USA Wrestling leader and longtime UNC-Pembroke coach PJ Smith, 76, passed away

by North Carolina USA Wrestling and others

Graphic with image of PJ Smith
(Photo by UNC-Pembroke State Athletics)

USA Wrestling is saddened to learn the PJ Smith, 76, a past state chairperson for North Carolina USA Wrestling and long-time head wrestling coach at UNC-Pembroke, has passed away. In addition to his leadership and coaching activities, Smith was also active as a wrestling referee, and was an early leader in the development of Beach Wrestling. He has many friends within wrestling across the nation, and made a lasting impact on the sport in North Carolina and well beyond.

North Carolina USA Wrestling obituary

A true legend of North Carolina wrestling passed away early Monday morning.

Former UNC-Pembroke head coach Paul "PJ" Smith was one of the great ambassadors for the sport of wrestling in North Carolina and beyond. His sudden passing has rocked the North Carolina wrestling community, as well as sparked numerous tributes online.

PJ began his wrestling journey in Raleigh, where he wrestled for Enloe High School and later NC State University. He began his coaching career at Jacksonville High School, with stops at Ravenscroft and West Millbrook Jr. High before moving to the college coaching ranks in 1978.

PJ took over at UNC-Pembroke in 1981, where he served successfully for 25 seasons. During his tenure he not only amassed an outstanding record of success, but he also led the fight to keep the UNC-Pembroke program alive while many other Eastern NC programs were shuttered through the 1980's and 90s.

Smith was also heavily active in other wrestling organizations. He was a long time board member for NCUSA Wrestling, and also served as State Chairperson for several years. He served in every role imaginable, from national team coach, to official, to Bronze course instructor, to trainer. He was voted the NCUSA Person of the Year in 1991 and again in  2001, and in 2011 he was voted the USA Wrestling Beach Wrestling Person of the Year for his role in helping bring beach wrestling to the east coast.

Outside of USA Wrestling, PJ was well known as an official. He officiated all styles of wrestling, including folkstyle, freestyle, greco-roman, belt, and beach wrestling. You could find PJ most Saturday's in a gym with a whistle, serving the wrestling community with a smile, and often doubling as the trainer for smaller events when other trainers were not on hand. In 2004 he earned the NCHSAA Golden Whistle award, and in 2006 became a member of the NC Chapter of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame. He was also inducted into the NCAA Division II Hall of Fame in 2006 and also the UNC-Pembroke Hall of Fame in 2015.

PJ also served on the Hall of Fame Board of Directors and was a vocal advocate in support of the Hall of Fame and its mission. He was also active in the Red Cross, and helped start numerous wrestling programs across eastern North Carolina.

Beyond wrestling, PJ was known as a friend and mentor to countless wrestlers, officials, and coaches. His sense of humor, his sometimes blunt "PJ-isms" , and his inquisitive questioning endeared him to all who had the pleasure of knowing him. PJ gave constantly to the sport of wrestling and its participants, and he fought to grow wrestling throughout North Carolina and beyond.

Editors Note: Friends are working to create a tribute to PJ Smith prior to the Lander at UNC-Pembroke dual meet set for Thursday, November 16 at 7:00 p.m. Updated information on this tribute, as well as any other information on memorial services, etc. will be posted when received.

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