Ross Smith National Coach of the Year Award
Presentation made at Wake Forest University,
November 21, 2009
By Melissa Maxcy Wade,
Executive Director of Forensics,
Debate is its own form of family, often dysfunctional, but very close--and we lost one of the really good ones last summer. Most of us don't know how to talk about our grief, but I believe with my 84 year old Dad, that joy shared is twice the joy; grief shared is half the grief. And today we share grief with each other as members of individual school communities, and the larger debate family.
I want to share by memorizing with you. How do we put someone, their particular era in history, into our community memory? We frequently erect architectural memorials, endow scholarships, name our children after them, paint their portraits. Not in this group: we like shiny trophies and awards.
In that spirit I am pleased to present this year’s shiny National Coach of the Year Award through the story of its evolution, and one of its representative recipients, Ross Smith. The original Coach of the Year Award was given annually at the grand Georgetown Thanksgiving tournament to the coach who had won the NDT the year before, or the next best coach in the rare event there had been a two-time winner. Everyone knew who it was to be by simple deduction. In 1965 Glenn Pelham, my coach and predecessor at Emory—and one of the giants in the world of coaching—started a different award that recognized all coaches through the contributions of one coach.
The award was voted on by Emory debaters and there was a spirited debate and election process to determine the winner. But the process was always the same. Mr. Pelham would give a speech about the inaugural recipient, and require that our candidates have the capacity to meet the standards set in that first choice: Anabel Dunham Hagood, Director of Forensics and full professor of communications at the University of Alabama. She displayed four characteristics: 1) a consistent record fielding nationally competitive teams, 2) a consistent record as a top judge—back in those days there were no oral critiques and well written ballots were the measure of a judge. Dr. Hagood’s ballots were scholarly papers. She scared us to death. 3) contributions to the evolution of the debate field which Dr. Hagood did through scholarly publication and tinkering with tournament practices at the Alabama tournament. Most schools copied her changes. 4) the intangible: taking debate outside itself. Dr. Hagood brought debate into the real world when she was selected to coach John Kennedy for the 1960 Presidential Debates that were credited with bringing him the razor thin victory he ultimately achieved over Richard Nixon.
The Peachtree Coach of the Year Award was presented until the last Peachtree Tournament was held at Emory in 1990. In its last five years Emory fielded large teams on the very separate CEDA and NDT circuits, and the Coach of the Year Award debates became more heated. The Peachtree ended so Emory could meet the growing demands f Urban Debate League work, and the University of South Carolina was selected to pick up the tournament dates, in part because it was a CEDA school seeking to merge the two communities--and the Coach of the Year award was a draw for building an NDT division. South Carolina renamed the award in Glenn Pelham’s honor. As a Georgia Congressman and state court judge, he also personified taking debate “outside itself.”
When South Carolina’s tournament ended, the award was moved, appropriately, to Wake Forest--the 1st semester “nationals”. The award process has changed from students voting and previous recipients presenting, to previous recipients voting and former students presenting. Today we will change that up a little. I want to propose that the current incarnation of the Peachtree Coach of the Year Award at Emory that became the Thomas Glenn Pelham Coach of the Year Award at South Carolina, that became the National Coach of the Year Award at Wake, become the Ross Smith Coach of the Year Award—because it is housed in a place that has memorized Ross, that will keep his influence alive, that nurtured his generativity in our profession, and that will always be the great tournament laboratory for our progress as a community. But most of all because Ross personifies the qualities that define those we honor in our coaches in this fabulous activity.
Ross Smith was one of the most dynamic coaches in the history of American debate, but he was also a visionary person who really understood education and collaboration. His son, Alex, grew up at the Wake tournament--gave out trophies as a toddler; grew up to attend the NC School of the Arts—which Ross admired beyond measure. His wife Jayne is awesome--a teacher and lovely human who has the wisdom to know true partnership as the keystone of marriage.
We all remember when we lose our ability to have a last conversation with someone we truly loved. I am no different; so many stories. Ross was short on judges when my son Patrick was a baby and the sitter didn't show at the Wake tournament. Ross strapped on the baby carrier, gave me a ballot, and wore Patrick like a necklace for the next 2 hours while entering tournament data and chasing down errant judges. I have 25 years of stories of Ross--from judging him to collaborating with him to our annual celebration at the KY Round Robin Run for the Roses, often in the company of Scott Harris from Kansas--what became a deeply personal relationship. There are literally hundreds folks who share that history with Ross; thousands who felt his influence.
Ross was part of all of your squads in some way. Emory was no different. Emory debaters and collaborators got MA degrees at Wake and worked for Ross: Bill Newnam, Shannon Feldman, Jason Jarvis, Joe Bellon, and Carol Winkler. Scott Segal was one of his dearest friends. Joe Bellon felt deeply respected that Ross listened to his ideas and implemented many of them.
Ross was the first person who didn't run from me as I headed out at tournaments like a shark to find folks willing to give UDL kids debate institute scholarships in the early 90's--he asked me if five would be enough. Ross ran the first non-Emory led summer debate institute to hire Ed Lee and other UDL grads as faculty; tried to recruit Ed to Wake when he left Alabama--OK, who didn't...
Ross consoled David Heidt when he and Kate Shuster went 0-8 at the KY RR--told him they were good and could win the NDT. Dave acknowledged Ross in his opening speech in the final round of the NDT that year--and Ross smiled with as much appreciation as if Dave were his own student. I watched that interaction make an impact on a young Dan Fitzmier and Stephen Heidt, and it fueled their zeal for excellence. Ross loved him some James Roland--asked me shortly after I hired James why I got all the cool staff—with the obvious exception of Bill Newnam—Bill and Ross’s close peer relationship--and way of playing with each other never changed, especially on the basketball court where the height differential was noticeable. Ross and I had the same conversation when James Herndon came to Emory. Ross celebrated debaters who became coaches—folks who were unabashed in their love for debate and the life of the mind.
Ross seemed to be a part of every NDT district and was unabashedly filled with District 6 “nationalism.” He was our true leader--role modeling changes he believed in at the Wake tournament, and frequently challenging the NDT committee to advance debate for all its participants. How much debt do we all owe the 6 minute rebuttal!?
He pushed his love of debate out into the real world in the best traditions of Anabel Hagood and Glenn Pelham by running for office in local education and launching a political debate site to capture the intellect in this room for the good of no less than democracy itself. Martin Luther King used to say the world was in dire need of creative extremists. Ross was the best creative extremist in our midst. His is a profound role model for all of you in this room who are just starting your life journey.
I want to think that when Sarah Partlow or Dan Fitzmier or Jarrod Atchison or Mikaela Malsin is my age, and they are giving out this award, that they will keep the spirit and heart of its honoree alive, as I hope I have done tonight for you through the stories of Anabel Hagood and Glenn Pelham; that we never forget the richness of our history or depth of our societal contributions; that we memorize the role models that inspire our commitment to community.