South Medford High baseball head coach Ray Smith was placed on leave from his coaching duties and job as campus monitor Wednesday afternoon after a meeting with Medford School District officials regarding an incident Tuesday where Smith had consumed alcohol prior to coaching a baseball game.
“We do have an active internal investigation going on right now and he has been placed on leave,” said Natalie Hurd, communications specialist for the Medford School District. “I can’t go into details because it’s a personnel matter because there’s confidentiality involved. I can say at the Medford School District the safety of our students is our top priority.”
Smith’s leave of absence was immediate Wednesday, and Hurd said the duration will depend on the outcome of the investigation by the district’s human resources department. It’s important to note that Smith has not been fired by the school district in any capacity at this time.
“Obviously we want to get the matter resolved but we want to be fair to all parties,” said Hurd.
In his ninth season as head coach, Smith has guided the Panthers to the Southwest Conference championship and No. 1 spot in the Class 6A power rankings as of Wednesday. He admitted the regrettable lapse in judgment prior to the meeting, noting it’s no different from what he asks of his players when it comes to owning up to their mistakes.
“I messed up big time,” said Smith. “I had some drinks before the game … I don’t know why. I’m just absolutely so embarrassed, all that hard work just right down the tubes.
“It’s just a very humbling, humiliating thing,” he added. “I just can’t believe myself. I’m just so disappointed, I let a lot of people down.”
Smith guided South Medford to a runner-up showing in the 2010 state playoffs during his first season and has a 124-112 coaching record. This year’s squad has earned the most single-season wins during his tenure at 19-3 overall and 16-0 in SWC play, and wraps up the league season Saturday with a doubleheader at Willamette. Assistant coach Scott Carle will assume Smith’s duties in his absence.
Smith was ejected from Tuesday’s game in the third inning after arguing a call at third base. South Medford went on to top North Medford, 8-1. He was already scheduled to miss the mandatory first game of Saturday’s doubleheader due to his ejection, but potentially may not be able to attend another game this season due to district policy stemming from his being placed on leave, according to District Athletic Director Amy Tiger.
“If he’s on leave then he wouldn’t be allowed to watch,” Tiger said. “Everything is a case by case basis, a lot of things just depend on how the investigation plays out.”
Smith was noticeably contrite when discussing the issue Wednesday. Smith said he had never had an issue like this before and had no idea why it happened Tuesday.
“I just don’t know,” he said, full of emotion. “I have a drinking problem, but it was the worst decision I’ve ever made in my life and I’m going to pay a severe price for it.
“Don’t worry about me, though,” added Smith, “worry about these kids and the community we have here in our program. That’s who I’m more worried about. I can own up to it myself, but the people I let down ... that’s for me the hardest part. I’ve just got to fix this.”
Carle was en route to a meeting with team parents on Wednesday afternoon before gathering with the South Medford players later, but said his main goal was to keep the Panthers moving forward as they have under Smith.
“I’ve got to get organized and make sure I have everything in line now,” said Carle. “I want this to be as seamless as we can be with the team and families moving forward these last couple weeks of the season.”
Carle and Smith first began working together in the mid-1990s as part of the Crater baseball program, and Carle was one of the first calls Smith made to come help him at South Medford when he got the job in 2010. Responsibilities coaching his own kids at the lower levels took priority for Carle in the early days, but he wound up joining the staff two years later.
“His heart is 100 percent for these kids,” Carle said of Smith. “He’s probably more worried about the kids and how they’re going to react to all the negativity than anything else right now. Our job as a coaching staff here is to make sure we continue to do everything we can for the kids.”
How the Panthers will react remains to be seen but, this past Saturday, Smith talked about the close-knit relationship that his senior-driven team enjoys, and that should be of even more value moving forward.
“I think the best part for me is they really enjoy each other,” Smith said after his team swept a doubleheader against South Eugene. “There’s a good team camaraderie and a bond with them that is something special. It doesn’t happen all that often, it really doesn’t. They really love and care and play for each other. That has nothing to do with the coach, that has everything to do with the kids being the best teammates they can be. You look around here and there’s a lot of those humble type kids.”
Added Carle: “These guys are focused on the season. Obviously it’s going to affect them, how much it’s going to be ... we’ll find out in the next day or two.”
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry