Columbus-area basketball community mourns the loss of fixture 'Coach Bob'
If it was an important basketball game in central Ohio, you could bet Coach Bob would be there.
Odds are, he’d be somewhere close to the action. In the case of an Ohio State men’s home game, he’d be right there behind the team bench. Slightly hunched over, possibly rocking a Dallas Cowboys jersey, he’d have an opinion and no hesitation to express it.
After a few decades ingrained in the sport, he’d earned that right. And it’s just one of many things that made Coach Bob, who passed away last Friday at the age of 62 after battling diabetes and liver issues, an irreplaceable part of the fabric of the local basketball community.
“He loved his sports and he loved Ohio State basketball,” Sherece Smith, his wife of 32 years, told The Dispatch. “He had a big heart, as well as a big mouth. You had to love him or hate him for it, and he would give you the shirt off his back.
“He loved people. He was uncut, unfiltered, raw and sometimes not very well-mannered, but I guess you had to get to know him and get used to him. He had a heart of gold.”
He also had a name that wasn’t Coach Bob, even if most people didn’t know it. His given name was Henry Smith, but it didn’t suit him much, so he went by Coach Bob. Sometimes there was an extra "b" attached to the end, and the origins of the nickname are lost to time.
“I guess it came from anytime you needed something, Bob knew where to go get it,” his wife said. “That’s what they tell me. He was always the one, you could go ask him about something and he would tell you where to go get it and they’d start calling him B-o-b-b Bob.”
Coach Bob arrived in Columbus by way of South Boston, Virginia, sometime in the late 1970s and became a staple in the local sports scene. A three-sport athlete in high school, he played softball and would become an umpire before getting involved in coaching and mentoring through grassroots basketball. He met his wife, a Houston native, in 1988, and they had been together since.
Along the way, she said she never really realized how many lives he had touched until the messages of support started to flow in as word of his passing spread across social media. George Howard, a friend for more than two decades who had worked with him as part of the All-Ohio AAU program, described him as a brother – the kind you could have a cursing match with and then speak with again two hours later like nothing had happened.
“I’d say, ‘Bob, didn’t we just have an argument earlier today?’ ” Howard said. “He’d be like, ‘Well, that don’t mean nothin’, let’s talk about this basketball.’ Just a tough time to see a guy (die who) loved basketball the way he did, loved kids the way he did.”
Howard shared stories of how his kids, among many others, would run up to Coach Bob at games. He’d give them a $20 bill and send them to the concession stand to get him something and let them keep the rest, telling them, "And while you’re at it, go get something for yourselves, too.”
Those relationships with children of all ages are as much a part of his legacy as his seemingly permanent presence at Ohio State men’s basketball games. Junior forward Justin Ahrens knew Coach Bob from his days playing AAU basketball, and he would see him in his first-row seat behind the bench at every game.
He’d often hear him, too.
“Whether I was open or not, if I missed a shot and I came out, high-fiving the guys on the bench as I’m walking down, he’ll be like, ‘Come on, Justin! You’ve gotta hit that (bleep)!’ ” Ahrens said. “I’d just look at him and kind of giggle, because obviously during a game you don’t want to be talking to the fans, but I acknowledged him.”
Assistant coach Ryan Pedon, a Columbus native now in his fourth season with the program, knew Coach Bob from the grassroots circuit but developed more of a relationship in recent years. He described him as an old-school type of coach whose players naturally gravitated toward him.
The two would often share a glance as the starting lineups were announced, Pedon said, and he could feel the intensity radiating from Coach Bob. And if he had an opinion on how the game was going, or how a certain player was faring, he wasn’t afraid to share it with the Ohio State coaches, imploring them to get this player out of the game or do something different with another player.
He could get away with it, Howard said, because he was Coach Bob.
“He was a fixture with Columbus basketball,” Pedon said. “High school, college and grassroots, he was a fixture. He was one of those guys that once you meet him, you never forget him.”
The Ohio State program will recognize him this season by leaving his seat at Value City Arena empty for the upcoming season. It’s a fitting tribute to an integral part of the local basketball community, one that will be forever lessened without his presence.
“Just thinking about him today, not walking in the gym and not seeing him or hearing him call my name,” Howard said. “it didn’t matter when I walked in the gym, how far he was down the bench or wherever he was, he would always say, “George Howard!’ and call me. I’d tell people, ‘I know who that is calling me. I’m not going to turn around. I know it’s Bob,’ and he would get up with his cane and come walking over and tap me with it.
“It’s not going to be the same without Bob.”