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"I remember him in my arms," Collett says. "He was inconsolable."
"I don't feel I accomplished that much in the Olympics, in my career," he says. "Most of my athletes have done more than I did. That incompletion kept me testing myself, kept me learning."
Back at UCLA Smith watched John Wooden conduct his basketball practices. "He had the patience of Job. If you didn't get his message, he just repeated it," says Smith. "He reprimanded you so softly, you reflected on your own character."
In 1973 Smith was drafted for his speed by the Dallas Cowboys. He and fellow rookies Drew Pearson and Golden Richards were taught to be receivers by assistant coach Mike Ditka. "It was his first year not playing ball himself," Smith says of Ditka. "He said, 'Goddam it, hit the sled like this!' and he broke his wrist on it. He didn't utter a word. That afternoon he came back in a cast, and the vets were gagging, laughing. We rookies could not crack a smile. Ditka is a bear without the honey. I saw that wallowing in one's excesses can be a drawback to teaching. I learned to regulate how much of the irate competitor in me I brought to the equation. A flash of it is fine, so an athlete understands we share it. Then it's back to the honey."
That year the International Track Association (ITA) launched a professional track tour. A year later Smith joined, ran for peanuts and was stripped of his Olympic eligibility by track's international governing body, the IAAF. After the ITA folded in '76, Smith pleaded for reinstatement. When at last he got it, in 1980, an Achilles-tendon injury immediately ended his running career.
But in 1976 a director saw him training and asked him to do a commercial. Smith discovered an ability to perform and was soon studying acting. He appeared in two plays, four movies and 10 TV shows. Yet never did he mention that the John Smith auditioning for a part was the world-record holder in the 440. "Running was my love affair, my way out of evil, my community," he says. "All I ever asked, it gave me, except for one little medal, so it was intensely personal. I didn't want to use it, not as some entree into acting."
Instead Smith used his acting training to make himself a more vivid coach. Smith had never stopped working out on the UCLA track, and he often advised talented kids from the neighborhood. In 1984 new Bruin track coach Bob Larsen hired Smith to coach the sprinters. "John is the only person I know who understands running mechanics, who communicates with the complete range of people—and he's been there," Larsen says. "A lot of coaches, when one athlete gives them trouble, it ruins them with their other athletes. At first I was concerned, given the success he'd had, whether he'd be patient enough. When I saw John was spending most of his time with people who weren't our most talented, I knew we had the right guy."
Smith's first pupil at UCLA was a spidery, walk-on freshman high hurdler named Kevin Young, whom Larsen wanted to redshirt. Smith, finding that Young had never tried the 400, talked him through one at the end of a workout. Young ran 48.0. "Don't redshirt him," said Smith to Larsen. "Give him to me."
"That first year," recalls Young, "I felt like a displaced person because I was a walk-on among a lot of hotshots. It was great finding John because he was kind of a beginner coach. He wanted to get into shaping attitude and character, but because he was new, a lot of the seniors didn't respect him."
"Kevin Young kept me at UCLA," Smith says. "He was my lifeline." By his junior year Young was the NCAA 400-meter-hurdles champion. The success of the Smith-Young relationship created an atmosphere congenial to the rapid progress of two younger talents, Danny Everett and Steve Lewis. At the 1988 NCAAs, when Young won the hurdles, Everett and Lewis went one-two in the 400, and the three combined with Henry Thomas to become the first college 4 X 400-meter-relay team to crack three minutes, running 2:59.91. UCLA had another cluster.