A former baseball and basketball standout at Furman, Ron Smith is now in his 23rd season at the helm of a Paladin baseball program he has revitalized and positioned as a strong competitor in the Southern Conference.
In 2007 Smith became Furman’s all-time winningest baseball coach, and his 551 victories heading into the 2016 campaign are second among active SoCon head coaches. He has averaged 25 victories per season during his two-decade Paladin tenure — a level of accomplishment that takes on new meaning when considering the fact that prior to his arrival Furman had recorded just one 25-win campaign in program history and only one winning season since 1976.
Smith has directed Paladin baseball to ten 25-win campaigns and five 30-win seasons. Punctuating the marked increase in success are a SoCon Tournament championship (2005) and a pair of tournament runner-up finishes.
Taking over a moribund program in 1994, Smith’s first team managed only 10 triumphs. By 1997 Furman baseball posted a 29-23 record and, in the process, established a new high for season wins and finished as SoCon Tournament runner-up, which it repeated again in 2000.
In 2001, Furman’s program made another notable leap as the Paladins notched a 30-25 overall record and 18-11 conference mark, good for a third place regular season finish. Included in the 2001 campaign, which yielded the most conference wins in program history, was a 5-4 victory over nationally fifth-ranked South Carolina.
The 2003 campaign marked another milestone for Furman baseball as the Paladins won a then-school record 32 games and posted impressive wins over North Carolina State, South Carolina, and a pair of late inning, come-from-behind victories over Clemson. The triumph over the Tigers in Greenville was the first by the Paladins in 20 years, and the decision in Clemson represented the first Furman win there since 1964 and first regular season sweep of the Tigers since 1960.
The 2003 season also yielded several impressive individual accomplishments as Tom Mastny led the NCAA in earned run average (1.09) and was named SoCon Pitcher-of-the-Year and the school’s first All-American prior to being selected in the 11th round of the Major League Baseball Draft. In addition, pitcher John Stallsmith was tabbed to the prestigious CoSIDA Academic All-America squad.
In 2005 Smith authored a new chapter in Furman baseball history by directing his Paladins to the SoCon Tournament championship and program’s first trip to the NCAA Tournament since 1991. Forced to win three straight league road games on the final weekend of the regular season just to qualify for the league tournament, the Paladins ran the table in Charleston, knocking off No. 1 seed and 20th-ranked College of Charleston in the opening round, No. 4 seed Elon in round two, and No. 2 seed Georgia Southern twice to secure the tournament crown.
Furman’s surprising run to the NCAA Tournament, which ended following a 5-4, 10-inning loss to nationally fourth-ranked Georgia Tech and setback to Big 10 Conference champion Michigan, capped a season that also included a road victory over 18th-ranked and eventual College World Series participant Tennessee and a two-game sweep of 13th-ranked South Carolina — the Paladins’ first over the Gamecocks since 1953.
Furman followed up the 2005 campaign with a 32-23 season in 2006 that included a 16-11, third place league finish after the Paladins had been a consensus No. 7 league pick. Fueling the strong run was a squad that set new school standards for batting average (.324), runs (410), hits (637), home runs (52), RBI (369) and slugging percentage (.472), among others. Included in the campaign was a 5-4 win at No. 6 Clemson.
In 2008 Smith’s Paladins racked up other program milestones, including a record 33 wins in a 33-24 campaign that also featured a 17-10, third place Southern Conference finish and school record 13 straight league victories. Included in that stretch was a three-game sweep of the College of Charleston, the first administered to the Cougars by any foe since 2003, and a 4-2 road win over 10th-ranked South Carolina.
Keying Furman’s signal 2008 campaign was the SoCon’s top pitcher, Jay Jackson, a ninth round draft pick of the Chicago Cubs who made his major league debut with the San Diego Padres in 2015, and Paladin teammate, pitcher Matt Klinker, a 15th round pick of the Cincinnati Reds in 2007, who advanced to Triple A by 2011.
The list of accomplishments have continued over the last six seasons, among which are a 4-2, 14-inning victory against 19th-ranked Clemson, three wins over Georgia, including a 10-9 decision in Athens in 2010 that marked the Paladins’ first win over the Bulldogs since 1979 and first win in Athens since 1925. The Paladins have also posted three victories over South Carolina since 2010, including a 4-2 triumph in 2011 at Fluor Field over the fourth-ranked and defending national champion Gamecocks, who would go on to successfully retain their national crown, and last year's 2-1 triumph at Fluor Field.
The most notable recent Furman product to make waves in professional ball has been left-handed pitcher Nate Smith, a 2013 graduate and eighth round draft pick of the Los Angeles Angels. In 2015 Smith was named Texas League Double A Pitcher of the Year and also starred with Team USA, going 3-0 and helping the American squad to a sliver medal in the Pan American Games.
