Valley Center looks for football turnaround from a hometown son
Tony Wilbur is a Valley Center football guy. He went to the games with his dad in the 1960s, played for Valley Center in the 1970s, and watched his son play in the 1990s.
In the 2000s, Wilbur became disinterested in a program that stumbled through 11 straight losing seasons, including three 0-9s, two 1-8s, three 2-7s and five coaches.
But with the hiring of first-year coach Caleb Smith, Wilbur is back.
“I was a (part of the booster club), but then I fell off like everyone else,” Wilbur said. “I went to several games, through several coaching changes. I just lost interest.
“Boy, I have it back now.”
Wilbur isn’t alone. The hiring of Smith has sparked interest from alumni and has many in the town talking about football again.
“He’s a perfect fit for Valley Center,” said Derby coach Brandon Clark, a Valley Center graduate. “They just needed someone to come in there and build some excitement.”
Valley Center football has been an afterthought for years, but Smith brings back memories of when his dad, Mike, coached the Hornets from 1993-2001. Valley Center was 64-22 under Mike Smith with three one-loss seasons and three playoff berths.
“I’m hearing a whole bunch of support from the community, from alumni,” senior quarterback Miles Balthazor said. “I had never heard anything from them before. They’re just saying they’re excited. The first game against Andover Central, it’s alumni night. That’s the first time I remember that happening.”
Valley Center principal Jamie Lewis is emphatic when he says Caleb Smith was not hired because of who his dad is.
“He was hired because he’s the right person for the job. Caleb is not Mike,” Lewis said. “He does bring a lot of the same types of attributes and characteristics, but he has his own stamp on things, too.”
Lewis specifically noted Smith’s passion and his ability to evaluate and put coaches and athletes in the best position for success.
“Now, when it’s all said and done, there’s no doubt that being Mike Smith’s son has brought some additional excitement and enthusiasm throughout the community,” Lewis said.
Smith, who just turned 27, is starting his head coaching career, and he considers Valley Center to be a perfect fit.
“The biggest thing for me was going back home,” he said. “It’s a small town, but it’s a bigger school. Only about 5,000 people, but it’s a 5A school. It’s kind of unusual. There aren’t a lot of communities left that have one school.”
Smith’s background has many excited because his resume is packed with links to great coaches.
Smith, who two brothers-in-law coaching at Garden City and Dodge City, grew up in Valley Center, attended most practices, and was a ball boy for his dad. He played quarterback for his dad at Garden City High, then played one season at Garden City Community College.
At Kansas State in 2007, Smith walked on as a long snapper but moved to quarterback as a backup to Josh Freeman and Carson Coffman. Smith spent the season in the video room with James Franklin, now the Vanderbilt coach.
In 2008, Smith went to Derby as an assistant to Clark, his idol while growing up in Valley Center and the reason why Smith changed his loyalties from Oklahoma to Kansas State, where Clark played.
Smith routinely picks the brains of these men.
“He’s got his own philosophy,” Mike Smith said. “… He’s doing some of the things I did, he got a lot from Brandon, he got ideas from Coach Franklin.”
Caleb Smith learned the basics of the game while growing up. He talked Xs and Os with his dad and was obsessed with learning all the hand signals.
They talk frequently about football, with Mike offering suggestions on plays and how to handle various situations. Mike and his wife, Sheri, plan to come to all the Valley Center games, making the drive from Garden City.
They were at Derby’s games during Caleb Smith’s time there, too, and were there to console their son after the devastating loss to Hutchinson in the Class 6A semifinals last fall.
“When something comes up, and you’re dealing with issues all the time as a head coach, I have a great guy to call when I’m handling things,” Smith said. “I know I’m young and I won’t know everything I need to know. I’m learning on the job. I have a guy with 35 years of experience to learn from. It would be arrogant to not take that advice.”
In college he learned about every position, including defensive line, offensive line and even more technique. He learned about work ethic from Franklin, who Smith said sleeps about four hours a night and is back at his office by 4 or 5 a.m.
“He’s stayed in touch with me, and he’s always been very passionate about the game, passionate about learning and growing,” Franklin said. “It’s an important trait. He’s been inquisitive, wanted to get better as a coach, wanted to grow, learn, watch a lot of film, talk football.”
Like Clark, Smith installed a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich bar, sponsored by the booster club, for his players to get sandwiches at any time.
“The biggest thing with Brandon is his program-building skills,” Smith said. “Derby has a good history, but they were in the dumps when he took over. He did a ton of stuff to build that program up.”
From Clark and his dad, Smith learned about the importance of focusing on the team as a family, that there’s more to coaching the players than simply football.
He’s made Valley Center football a community focus again. He’s had a Football 101 clinic for women, hosted a first-grade through 12th-grade scrimmage to show program unity. Each of the groups came through the tunnel with the older players cheering for the younger ones. Each team had about 30 minutes to scrimmage before a crowded stadium.
“They remember that,” Smith said. “They want to be a Hornet someday. They have that experience in their head.”
Valley Center won’t become a state championship contender right away, but Smith has the knowledge and the desire to build the Hornets into a winner.
“It’s exciting to see someone whose passionate about kids and passionate about the game,” Franklin said. “It’s obvious to me that Caleb gets it.”