From the beginning Bob Salisbury built Sentinel sports teams

By Greg Rubano

The snow is swirling. In a corner of frozen Stump Pond a hardy group of young boys adjust their leather helmets and grab their curved hockey sticks, each dreaming of being the next Bobby Orr or Phil Esposito. For goalie and captain Steve Smith (of Steve Smith and the Nakeds future fame), that hero might have been Boston Bruin goaltender Gerry Cheevers, although Cheevers might have had to share the stage of Smith’s imagination with the Beatles or Stones. Whatever the case, before the boys could dream of NHL stardom and show Smithfield High School Coach Belmore just how good they were, there was work to be done. The snow had to be cleared off the ice.

“Our equipment was a shovel and a stick,” recalls Ken Chaukaroff, a member of the 1968 Smithfield hockey team.” The town hockey rink was five years in the coming, and Stump Pond was their home ice so to speak. In effect, the team was a traveling team. Games and practices were at either the old Rhode Island Auditorium, the Burrillville rink, or Brown University’s rink. The team’s record did not match its competitive resolve, but the proud tradition had begun.

The hockey team was not the only team to face challenges. Speaking of his track competitions in the mid-Seventies, three-sport athlete Rick Slater recalled the days “under Coaches Buglio and Dunn” when asphalt and cinder track surfaces meant that “we’d have black tar and stones embedded in our elbows.” When asked to recall his achievements, Slater said he was tempted “to play Al Bundy and talk of the days when he scored five touchdowns.” Goalie for the soccer team and forward for the basketball team, Slater didn’t play football, but bleeding elbows didn’t stop him from establishing school records in triple and long jump. Slater offered his opinion that “Big Don” Rahl was the greatest athlete in Smithfield High School history. Indeed, All-Stater Rahl’s 450 foot home run blast is considered the longest in Smithfield’s baseball history, clearing the backstop of the girls’ field. Slater also took special notice of Terri Farrell, a trail blazer who lay claim to the right to compete when in 1974 she tried out for the boys’ hockey team.

In 1968, Smithfield’s baseball team posted its first state championship. Bob Salisbury was the coach of that team. Earlier, in 1961, he had joined the Smithfield faculty, being hired at a salary of $4,000. Coach from 1965 until 1986 and later elected to the Rhode Island Coaches’ Association Hall of Fame, he was the first and only baseball coach at Smithfield since the school opened its educational doors. When Salisbury hung up his managerial spikes, legendary local sportswriter John Ford contended that the “Sentinel fortress flag should be flying at half-mast because in losing Coach Bob as their baseball strategist, the school lost a first class one, in many ways.”

Noting that Salisbury’s coaching record at that point read 172 wins and just 72 losses, Ford described him as “having a love affair with the old game, a truly knowledgeable gent who spent countless hours teaching the fundamentals of the game.” Salisbury’s impact extended beyond the lines. “He was more than a baseball coach and the kids who rounded the bases for him would bend your ear about the solid advice he gave them about life off the diamond,” Ford proclaimed. “It might be hard to believe, but Coach Bob knows just about what every kid who ever suited up for him is doing today.”

For three years a training officer for the 103rd Artillery of the Rhode Island National Guard, Salisbury described his coaching style as “ hardnosed.” Players were held accountable for attitudes and work ethic. Their only day off was Saturday. They also had to “look and act like a ball player.” No doubt “the gent” had the ability to recognize talent when he saw it for the newly created Seattle Pilots hired him as an assistant scout in 1969.

Upon his appointment as principal of Smithfield High School, Salisbury spoke of the importance of being a highly visible and monitoring administrator: “I know about 93 percent of the students by name and know what they are doing.” Now, as he discussed with amazing recall and zeal the myriad of coaches and players who once donned the Kelly Green uniforms of the Sentinels, the theater of his imagination again conjured their images as he spoke of their talents and contributions:

“That kid always won the big game.”

“Coach taught those boys discipline and technique.”

“I remember one game when the kid…”

“Don’t think the kid could only play one sport. He was All-State recognition in two sports and played a third. Another kid that year was…. later, he went on to…”

As Director of Athletics from 1967 to 1974, Salisbury was the person most responsible for Smithfield High School’s march toward interscholastic league involvement and recognition. His tenure was a period of infancy and growth for all of Smithfield High School sports. With the landmark 1972 Title IX ruling, it was also a period of ever increasing sports participation for Smithfield’s female athletes as the girls’ sports program steadfastly grew to its current prominence.

One of Salisbury’s first moves to embed high school sports in the town’s fabric was the founding of the Smithfield High School Athletic Boosters Club. A program for the organization’s second banquet in 1969 gives some idea of the breadth of the sports offered high school athletes. The Club’s goal to solicit support from parents and townspeople for sports programs so as to establish community pride in the achievements of its participants already was well on its way. Fifty booster club members, 15 coaches, and 225 athletes and their invited guests attended the banquet. The Club became a staunch ally, as was the case when Lou DiNobile, father of All-Stater Jim DiNobile, supplied his know-how in the construction of a batting cage that allowed the baseball team to sharpen its skills even as kids were skating on a baseball field covered in inches of ice. As DiNobile commented, “We brought Florida to Smithfield.”

Even as he was promoting sport programs in Smithfield, Salisbury became an emissary for baseball overseas when he organized and coached the People to People Baseball Team, a good will mission to Guatemala and the Dominican Republic. Composed of athletes across the state, including Smithfield boys, the team enjoyed many remarkable experiences including playing a unexpected basketball game against Guatemalan schoolboys in a 400 year-old palace courtyard of the Spanish conqueror of Guatemala. On one occasion, the team was forced to change its travel plans to avoid a border conflict between El Salvado and Honduras. One player on that team, Joe Gallo, later became the head baseball coach at the University of Notre Dame, and another, Jim Connell, later became one of Smithfield High School’s baseball coaches. The love of the game had been passed on. In fact, many of Salisbury’s proteges are even now part of the town’s baseball history, not to say that Salisbury himself did not remain active in the town’s sporting scene. For decades, he coached Smithfield youth in soccer, hockey, and baseball. In 2003, he received a 35 Year Service- to-Youth Award from the Smithfield Little League. An honorary member of the League’s Board of Directors, he still announces games for the Little Leaguers.

Getting up from the table, Salisbury soon returned with a bulging green scrapbook tied together with cords.

“Just a bunch of stuff that no one will remember,” he announced as he began turning the pages. Paper clippings escaped like moths. Yellowed box scores from decades ago, event programs, articles about Smithfield High School sports, and notes from parents and numerous associations covered the table, each living sports history. One envelope, addressed to Coach Bob Salisbury, contained a note from Dick Reynolds of Providence Journal sports writing fame, reminding him that pitcher Dana Ward’s 24 strikeout performance was but one short of the all-time schoolboy strikeout record. Another was a full page thank- you from a softball coach for his great instructional work with the girls. Other letters spoke of his impact off the field, one from a grateful parent who spoke of Salisbury as being “the teacher our son could go to and receive wise and sincere counsel.” Even as another parent called him a “born teacher with a unique insight into what makes human beings tick, a tough disciplinarian whose students were always better off because of it,” an admiring teaching colleague spoke of his ability “to always touch someone in a constantly uplifting way, making that person find within him/herself a potential that he/she did not know existed.”

No doubt these letters were as valuable as any trophies garnered by the many girls and boys whose sports careers were directed by him.