From dramatic improvement on the field through strong recruiting, commitment to the game’s fundamentals and execution, student-athlete retention and graduation, and a noticeable improvement in facilities, Furman’s baseball program has taken giant leaps during Smith’s tenure. Indeed, in nine of the last 10 years Furman baseball has led all South Carolina diamond programs in NCAA Graduation Success Rate (GSR).
The program’s transformation has also been aided significantly by his impressive fund-raising ability, which over the years has led to the construction of a press box, installation of 300 permanent seats, addition of a scoreboard and message center, and installation of lights at Furman Stadium, thereby adding to the attractiveness of one of the league’s most congenial stadiums on one of the country’s most beautiful campuses.
In 2003, thanks to Smith’s diligence, Furman completely renovated and expanded the stadium’s dugouts, and in 2006 the program received another boost with the construction of a covered hitting area down the left field line. In December of 2012, primarily through Smith’s drive and leadership, Furman completed Phase 1 of a $3.5 million in facility enhancements at Latham Stadium with the construction of the 11,000-square foot, $2 million Furman Baseball Complex, featuring coaches’ offices, locker rooms from coaches and players, a player lounge, training and equipment rooms, laundry, and spacious indoor batting and pitching cages. Phase 2 will include a new press box, concourse, concessions, public restrooms, and additional chair back seating.
In addition to raising funds for facility improvements, Smith also initiated in 1998 the “Upstate Diamond Classic,” a much-anticipated annual fund-raising dinner that has featured many outstanding speakers and former baseball greats such as Tommy John, Bobby Thompson, Bobby Richardson, Alvin Dark, Brett Butler, Phil Niekro, John Smoltz, and Jeff Francoeur, as well as renown baseball broadcasters Pete van Wieren, Skip Carey, hall of famer Marty Brennaman, highly acclaimed novelist and collegiate baseball fan John Grisham, and world renowned orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews.
The success of Furman's Upstate Diamond Classic has been emulated by many collegiate baseball programs over the last several years.
A 1979 Furman graduate with a degree in political science/education, Smith was a three-year starter and three-time letterwinner as a shortstop for the Paladins from 1975-77. As a junior, in 1976, he batted .245 and helped lead Furman to a 23-16 record, SoCon title, and an appearance in the NCAA Atlantic Regional, where the Paladins defeated both Virginia Tech and South Carolina before being eliminated by Clemson. That season still stands as one of the finest in Furman baseball history and was only finally surpassed in wins by Smith’s 1997 Paladin squad.
In addition to enjoying a fine baseball career, Smith proved to be an outstanding basketball player during his tenure at Furman. Known for his competitiveness and tenacity, he was a four-year starter at point guard and played on squads that twice won SoCon championships and competed in the NCAA Tournament. As a senior he captained Furman’s 1977-78 team that defeated Clemson, as well as North Carolina and North Carolina State in the North-South Doubleheader. Those wins still sta2nd as the last Furman triumphs over the Tigers, Tar Heels, and Wolfpack in basketball.
Following the 1977 baseball season, he was selected by the Philadelphia Phillies in the ninth round of the Major League Baseball Draft and played on various minor league squads that also included future major leaguers Ryne Sandburg, Lonnie Smith, Ozzie Virgil, and Bob Walk. He advanced as high as the Phillies’ AAA Oklahoma City affiliate before retiring as a player in 1981. He remained with the Phillies organization for the 1982 season, managing squads in both Sarasota, Fla., and Helena, Mont.
Shortly before concluding his tenure in professional baseball in 1982, Smith assumed the basketball head coaching job at Miami University in Middletown, Ohio. From 1981-87 he posted a 116-59 record and won three conference championships. While serving as basketball coach at Miami University-Middletown, he began his career as a teacher and administrator in the public schools in 1984, when he assumed the baseball head coaching duties at Middletown High School. While there, he directed his team to a 42-32 record over a three-year period.
In 1989, he took over as head basketball coach at Middletown High School, and over five seasons guided his program to a 75-42 record, including Greater Miami Conference, sectional, and district championships in 1989, for which he was named conference coach-of-the-year.
A native of Elkhart, Ind., Smith, who in 1999 was named to the Indiana Basketball Hall-of-Fame (IBHOF) Silver Anniversary Team (along with Larry Bird) and in 2014 was inducted into the IBHOF, holds a master’s degree in educational leadership from Miami (Ohio) University. He is married to the former Beth Jordan of Houston, Texas, and has a daughter, Emily, and three sons: Devin, Blake, and Peyton.