Jim Smith had two tough decisions when it came to coaching the St. John's basketball team: figuring out whether to take the job and figuring out when it was time to leave.
The first decision came in 1964, when Smith, a Marquette graduate who was coaching high school basketball in Wisconsin, accepted the position at the school in Collegeville. The second came Tuesday, when Smith announced he was retiring after 51 years.
"That was probably more difficult than the first one because we've had a great time here. It's been a wonderful ride," Smith, 80, said by phone Thursday. "St. John's has been so good to me and my family. I consider it to be one of the very best Division III jobs in NCAA — not the easiest, but one of the best."
But, he said, it was time. He had an inkling at the start of the season that this could be his last. He and his wife, Adrienne, moved in July to Edina, where they could be closer to five of their seven children. They also have 12 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
"I guess I always felt I would know when it was the right time," Smith said. "As things wore on and evolved, talking it over with my wife and family … it feels like it's the right thing to do."
It's never easy, though, to give up what has been your professional identity for more than a half-century. Smith's 786 victories are more than any other college basketball coach in Minnesota. His St. John's teams won MIAC championships in five different decades, including an undefeated conference season in 1978-79.
He sometimes operated in the shadow of John Gagliardi, the legendary football coach who was at St. John's for 60 years (the last in 2012). The coaches sometimes clashed while trying to fight for their programs within the athletic department, but Smith said the two are on "friendly terms" these days.
Like many coaches, Smith said the losses started to eat at him more than the victories gave him joy. The Johnnies never won a national title under Smith even though he thought he had a few teams that could have done it.
Any lingering what-ifs in that area, though, are eliminated by the astonishing fact about which Smith says he is most proud: In 51 years of coaching, all but one of his players graduated.
"The way we have always operated is that academics come first," Smith said. "There's no question about that in past or present. Our basketball players are students first, basketball players second."