Lovie Smith: From humble East Texas roots to Texas Sports Hall of Fame
By Rick Kretzschmar firstname.lastname@example.org
Feb. 25, 2012 at 11 p.m.
BIG SANDY - Lovie Smith has branched out as a football coach, and the reach of those branches extend to the highest level.
It has earned him a high honor which will be awarded to him this week, yet while his personal coaching tree has led him to the NFL, the roots are in Big Sandy.
Smith will be inducted into the Texas Sports Hall of Fame on Wednesday in Waco. He had a successful playing career for Big Sandy, helping the Wildcats capture three straight Class B state titles from 1973 to 1975. He was also a two-time All-America playing for the University of Tulsa.
Where he has received most of his fame has been a 32-year coaching career, especially since 2004, when he became the head coach of the Chicago Bears. He completed his eighth season with the Bears last month, the highlight being leading Chicago to Super Bowl XLI. He made history at that game with opposing coach Tony Dungy as they are the first African-Americans to be head coach of a Super Bowl team.
Such accomplishments speak volumes, but they have their origins when he was soft-spoken in the small town of Big Sandy, population 1,346.
<strong>Subtle coaching beginnings</strong>
While Smith's coaching is the primary reason he is receiving the Hall of Fame honor, he has an impressive playing resume, especially at the high-school level. Playing linebacker and tight end, Big Sandy has three state titles to be proud of (including a co-championship with Celina in 1974 because of a 0-0 tie in the state championship game).
Darold Cuba - a receiver and safety for Big Sandy's 1973 team - said Smith was very quiet off the field - letting his on-field actions talk for him. Cuba said when Smith tackled you he, "Really stung you." Cuba currently lives in Gloucester, Va. and is a government worker.
Jimmy Shipp, the starting quarterback for Big Sandy's 1973 squad, said Smith was an underrated player on offense. He estimates Smith caught around 35 passes that season with at least eight touchdowns. Shipp credited Smith making a big play early to rally his team to a 41-3 win over Runge in a state semifinal, after Runge took a 3-0 lead early.
Like Cuba however, Shipp said Smith was a fearsome defender and he felt sorry for opposing running backs who dared to run up the middle against him.
"What he did might be illegal today," said Shipp, a lifelong Big Sandy resident who owns area convenience stores and storage facilities. "He was really good at the clothesline tackles."
Yet if Smith's future plans involved coaching, he didn't give many clues to his Big Sandy teammates. Shipp said he didn't give any indications at all.
Cuba said he did get an occasional hint, on the uncommon occasions Smith talked on bus rides to road games.
"He would talk, but when he started it was about the game plan and all about the game plan," Cuba said.
The bus rides back were always happy for Big Sandy in 1973 as they ran the table with a 14-0 record. This included a 25-0 win over Rule in the state championship game which would have a future touch of irony. Rule's quarterback was current Baylor University head football coach Art Briles.
Shipp said Smith would quietly joke around when the team would drive back from Union Grove, Harmony or Union Hill, but Cuba said Smith would talk about the game plan for next week's game. This included talk even when the team was unloading equipment back in Big Sandy.
Cuba said he believes he knows the reason why Smith's celebrations were minimal.
"In '72 we lost to New Waverly in the playoffs (a 7-6 decision in a state quarterfinal). I think that really stung Lovie," Cuba said. "I think that made us real hungry in ;'73. We were ready to take on anybody. Earl Campbell played for John Tyler that year and we wanted to take on JT."
Smith would go to have a successful college playing career at the University of Tulsa, earning All-America honors twice as a defensive back, before beginning his coaching career at Big Sandy at the junior-high level in 1980. After one season at Big Sandy, Smith would spend two years at Tulsa (Okla.) Cascia Hall for two seasons before 13 years as a college assistant with stops at Tulsa, Wisconsin, Arizona State, Kentucky, Tennessee and Ohio State.
Smith began his professional coaching career in 1996 with Tampa Bay as a linebackers coach, ironically under Dungy considering their historic future. Smith spent five seasons with the Buccaneers, then three seasons with the St. Louis Rams before becoming the head coach of the Bears.
Cuba admits he had doubts about Smith being a head coach until he arrived in Chicago.
"It wasn't that he couldn't do it, but because he came from a small place like Big Sandy," Cuba said.
Shipp said he had similar doubts, but his revelation came earlier.
"I didn't know when he went back to coach at Tulsa, but when he headed to Wisconsin and the Big 10, I thought Lovie might do something," Shipp said.
