Reluctant legend Bobby Pelis, who coached Smith Academy boys basketball to two state titles, dies at 72

  • Longtime Smith Academy boys basketball coach Bobby Pelis, who won two state championships and four Western Massachusetts titles, died over the weekend at 72. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Smith Academy won a boys basketball state championship led by coach Bob Pelis, back row left. He died this weekend. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO—

Staff Writer
Published: 2/1/2022 2:34:36 PM
Modified: 2/1/2022 2:33:06 PM

Bobby Pelis had no idea how many wins he finished with when he retired from coaching the Smith Academy boys basketball team after the 2006-07 season. It didn’t matter to him.

“That’s the way he was, he was a humble person. He didn’t care about accolades,” said current Smith Academy coach Matt Zerneri, who played for Pelis at Smith Academy. “Coaches who stay that long at schools and commit to one school for their career, it’s nice to see, and it’s a rewarding thing.”

Pelis passed away of a stroke over the weekend at age 72. He finished a 20-year career leading the Falcons in 2007, amassing 271 wins, four Western Massachusetts championships (1989, 1990, 1992, 1993) and two state titles (1990 and 1992). The 1967 Smith Academy graduate played three sports and was named All-Western Mass. in all three. He finished with 985 career points in basketball. No one even realized that he was approaching the milestone until the sectional tournament. The Falcons were so dominant that he only played one-half or three-quarters of many games.

“It would’ve been easy, but he never brought it up,” said Edwin Pelis, his brother.

A dangerous jump shooter before the invention of the 3-point line, Pelis continued his basketball career at Hofstra. They nicknamed him “Hoover” for his expertise at stealing the basketball. Pelis shared a backcourt and lived with current Davidson men’s basketball coach Bob McKillop.

“Bobby was a terrific teammate, a superb competitor and very smart player,” McKillop said in an email. “He willingly embraced any role that [Hofstra] Coach Paul Lynner asked him to play, and he did it masterfully. Even more important was what a magnificent person he was. You could trust him. He cared about people. He always committed himself to do what was best for everyone.”

After taking over Smith Academy in 1987, Bobby Pelis continued the school’s outstanding basketball tradition. His sectional final triumphs included three victories over Saint Joseph's of Pittsfield and one against Mohawk Trail.

“Coach Pelis had an uncanny ability to be simultaneously firm and encouraging, from practice to games. He was unbelievably approachable yet knew when to holler,” said Kyle Cahill, captain of the 1992 state championship team. “Plus that guy could shoot a free throw.”

The Falcons beat Mission for the Division 3 state title in both 1990 and 1992 after falling to Matignon in the 1989 state championship game.

“Those two state championships, it’s not like we had a deep bench. We probably only had four starters,” longtime former Smith Academy coach and athletic director Sherry Webb said. “He hid the fifth, and he made them state champions from the smallest public school in the state. They never heard of Smith Academy before and will probably never forget Smith Academy now.”

He sprouted a varied and deep coaching tree that spreads throughout Western Mass., including current Northampton girls coach Perry Messer and former Hopkins Academy coach Fred Ciaglo, among others.

Messer originally coached the core of the Falcons initial ’90s state title team in junior high when Smith Academy lost its junior varsity coach. So Messer pulled double duty and assisted Pelis, too.

Always a defensive guy, Messer told Pelis they needed to be tougher on that end of the floor on the bus ride home after losing the state final to Matignon in 1989. Pelis told him “go for it.”

“He’d give you leeway coaching in practice,” Messer said.

Messer eventually took over the Pioneer Valley Regional boys program and found himself on the opposite sideline. They celebrated each other winning championships even if it meant losing to them.

“The one thing I always knew is I was always happy for him and he was always happy for me,” Messer said. “If they couldn’t win it, he was happy for your team.”

Ciaglo coached under Pelis for seven years in Hatfield. He previously was a varsity coach at his alma mater Hopkins Academy and was unsure about making the transitioning to coach junior varsity.

“Bobby talked me into it. It was the best thing I could’ve done,” Ciaglo said. “We did it together.”

In 1999, Smith Academy faced Hopkins Academy in the Western Massachusetts semifinals. The Golden Hawks had bested them by large margins in their two league games that season behind stars Mike and Steve Zieja. When they met at Curry Hicks Cage, Pelis slowed the game down. It was 35-35 with 2 minutes remaining, and Cialgo agonized on the bench.

“It was bittersweet,” Ciaglo said. “They were the team to beat and they were my alma mater. I didn’t want to beat them.”

The Golden Hawks ended up on top and reached the state title game, but it showed Pelis’ mastery of tactics.

“Bobby always let the players do what they could do. He guided them,” Ciaglo said.

Zerneri saw firsthand how Pelis managed Xs and Os, first as a player then later as a volunteer assistant and junior varsity coach with the Falcons.

“He was an offensive mastermind. He could draw up any play, any game plan and you knew we were going to get good opportunities to score,” Zerneri said. “He cared about us. He cared about putting us in the best position possible.”

There was a stretch where he won 100 games in five years at Smith Academy, which included a 25-0 season and a 24-1 campaign.

“He had 1-19 seasons, too, so it wasn’t like it was all great and glorious and competing for championships,” former Smith Academy coach and athletic director Dave Keir said. “He always kept it level headed.”

Frank Abarno ran the clock for 24 years at Smith Academy basketball games and sat behind Pelis for most of his career. The longtime teacher and principal at Smith Academy arrived in Hatfield during Pelis’ senior year and was still around by the time he came back to coach.

“I don’t remember him getting a technical,” Abarno said.

The pair lived near each other in The Villages, Florida, since 2011 and golfed together often. Pelis maintained his levelheaded demeanor from the court on the course.

“He’d hit a bad shot, and it was on to the next one,” Abarno said.

Pelis never considered the totality of his coaching career. He approached each season as its own entity and closed the book on one to move to the next.

“Just the kind of person you want to be around young people. He set a good example of his even-temperedness. He was very deliberate. Kept everything in perspective. His business was helping young men to become better basketball players and more importantly, young men,” Webb said. “The things I learned from Bobby about coaching had to do with putting things in perspective. He taught me how to look at the kids’ faces after big games, to appreciate the joy.”

Kyle Grabowski can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @kylegrbwsk.
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