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Shade of gray suits new Falcons coach

Jerry Maguire

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Shade of gray suits new Falcons coach Smith


The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Published on: 01/26/08

In breaking down the anatomy of the new guy, let's do it very systematically. Mike Smith would want it that way.

So, start at the top.

The head of the new Falcons head coach is as snow-capped as Kilimanjaro. Smith is 48, admits he looks 58, and hardly gets upset at all when a stranger comments on what a cute little granddaughter he has. Seven-year-old Logan is his one and only daughter.

Turns out it was a very short trip from long-haired Daytona Beach surfer boy to hoary-headed tendency wonk. The first flecks of white began appearing in Smith's thatch at 23. By 28 he was all gray and unwilling to buy Grecian Formula by the barrel.

"It wasn't worry, it wasn't stress, he got it honestly," said his mother, Carol, whose eight children all have inherited their mother's and father's premature gray gene. Thanks, folks.

The eyes, it is said, are particularly adept at spotting talent. When the Falcons' new general manager first met Smith, Thomas Dimitroff was struck by just how much they had in common on that score. They could have talked hip turn and shuttle run times all night.

Smith's scouting acumen was evident early, in 1982, when he was just starting his entry-level gig as a "quality control" coach at San Diego State. Just-fired Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick was on that staff, too. One night, when Billick and his wife had other plans, he asked the kid if he would take out his wife's sister, who was visiting from out of town.

"Does she look anything like your wife?" Smith asked.

"Well, yeah, they're sisters," came Billick's answer.

"I'm in."

His instincts were accurate, the movie and dinner went well, and Mike and Julie Smith have been married for nearly the entire length of his coaching journey. For those keeping score, that would be: San Diego State (1982-85), Morehead State (1986, D-line coach), Tennessee Tech (1988-1998, eventual D-coordinator), Baltimore Ravens (1999-2002, D-line and linebackers coach), Jacksonville Jaguars (2003-07, D-coordinator).

As well as squaring away Smith's personal life, Billick was his great professional bridge, bringing him to the NFL when he took over the Ravens and installing him behind a defense that was the reason Baltimore won the Super Bowl in the 2000 season.

'This guy is a worker'

Being related by marriage to the head coach has it perks, but there also are drawbacks. In the never-ending battle for locker room respect something Smith is bound to face with the Falcons whispers of nepotism are pure poison.

"I think what happens when you come in that situation, you're going to present who you are in the first three or four months that you're there," Smith said. "That's what happened in Baltimore. People knew after 60 or 90 days, hey, this guy is a ball coach. This guy is a worker. This guy has an eye for personnel.

"In every situation there is going to be somebody who is skeptical about your situation. Over the long haul, your true colors will always come out."

Shoulders: Broad enough.

As the oldest of eight children Sam and Carol determined early that there was a critical shortage of Smiths in the world Mike found himself in a coaching position from a young age.

"You're the mentor to a number of siblings," he said, speaking as the eldest. "There is eight of us [four sisters, three brothers, himself] within 13 years. We're a very tight-knit group."

Both parents are educators his father currently heads an alternative high school in Daytona, and his mother, semi-retired, still substitute teaches special education classes.

(A local aside: His father actually lived in the Druid Hills area until moving to Florida when he was 14. His mother, Mike's 94-year-old grandmother Frances Smith, still lives in Atlanta. She's not much of a football fan, though, Sam Smith says. But has always been a big Braves backer.)

As the eldest, Mike was there for the full, brief tenure of Sam Smith's run as a middle school football coach, and is thus the only child who veered into serious sports. It was dad's habit to involve his son in the process. At the end of practice, he'd send his 8-year-old boy on a deep pass pattern. If he caught the ball, no more wind sprints for the team. If the coach wanted his team to run more, he'd throw the ball higher, harder, more beyond his son's reach.

The notions of work and responsibility are a given when you're one of eight children. The beach child would cut his long hair to fit the code at Father Lopez High School in Daytona and fit right into the stricter culture. But there was one catch. If he wanted to stay in private school, his father insisted, Mike would have to work and pony up half the tuition. "And he always came up with the money," Sam Smith said.

Heart: In the right place.

Smith's senior season at Father Lopez was cut short by a broken arm in the second game. Shattered, he nonetheless couldn't get away from the game. "He loved football," said his high school coach, Phil Richart. "He came to me and said, 'Coach, I've got to do something to be a part of the team.' So I let him coach the other linebackers."

Passion for game is total

Football had become a part of his soul. "He used to tell me he could go to sleep and play the game in his head," his mother said.

OK, one of Smith's former players in Jacksonville, Marcellus Wiley, questioned the Falcons hire, suggesting that Smith was but a functionary while head coach Jack Del Rio did all the heavy lifting on defense. There's the dissenting view.

Others put out the image of a tireless worker who can relate to players as well as dancing X's and O's. "We had a pretty motley crew in Baltimore, and he kept it together really well," former Ravens defensive lineman Rob Burnett said.

Then there's the terrible slander the same one that Indianapolis Colts head coach Tony Dungy spent years trying to overcome that the coach is at heart a nice guy. He can get emotional, he can let fly an excited barrage on the practice field, but he tends to quickly return to center.

"When people use the term 'he's a nice guy,' I hope that means you're a quality person," Smith said. "That's what I feel being a nice guy means. There are times when you are going to have to not be nice. There'll be times when you have to talk to a player or a subordinate and they're not going to like what you say. But that's just a part of interacting with one another."

Stomach: Cast iron. He has a reputed taste for pickled eggs. 'Nuff said.

Legs: Better than you might suspect for an undersized high school Class AA linebacker whose wrecked senior season left only East Tennessee State and Army at his door.

"He could go sideline-to-sideline quicker than anyone I ever saw at that position," remembered one of his East Tennessee teammates, defensive back Donnie Cook.

"I was a very active player," Smith said. "I was a very passionate player."

Smith still holds the single-season tackle record, an almost preposterous 186. And he may very well keep it forever East Tennessee has since dropped football.

Feet: Set firmly on the ground.

Even his mother says, "He is one of the less glitzy coaches."

Just what the Falcons ordered. It remains to be seen what impact Smith will have on this damaged franchise. By appearances at least, he should do nothing to add to the drama. The perfect Bud Abbott for this Lou Costello of a team.

The man hasn't surfed in close to 15 years, he figures. His hobbies now fly fishing and kayaking speak to a contemplative approach.

His candidacy came out of nowhere, because he is not one of those coaches who shoot off flares in the media.

"He's always been: 'I work hard, and someone will be out, is watching, and they'll notice.' He's not one to flash his name around. He just believes in hard work," said Julie, his wife.

There is a pattern emerging here in this version of Mr. Smith Goes to Flowery Branch. If you hang in there long enough, sooner or later the gray hair will fit your place in life. If you are patient, even after nearly 20 years of marriage, your prayers will be answered with the arrival of a beautiful child. And if you put your head down and go to work like you always have, maybe it is possible to pay down all the nonsense the Falcons have accrued


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