In 1999, an interception by a Lenape Valley Patriot ended Westwood High School’s hopes of winning the state championship. The final score was 14-7, Lenape Valley, making this game one of many hard fought battles in which Coach Don Smolyn came out on top. Yet, this remains his single most important win, and the pinnacle of Smolyn’s remarkable career. It was a win he experienced with his son, a young man and his father, sharing a victory, and the struggles implicit in the journey.
Smolyn has led many other young men to championships on the field, creating memories they may call upon throughout their lives, perhaps even igniting some long-term interest in the sport. After all, had it not been for three great high school coaches Smolyn might’ve followed in his father’s footsteps as an electrician. But while playing center at Johnson Regional High School in Clark, NJ, Smolyn decided he wanted to become a leader like those for whom he played.
It was in high school that Smolyn learned and lived the concept of team. More than wins and losses, Smolyn believes in kids, and the teams they create. While talent can be seen quickly, he says, it’s the intangibles that make the difference in his program. Showing up in the weight room, the way his guys respond to loss, the drive to improve—these are standards of his winning approach, and the gold nuggets his players reap from their time with this seasoned coach.
The players also have a good role model to follow.
Walt Wormann, devoted fan of nearly fifteen years, describes the respect Smolyn pays his competitors as well as his players. “He welcomes everyone to Lenape Valley,” Wormann says. “He waits for other coaches to arrive; he greets opposing players. Everyone is invited into ‘Don’s House’.”
Smolyn is quick to point out he didn’t get to 299 alone.
“If you don’t have support, you don’t have a chance,” Smolyn says about his wife Joan’s enduring commitment to his coaching. Even Smolyn’s daughter was a stat girl and thus part of the football family. And his son Chris not only played for his father, after making his mark on the Johns Hopkins football field, he returned to help with special teams at Lenape Valley.
In addition to his family, Smolyn made it clear he has also relied on an administration that believes in him, a community that rallies behind him, and talented assistant coaches that back him up. But, he says, “It’s the kids who get it done.”
Don Smolyn is able to put together a team in an age when players are plucked from middle school to attend big-time programs; at a time when parents fear concussions and injuries; when competing sports cut into enrollment numbers; and when young men have increasing demands on their time—Smolyn still puts together teams in a school so small it has well under a thousand students, and in a town so modest it’s hard to find on a map.
Smolyn seemed somewhat uncomfortable with the attention on this upcoming milestone. But even in an area of New Jersey known for great and consistent coaches, Don Smolyn stands out as giant as he is on the brink of his 300th win. His reaction?
“I feel badly about the pressure on the kids,” he says about the upcoming game. “There’s too much pressure on them already.”
This week Smolyn’s team will sit in an away locker room, in that time after warm-ups and before kick-off, and think about trying to stop a tough, ground and pound opponent. Each player is going to wonder what he can bring to the game in those moments of self-reflection, when only the sound of cleats clicking on the floor and an occasional creak from a shoulder pad is heard among the sea of red jerseys.
What will be thumping in the hearts of those Patriots as they finally run out under the lights?
It’ll probably have something to do with winning one more for their Coach.
Seven state championships
Nine conference championships
Twelve state finals appearances
NJ Football Coaches Hall of Fame 2008
National Coach of the Year 2003
Sussex County Sports Hall of Fame 1994
NJSIAA Award of Honor 1993
Scholastic Coach Magazine “Gold Award” 1988
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