By MIKE O’BRIEN
On most days, at 5 a.m., Mainland Regional High School football coach Chuck Smith can be found running on the bike path in Northfield, getting his morning workout in before school begins.
To say Smith is a creature of habit is an understatement.
His obsessions are a way of life for him, a simple belief that if something precedes success, you keep preparing that same way.
So when he stepped out of that comfort zone before the 2010 season to leave the staff of the football team at Mainland Regional — a position he had held for more than 20 years, to take his first head coaching job at Oakcrest High School — he did so knowing he’d have to invite some new rituals into his coaching philosophy.
“I faced some challenges (at Oakcrest) that I hadn’t ever dealt with as an assistant,” said Smith, who continued to teach at Mainland while coaching at Oakcrest. “I immediately had to come up with solutions that were brand new for me.”
Six years later, after leading the Falcons to the postseason four times (Oakcrest had only made the playoffs three times in the 49 years prior to Smith’s arrival), Smith finds himself back where it all began, once again embracing those familiar habits in Linwood.
“Teaching here and being an assistant here for so long, there’s a certain comfort level again with my daily routine, and being able to see the kids each day during school,” Smith said.
One needs only to look at the success of the offenses he’s helped coach to see many reasons for Smith’s continued commitment to his superstitions. Whether it’s eating the same thing prior to every game, driving the same route to school each day or asking one of his assistants to drink a cup of coffee on the field during pre-game warmups because “it’s what you did last week and we won.” Smith is committed his superstitions.
During the previous three seasons, some of Smith’s superstitions helped develop one of the area’s top current quarterbacks, Kendall Elliott.
This year, the Oakcrest senior has helped lead the Falcons to a fast start, accounting for six total touchdowns in leading first-year head coach Eric Anderson’s team to a 2-0 record and a spot atop the West Jersey League Independence Division standings to begin the 2016 season.
Also, during Smith’s previous stint at Mainland, mostly as offensive coordinator, he helped lead the Mustangs to five South Jersey titles (four in Group 3 and one in Group 4) and nine conference championships in the old Cape-Atlantic League, which joined the West Jersey Football League prior to this season.
It was during that run that Smith helped mold some of the most talented players in school history.
That group included quarterback Brent Caprio, who led Mainland to a 12-0 record and a South Jersey Group 4 title in 2008.
“Chuck’s rituals and superstitions were always kind of crazy,” said Caprio, who now works in the scouting department for the Indianapolis Colts. “But, of course, I ended up adapting my own set of routines, too, and they ended up being a very important process as I prepared for each game.”
Through the years, Smith’s superstitions also have spilled over into his home life, causing his family to buy into some rituals of their own and providing them with plenty of very entertaining observations.
“When we lose, I won’t wear the same clothing to another game,” his daughter, Brianna, 24, said. “I was just telling my mom that and she thinks we’re crazy.”
While Smith realizes that his habits and superstitions have no direct effect on the success of his team on the field, he does believe they aid in helping to build a consistently winning program.
“We are trying to rebuild a winning tradition here at Mainland,” Smith said. “If we embrace stuff that helps us stay positive and helps us focus on success — and we have a little fun with it along the way — that will help us build that foundation of success that we want.”
A foundation that Smith hopes will soon become old habit in Linwood.
By MIKE O’BRIEN