Auburn Olympian, National Champion Willie Smith Passes Away
Willie Smith, a former Auburn track national champion and three-time Olympian, passed away earlier this month at the age of 64. Smith, who competed at Auburn from 1975-78, won the NCAA Indoor Championships at 440 yards in 1977 and '78.
Born on February 28, 1956 in Rochester, Pa., Smith attended Uniondale High School on Long Island and was the 1974 Track and Field News National High School Athlete of the Year.
Smith, who passed away on November 7, ran under legendary and Hall of Fame coach Mel Rosen, helping Auburn win the SEC Indoor Championship and NCAA Indoor runner-up trophy during his senior season in 1978. His outdoor school record 400-meter time of 44.73 stood for 13 years and Smith is still the No. 4 all-time performer at Auburn in the event.
"It's pretty amazing the career he had as an athlete, but Willie was a good person too," said Harvey Glance, an Auburn track and field great and teammate of Smith. "He'd give you the shirt off his back."
Smith garnered a combined seven All-America honors and was a five-time Southeastern Conference champion, winning the 440-yard dash indoor title three consecutive years (1976-78) and outdoors back-to-back in 1977 and 1978.
"He was a good friend," said James Walker, who ran the 110 and 400 hurdles for Auburn. "Willie had a big heart. We had some amazing teams with Harvey and Willie and Tony Easley and John Lewter, but in my mind, I always thought that Willie had more talent than any of us."
A team captain his last two seasons at Auburn, Smith won Auburn University's top honor as Athlete of the Year as a senior in 1978. After graduation he won the bronze medal in the 400 meters at the 1979 Pan American Games.
"Willie Smith is one of the all-time track and field greats at Auburn, who helped the program gain national prominence as a sprints school," Auburn track and field coach Ralph Spry said. "Our thoughts, prayers and condolences are with Willie's family, friends and teammates."
Smith made three United States Olympic teams in 1976, 1980 and 1984, winning a gold medal at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles as a member of the 4x400-meter relay.
He made the 1976 team as an alternate in the 4 x100-meter relay, but did not compete in Montreal. Four years later, Smith was second at the U.S. Olympic Trials in the 400, but the United States boycotted the Games in Moscow.
"He had more natural talent than any athlete I had ever seen," said Jerry F. Smith, then the Auburn assistant track coach who recruited him.
Twice Smith was a USATF Outdoor Champion, winning the national title in the 400 in 1979 and 1980.
"The thing I remember most about Willie is the fact he taught me how to create a goal...and to go for it," said teammate Raymond Crump. "He lived a sprinter's dream. He won State Championships, SEC Championships, NCAA Championships and he was an Olympian too. What a great athlete, but also a great friend."
Smith attempted to qualify for the 1988 Olympic team, placing eighth in the 400 semifinals at age 32. The New York Times then chronicled his bid for the 1996 Olympic team at age 40 in which he set a masters record.
Inducted into the 1997 Alabama Sports Hall of Fame, Smith was honored as a Tiger Trail inductee in 2000.
Survivors include Dona Smith and daughter Kendal Smith of Birmingham, father Willie Smith Jr., and sister Sabrina of Queens, New York, and mother Shirley Smith and brother John of Oklahoma.
Smith's friends and teammates plan to hold a Celebration of Life for him at a later date.
Karen Rosen contributed to this story
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