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Coaching is Teaching

From inner city to overseas military base, Smith teaches, coaches success

Dan Smith coaching

From The Ichabod - Fall 2018

As Dan Smith’s former students will tell you, there are run-of-the-mill instructors, and then there’s Coach Smith.

The Washburn alumnus teaches high school biology and coaches football on a U.S. military base in Ansbach, Germany, where he lives with his wife, Tricia Surniak, and their nine-month-old daughter, Odette. Smith, ba ’99, has cultivated a reputation in his 10 years in Ansbach as a knowledgeable leader who pushes his students, both on and off the football field.

“There are always teachers whose classes are more difficult, but the difference between those teachers and Coach Smith is while he did teach a harder class, he gave you all the tools you needed,” said Darian York, a former student of Smith’s who also played on the football team. “He definitely taught the hardest classes, but not a lot of people did poorly even though it was difficult.”

Smith has turned teaching and coaching into a successful career, but 20 years ago he never could have predicted his current path – or the fact that a kid from Mulvane, Kansas, would spend weeks each year traveling to places like Paris, Croatia, Venice and Prague. Smith earned a biology degree from Washburn and worked as a medical device sales representative for several years before he met Surniak, who is also a teacher. That’s when he knew a career change was in order.

“I saw how much Tricia enjoyed her job,” Smith said. “She had a low level of stress, really enjoyed working with the kids and she had time off to travel. Teaching is a heck of a lot more rewarding – if not financially, at least on a day-to-day basis. You can come home and feel good about what you did.”

Smith got a job teaching biology at Deerfield Beach High School, an inner-city school in southeast Florida. His students faced numerous challenges: unstable housing, poverty, gang violence, drugs and food insecurity. Smith also coached football at Deerfield, and while a lot of his players were very talented, they often had trouble getting to practice consistently. Smith helped out as much as he could – in one case, he gave rides to a young Jason Pierre-Paul, who now plays in the NFL for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

“After practice I’d drive him over to Boston Market so he could help pay the bills,” Smith said of Pierre-Paul. “He’d get out of football practice at 6 p.m. and go work for three or four hours before he’d go home and go to bed and repeat it all the next day.”

In Ansbach, Smith’s students face different sets of challenges – their parents may deploy on any given day, and kids move frequently, so everyone is good at making friends. But whether he’s in Florida or Germany, Smith’s positive attitude and dedication to his students remain constant.

“Coach Smith was the high-energy coach – always the one pushing us,” York said. “At first I thought he was the ‘mean’ coach, but he turned out to be the motivator – the person who had the team get up and keep moving when everyone was down.”

Smith’s ability to keep his students and players interested and engaged plays a huge role in their success, whether they’re getting an A in Advanced Placement Biology or winning two football championships in a row. Smith views coaching and teaching through the same lens, and in both cases his goal is the same: to get kids to push themselves and do more than they thought they could do.

“Coaching is teaching – it’s just a different subject,” Smith said. “A lot of times kids don’t know what they’re capable of. You have to find the buttons to push to help them achieve their potential. That’s what’s rewarding – when they say things like, ‘I didn’t think I’d be able to do this,’ whether it’s running timed sprints or learning a bunch of information to take an exam.”

Smith learned a lot about going the extra mile during his own days on the football field at Washburn, where he played as a defensive end and made friends he still keeps in touch with today.

“Coming from high school, you thought you were working hard, but then you get to college and find out you didn’t understand anything about hard work yet,” Smith said. “The coaches at Washburn helped you learn to push yourself to that next level. I benefited from that, and I try to call on that and pass it on.”

Learning to take pride in his work has been an invaluable lesson for York, especially as he begins the next phase of his education at West Point this summer. He still keeps in touch with Smith and views him as a role model as he prepares to tackle whatever challenges lie ahead.

“Coach Smith reflects someone who you’d want to be – someone positive and successful,” York said. “Everything he did – nothing was haphazard or done poorly. It was a genuine effort. He was probably the best teacher I’ve ever had.”

The Ichabod magazine spring 2021

The Ichabod tells our story with features on alumni, faculty, staff, students and friends, along with the latest campus news. Read the 2021 spring edition online and look for it in mailboxes in May.

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