A 1997 inductee into the National Golf Coaches Association Hall of Fame, Paula Smith is now in her 28th season as head coach of the Illinois women's golf team. She is currently serving in the final year of a three-year stint on the NCAA Central Region Selection Committee.
Smith's coaching career with the Illini has spanned the entire duration of Illinois' participation in Big Ten and NCAA competition, as well as the final six seasons of play under the auspices of the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women. Smith followed Lorraine Abbott and Jody Davenport, who coached at Illinois when it was a club sport, and Betsy Kimpel, who was the first women's golf coach when it became a part of the U of I Athletic Association in 1974. Smith took over in the fall of 1978.
Playing in the competitive Big Ten Conference, Smith's teams have achieved success, on and off the golf course, particularly in recent years.
In 2002, Smith guided Illinois to fifth place in the Big Ten and to a berth in the NCAA Central Regional, the first-ever postseason appearance for the Fighting Illini as a team. The next year, Smith led the Illini to a very successful season. Illinois won three tournaments during the course of the year and advanced to NCAA Regionals for the second consecutive season, finishing 10th at the West Regional and missing a trip to nationals by just two spots.
Four times during the 1990s, Illinois finished third in the Big Ten, the school's second-highest all-time finish. Starting with the 1993-1994 team, Smith's teams had the highest combined grade point average among Illinois female varsity sports teams on eight occasions, including five successive years from 1999 to 2004.
Illinois golf has had numerous Academic All-Big Ten selections, George Huff Award winners, National Golf Coaches Association All-Scholar selections and Chi Alpha Sigma honorees during Smith's tenure.
At Illinois, Smith has coached such standouts as 1983 Big Ten Medal of Honor winner Mary Ellen Murphy Martin; two-time All-Big Ten performer Justi Rae Miller; All-Big Ten selection and former LPGA Tour member Lia Biehl Lukkarinen; three-time All-American, two-time Big Ten champion and former LPGA Tour member Renee Heiken Slone; Becky Biehl Sabbert, the only player to win the Big Ten title as a freshman and the only UI female golfer to earn All-Big Ten honors four times; and 2002 Futures Tour member Karen Karmazin Brunt.
In the summer of 1995, Smith earned national recognition by being selected to serve as coach for the U.S. women's collegiate team that traveled to Japan to compete in the 20th annual U.S.A. vs. Japan Collegiate Golf Championships. In 1987, she completed a five-year term as coordinator for the selection of the Midwest Regional Coach of the Year. She has also been a member of the All-America and Academic All-America committees. Smith was co-coach of the National Golf Coaches Association's East Squad for its annual two-person best ball event, which preceded the NCAA championship tournament, at the University of Georgia in 1993.
As a competitor, Smith won back-to-back Illinois Women's Amateur Championship titles in 1971 and 1972. Her championship experience dates back to 1963 and 1964, when she won successive St. Louis-area junior girls championships. Smith won the Tri-State (Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky) Invitational in 1967, the Lake of the Woods Open in 1968 and 1969, the Southern Illinois Women's Golf Association Championship in 1969 and the Northern Illinois Women's Golf Association Tournament of Champions in 1976. She was the amateur runner-up in the 1970 St. Louis Open at Norwood Hills C.C., the amateur medalist in the 1971 LPGA Columbus Open held in Columbus, Ohio, and qualified for several U.S. Amateur Championships and the 1975 U.S. Open held at LaGrange (Ill.) Country Club.
In 1978 she qualified for the Women's Public Links Championship in Myrtle Beach. Smith also qualified for the 1987 Public Links in Chicago and the 1990 Public Links in Denver as well as the 1999 National Seniors' Olympics where she placed second in Orlando. In 2002, Smith won the U of I Open held on the Orange Course at Savoy. She successfully defended her U of I Club Championship for the third straight year in the summer of 2005.
As recently as 2003, she came within one stroke of her career best round of 70 (Hilldale Golf Course in Hoffman Estates, Ill., 1974) when she shot a 71 at Oak Terrace Golf Course in Pana, Ill., where current Western Illinois head coach and former UI golfer Lia Biehl Lukkarinen was the director of golf.
A graduate of Southern Illinois University in 1968, Smith competed for four years on the Saluki golf team. She participated in the national championships in each of her four seasons and was selected to give the senior farewell speech at the National Championship Awards Banquet. Inducted into the Southern Illinois Golf Association Hall of Fame in 1994, her bronze plaque is displayed at Hickory Ridge Golf Course in Carbondale next to former PGA pro and Belleville, Ill. native Bob Goalby and other notable golfers.
Smith earned a master's degree in education at Illinois in 1970. She assisted Jody Davenport with the women's golf team while in graduate school and then while teaching reading and study skills in the University of Illinois Counseling Department.
Smith has been a regular on the summer I FUND golf outing circuit, and she competed in the 1996 State Farm Golf Classic Pro-Am with pro Kate Golden and in 1995 with Lenore Rittenhouse.
After serving as co-director of the Illinois Summer Golf Camp from its inception in 1979, Smith handed the reins over to Illini men's golf coach Mike Small in 2001. She has conducted summer physical education classes in golf for the Applied Life Studies Department and participated with the NGCA "Get a Girl Golfing Program" for five years, from its inception until its conclusion.
Smith was inducted into the NGCA Hall of Fame in January, 1997 in Orlando, Fla. She was the 23rd coach to receive the honor.
Prior to her tenure at Illinois, Smith inaugurated the first girls' golf program in District 214 and coached at Forest View High School in Arlington Heights, Ill. from 1973-78, while teaching in the English department. Her team won the district title in 1975. Smith was also a member of the inaugural committee for the IHSA Girls' State Golf Championship in the fall of 1975.
Smith and her husband, John Stoops, reside in Savoy, Ill.