The College of the Canyons board of trustees named three athletic facilities to honor legendary Cougar athletics head coaches and faculty members Lee Smelser and Mike Gillespie, along with longtime board member Michele Jenkins.
All three projects were approved at the board’s meeting on Wednesday. The college’s athletic department will move forward with plans for the following:
• Naming of the West P.E. Gymnasium to Lee Smelser Court.
• Renaming of the Cougar Field baseball facility to Mike Gillespie Field.
• Naming of the softball team room to Michele Jenkins Team Room.
“Looking back at the history of the Santa Clarita Community College District, it’s humbling to see the dedication, determination, energy and commitment to excellence that has been exhibited by many of the college’s faculty and staff over the years, and we are eternally grateful for their service and contributions,” Chancellor Dianne G. Van Hook said in a prepared statement.
“In the annals of our history a few rare founders and builders stand out,” Van Hook added. “Lee Smelser, Mike Gillespie and Michele Jenkins are among those who stand tallest in my mind, and we are proud to honor their respective contributions and ongoing legacies in this manner.”
Special dedication ceremonies will be held for each facility during their sports’ respective 2023-24 seasons. Basketball is a fall/winter sport at the college, while baseball and softball both compete in the spring semester.
“We are extremely pleased that the board of trustees has approved the naming of these facilities in honor of coach Gillespie, coach Smelser and trustee Jenkins,” said COC Athletic Director Chad Peters. “All three made an enormous impact on the lives of countless student-athletes.
“Now our current, and future, Cougars will be reminded of their contributions each time they enter Smelser Court, Gillespie Field and the Michele Jenkins Team Room,” Peters said.
Smelser was hired by the district before the college’s official opening in 1969 to provide leadership for the development of the physical education department, and later the formation of the men’s basketball program that same year.
He served as head coach for 31 years, tallying 455 career wins and four Western State Conference championships (1985, 1991, 1992, 1994), while dedicating his time, energy and mentorship to thousands of student-athletes. Exemplifying the COC spirit, Smelser continues to be respected across the state for his outgoing personality, dedication to his athletes and his willingness to mentor new coaches, the college’s statement said.
A member of the COC Athletic Hall of Fame’s inaugural class in 2005, Smelser is also a member of the California Community College Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame. Smelser and wife Joni continue to make their home in Santa Clarita.
Gillespie launched the Cougars baseball program in 1971 and led the Cougars to three California Community College Athletic Association state titles (1981, 1983, 1986), 11 conference titles (1973, 1974, 1975, 1977, 1978, 1981, 1982, 1983, 1984, 1985, 1986) and a 420-167 overall record during his 16 seasons at the helm. Gillespie’s teams also finished as state runner-up in 1982 and 1985, making him the only California Community College coach to make it to five state finals in a six-year span.
He taught physical education, English and health sciences at the college, and served as COC’s athletic director from 1977 to 1986. Affectionately referred to as “Skip,” Gillespie drew the love and respect of his college baseball peers, former players, students and faculty colleagues alike, COC’s statement said.
After leaving COC, Gillespie coached at his alma mater USC for 20 seasons (1987-2006) going 763-471-2 and leading USC to the 1998 NCAA National Championship. He then spent 11 seasons at UC Irvine (2008-2018) amassing 393 wins and making five NCAA Regional appearances, including a trip to the 2014 College World Series.
He was inducted into the COC Athletic Hall of Fame in 2007 as an individual for his accomplishments as head baseball coach. Gillespie was also enshrined as a member of both the 1981 State Championship (Class of 2009) and 1983 State Championship (Class of 2019) baseball teams. His 1986 State Championship team is slated for Hall of Fame induction later this month (Class of 2023). He is also a member of the California Community College Baseball Coaches Hall of Fame (Class of 1993), the American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame (Class of 2009) and the USC Athletic Hall of Fame (Class of 2018).
Gillespie retired from baseball following the 2018 season. He died on July 29, 2020.
“I am routinely approached by former student-athletes who played for either coach Smelser or ‘Skip’ asking me about naming the facilities after their respective coach,” said Peters. “The naming of Smelser Court and Gillespie Field is going to make a lot of our alumni very proud.”
During her nearly 40 years of service on the board of trustees, Jenkins served six terms as president, five as vice president, and seven as clerk. However, she also took a tremendous interest in the COC athletic program.
Jenkins was part of the COC Foundation’s feasibility committee that helped to determine the district could reinstate its football program in 1998 and expand women’s athletics at the college.
A longtime supporter of the Canyons softball program, Jenkins attended numerous games each season providing support for the program’s coaches and student-athletes. On several occasions Jenkins was known to sponsor postgame ice cream treats, provide spray bottles for the athletes to cool down on hot days, and was even invited to throw out the ceremonial first pitch prior to several important games.
Jenkins died on Feb. 6.
“Having Michele’s name on our softball team room — where players gather before and after practices, games and meetings — will serve to highlight her outstanding contributions to our program over the years,” said COC softball head coach John Wissmath. “I am proud to have had her unwavering support through the seasons.”
The COC athletics department will introduce a capital campaign for community members and Cougars athletics supporters to support these three facilities’ improvement and naming projects at its upcoming Athletic Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony scheduled Wednesday, March 29, at the Santa Clarita Performing Arts Center. Tickets are on sale at cocathletics.com/information/HOF_Tickets.