INA, Ill. (May 20, 2017) - Rend Lake College has been blessed with a number of fantastic coaches. For those in the know when it comes to Warrior athletics, the names Hummer, Ellingsworth, Corn, Wills, McClure, and McLain bring memories and stories flooding back about successes and legacies.
One of those storied coaches to build a tradition of success both on and off the competitive field is men’s golf coach Dave Smith. Building the program from the ground up, Smith established one of the most prolific RLC sports dynasties and continues to be a staple in many Warrior lives.
It was hard work. When Smith took over the team in 1989, he was looking up at regional powerhouses like Lincoln Trail, Danville Area and Lincoln College. The growing pains lasted three years with The Lake finally winning its first tournament in 1992.
In his 26 years at the helm, Smith and his team captured seven consecutive Region XXIV Division II Championships between 1994 and 2000 (eight championships in total). For his part, Smith walked off with seven Region XXIV “Coach of the Year” awards. He coached 13 All-Americans and an individual National Champion, and had RLC competing as an entire team 14 times on the national stage. In his career, Smith, and his team, finished second in the nation twice, third twice, fourth once, fifth twice and sixth twice. The Warriors have amassed more than a hundred collegiate tournament championships under Smith.
While the team never brought home a national title, Smith did get his first individual National Champion when Leroy David Griffin (Effingham) won the title in a scorecard playoff in 2009.
“That was fun,” Smith said. “Griffin won it in a playoff and I sure enjoyed that. I was tickled for him.”
Griffin might have brought home a national championship, but Smith’s best player is equal parts triumph and heartbreak.
Jace Bugg (Henderson, Ky.) led the Warriors to third national berth as a freshman in 1996 and fifth as a sophomore. He was one of the top eight amateurs in the country right out of RLC. He was a three-time Nationwide Tour champion, winning the Canadian Tour in 2001 before joining the more prestigious Buy.com Tour where he was ranked seventh midway through the summer of 2002, on his way to getting his PGA Tour card since the top 15 automatically qualified.
Tragically, Bugg was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia shortly after the 2002 Nationwide Tour Championship. After a year of chemotherapy treatments and an unsuccessful bone marrow transplant, he suffered a brain hemorrhage early December 4 and died a few hours later at St. Mary’s Medical Center in Evansville, IN. He was 27.
“I was sitting in my rocker . . . on a Sunday night in November,” Smith recalled. “The phone rang. I picked up. [Bugg] said, ‘You ain’t gonna believe this coach. I’ve got leukemia.’ It was hard to even speak at that point.”
Shortly before Bugg passed, Smith traveled to Henderson to see Bugg at his parents’ home and present him his plaque for being inducted into the RLC Sports Hall of Fame the month before. Bugg was too sick to make the trip to Ina.
Smith told GolfWorld Magazine Columnist Bill Shields that Bugg had his hands on the award for an hour and a half. Shields wrote, “For a little while on Autumn Lane, it was spring again.”
“If Jace hadn’t gotten sick, he was on the PGA Tour,” Smith added. “He shot even par on the nationwide tour championship with leukemia. He was just tough as hell and played through it.”
His dedication to his players was, and continues to be, on display.
Former RLC Board of Trustees Chairman Bryan Drew spoke about his former coach.
“I played golf for Dave,” Drew said. “He was a good coach, but far more than that really. He was more than a coach to a lot of guys. As evidence of that, I’ve been on a golf trip or two and it’s amazing. You can go just about anywhere in the country and you would be surprised how many Rend Lake College graduates, or guys who came through here playing golf, you’ll find at country clubs, resorts and golf courses all over the United States. [RLC golf] is something that has really been a good representation of the college and has been very beneficial to us. The college is known in a lot of places because of it and he has done a very good job.”
Smith’s impact wasn’t limited to Rend Lake College. In fact, he has meant a lot to the game of golf at the junior college level. He began his membership with the NJCAA Region XXIV Golf Committee in 1993 and chaired that committee from 1997-2006. In 2000, he was elected Vice President of the National Golf Coaches Association and served as its President from 2001-02.
So, how did a man so synonymous with coaching at RLC that he named his boat “Hey Coach!” get his start at the college? Not by coaching.
He started at the college as a young instructor in 1981 – the better part of a decade before coaching. He is now a Professor Emeritus of Welding Technology and has taught countless students this valuable trade for more than 30 years running. Smith retired as a professor and returned as a full-time emeritus professor in 2009. Discounting that brief retirement period, Smith sits atop the unofficial RLC seniority list of active full-time employees.