its inaugural season on the links Miles College finished, as its coach said, “dead last” by 39 strokes in the rain-shortened Intercollegiate Golf Championship with a team that had a football player as its fifth man.
Last year the Golden Bears improved, finishing 11th out of 14 teams in the consolation championship while Oglethorpe was claiming its third straight title at Paradise Point Golf Course aboard Camp Lejeune.
So what does this year hold for the NCAA Division II school from Fairfield, Ala., with about 1,600 students?
Well, for starters, the Golden Bears are coming off their first tournament title – remember, this is just the team’s third year in existence – after claiming the LeMoyne Owen Golf Classic in Tunica, Miss., last month.
While he deflects the credit to his players, the architect of this program is 54-year-old Leonard Smoot, who retired as a chief warrant officer after 24 years in the Marine Corps.
Smoot was never stationed at Camp Lejeune, nor has he to this day ever played Paradise Point. He was, however, the third African-American to make the USMC golf team back in 2002 when stationed in Okinawa. While he was more than willing to talk about the past, Smoot was focused on the present and his team’s chances at Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Championship, which begins April 18.
“I’ve finally got a good core of players that will be able to compete this year,” Smoot said. “Being a Marine, it’s always about to me developing young men to be the best that they can be. We now have a solid golf team. I think we’ll compete very well.”
Under Smoot, the Golden Bears have come a long way in a short time. After retiring from the Marines, Smoot “never” thought he’d be a college golf coach.
“It was in my heart to be at the high school level or ‘First Tee’ teaching or something like that,” he said.
Smoot knew the Miles College president and knew the school was looking to add golf to its sports programs. So he talked with the president and interim athletic director, telling them it would be a “great opportunity … to bring in a golf team to add some prestige to their institution, that being a historically black college.”
Soon enough, the president asked if Smoot could make a 10 o’clock meeting.
“I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll be there,’” Smoot recalled. “The rest is really history.”
Before the budget had been established for the new sport, Smoot hit the road in May to do some “surveying” of the available talent. By August he had four players along with an inside linebacker from the football team.
“I was very proud to have him on the team, even though he wasn’t a golfer,” Smoot said. “He had heart. His character as a leader was there, despite the fact that he was getting his head beat in by golfers instead of being an inside linebacker on the football team.”
Smoot was asked what the toughest thing has been about starting a new golf program.
“Just the fact that you have to humble yourself,” he replied. “You always want to win. But humbling yourself, seeing yourself getting beat up and just knowing at some point things are going to get better and then continuing to motivate your team to help them realize there’s a bigger picture than just golf. It’s about how you are as a young man and what you are going to take forward as you move forward in your life.
“That probably was really our biggest challenge, being humble and saying things will get better.”
While from the outside the progress might seem better than expected, Smoot said the team is where he thought it would be in its third year. A year ago the Golden Bears began to show inklings of their improvement by finishing second in the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference tournament after being in third place, 13 strokes back, heading into the final day.
“That just shows it’s about perseverance and keep grinding as you compete, and I never count my football player … so we were always one guy short,” he said. “But you just do your best with what you have.”
Along with having no plans to be a college golf coach after retiring from the Marines, Smoot, who was stationed at one point at Cherry Point, didn’t start out as a golfer, either. In fact, he didn’t take it up until he was in his late 20s after watching his “bosses” play the game.
“I picked up in the sport late, real late,” he said.
But not too late. While stationed in Okinawa, he competed for a spot on the USMC golf team – and he made it by “one stroke or two” on the final day.
“That,” he said, “was a phenomenal opportunity. That’s an honor.”
‘A player’s coach’
Smoot, who also boxed on the USMC team based in Okinawa, considers himself a “player’s coach,” one who is concerned with their success on the course and the classroom – and beyond. And that is why after learning of the Intercollegiate Golf Championship, he wanted his players to experience it.
Otherwise, he said, “those kids would never get an experience of being around military personnel and retirees so they can hear a story from a different perspective than just a civilian’s perspective and help them grow as young men. That was my main goal.
“I didn’t even know that tournament existed until I started doing my research and wanted to find tournaments to play in. When that one came up I said that’s the one we need to play in. … I just think it’s something that will carry with my guys for the rest of their lives, and they say that’s the best tournament they play in because of that experience.”