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Smothers remembers Mankin 12/2/21

Smothers remembers Mankin

By Kevin Taylor

Alma Schools


ALMA — Amy Smothers woke up to a warm breeze the day after Thanksgiving. No, not mid-June, let’s layout by the beach warm. 


But anytime the temperatures are hovering in the mid-50s in the last week of November, it counts as an early winter victory. 


But later that day, Smothers was hit by an avalanche of emotion when word began to trickle out that longtime River Valley basketball coach Merrill Mankin had passed away. 


That day, 55 degrees felt like 25. 


Smothers played for Mankin during his coaching stint at Van Buren. The longtime area girls basketball coach passed away Thursday at the age of 69. 


“Not only did I have the opportunity to play for him, but I also got the opportunity to coach with him,” Smothers said. Smothers coaches seventh and eighth-grade girls and is also an assistant softball coach for the Lady Airedales. 


A Northside graduate, Mankin coached at Charleston in the early ‘90s before moving on to Southside, where he won two state titles in 1996-97. Later, he spent eight seasons coaching at Van Buren and most recently coached with Rickey Smith at Northside as a volunteer assistant.


Merrill Mankin impacted a lot of athletes and coaches.


“The Southside records speak for themselves, and he had a lot of success at Charleston, too,” Alma girls basketball coach Codey Mann said. “And let’s not forget, he took Van Buren to back-to-back semifinals appearances in 2011 and 2012 … the guy was unbelievable! 


“Everybody loved him, but his impact on the game was truly unbelievable.”


Smothers reconnected with Mankin during her stint as an assistant coach at Kimmons. 


“It was fun being able to see him more often,” Smothers said. “To assist at summer youth camps (He and I were in charge of teaching defensive slides at youth camp one year), to sometimes sit behind the Northside bench, be in the locker room, and listen to his interactions with Rickey (Smith) and the athletes.


“There was just something about Coach — he was one of a kind; he was genuine.”


Mankin had a way of boosting confidence in kids without breaking them. That’s a lost art in today’s social media-dominated world. 


“Coach demanded our best,” Smothers said. “He didn't hold back, but he also didn't degrade anyone. He cared deeply for each player, and it was evident in how he approached every day, every game, every practice, every relationship.”


Mann first met Mankin, of all places, the tennis courts. It didn’t take long for their conversation to drift toward another passion of Mankin’s — fishing.


“The first time I ever met Merrill, I was the tennis coach at Russellville, and he was the tennis coach at Southside for one year,” Mann said. “We talked basketball, we talked fishing, and then he became Van Buren’s head coach, and I was Russellville’s assistant coach, so I got to see him.”


“He impacted a lot of kids, not just Van Buren or Southside (where I mainly remember him) but also Charleston and most recently Northside,” Smothers said. “He was definitely a River Valley legend. His words of wisdom when I started coaching: ‘Always do right by the kids. Coach them how you would want to be coached.’


“I believe he lived that out for every team he coached. His impact reached the adults as well — the coaches who were blessed to work with him, the people he came in contact with on a daily basis, (and) his fishing buddies.”


Smothers said she remained friends with Mankin long after her playing career ended.


“We kept in contact over the years,” she said. “I would try to check in with him at least once a month either via call or text (He was so proud when he learned how to text!) He always answered with "Heyyy Amyyy," and always ended the call with a "Love you girl!" When I got my first coaching job in Paris, I called Coach. He called me when Fort Smith had an opening. It was pretty cool. 


A few months back I saw him in the Braum's parking lot... I turned around to go say hello and hug his neck. I'm so thankful I did. He was something — a special coach, friend, and mentor to so many, but I feel extremely blessed he was my coach.”