<strong>Lovie the player-coach</strong>
Smith would receive his first coaching assignment early. So early in fact, he was still a player at Big Sandy.
It happened in 1975. Danny Trimble, a halfback and defensive back for the squad, remembers that in the week leading up to a game he received some unusual news from head coach Jim Norman, although Trimble doesn't remember which game in particular. Trimble is a pastor who currently lives in Upshur County.
"There was a game where coach Norman got sick. He gave the coaching duties to Lovie on defense and Gary Chalk on offense," Trimble said. "Even though there were assistant coaches, he let them run the defense and offense."
Big Sandy was absolutely dominant that season. The Wildcats outscored their opposition 824-15 - capped by a 26-2 win over Groom in the state-title game - on their way to completing its trifecta of state titles, led by running back David Overstreet.
Overstreet scored 362 points himself that season. Overstreet went on to a collegiate career with the University of Oklahoma and played professional football - two years with Montreal in the CFL, one season with the Miami Dolphins - before he was killed in a car accident on State Highway 155 on June 25, 1984.
Yet while Smith was a de facto coach for one game at Big Sandy, his instruction was constant according to Frank Davis, an offensive and defensive guard who was in Big Sandy's graduation class of 1976 with Smith.
While Smith has a reputation of being soft-spoken off the field, Davis said Smith could be loud on it. Smith was a captain on defense, and Davis said he was an excellent tactician.
Davis said in at least half of their defensive plays Smith would yell an audible and at least one Wildcat would shift.
"I remember that when I needed to make a shift, his code word for me was, 'Tough!'" Davis said. "He yelled loud enough that you didn't have any confusion on what he said."
Trimble said whether Smith had high decibels on the field, or low on the sideline, his consistency made him a natural leader.
"He would let you know if you had to pick it up, and he would also let everybody know when you did a good job," Trimble said. "He was very intelligent and very compassionate. Whether you were David Overstreet or someone who was barely good enough to play, he treated everybody the same."
<strong>Making the most of Tulsa time</strong>
Davis knows Smith well. They first met in the fifth grade in 1968, the same year Big Sandy schools integrated. They remain in contact to this day, with Smith inviting Davis to attend games in Chicago, although Davis has only been able to attend one game at Soldier Field: a 48-24 Chicago win over Detroit in 2009. Davis is currently a petroleum engineer living in The Woodlands.
One reason Davis has strong contacts is their mutual time in Tulsa, Okla. Smith played college football for the University of Tulsa, earning All-America honors twice playing linebacker and safety.
Davis also attended Tulsa, albeit not to play football. He would watch Smith play for the Golden Hurricane, and saw something similar.
"Lovie would call out plays just like he did for us at Big Sandy," Davis said.
Davis was also living and working in Tulsa after Smith ended his playing days for the Golden Hurricane in 1979, and after starting his coaching career with one year back at Big Sandy. Smith returned to Tulsa in 1981 to work at Cascia Hall before returning to the University of Tulsa in 1983.
That's when Smith reunited with his college coach John Cooper. Davis said Smith told him his work with Cooper taught him a key to surviving as a coach.
"It's probably all the people he knows. Lovie has a very broad network," Davis said. "He told me, 'You never know when you'll be unemployed.' He really keeps his contacts up."
<strong>Back to Big Sandy</strong>
When his playing days were done, Smith's start in coaching was modest in comparison to him being an NFL head coach today.
In the 1980-81 school year Smith coached football, basketball and track at Big Sandy at the junior-high level. One seventh-grader he coached in all three sports was Tim Rhome, who was a wide receiver in football. Rhome currently lives in College Station where is in software sales.
Rhome said Smith's success at Big Sandy and Tulsa preceded him.
"When he came back he had instant credibility," Rhome said. "When he talked, everybody listened."
Rhome said Smith the coach, and teacher, was similar to his playing days at Big Sandy: nice and soft-spoken.
Yet the way Smith went about his work made him stand out from typical first-year coaches and teachers.
"On the football field he would demonstrate a play and he would hit pads with intensity. He would explode to the pads, and kids learned because they got exposure to that," Rhome said. "He wasn't hesitant like a lot of rookie teachers. Absolutely not. He was 100 percent confident."
Big Sandy's seventh-grade team would win a district title in 1980 before Smith moved on. Despite this success, and Smith's progression through college coaching jobs, Rhome confesses he didn't think getting coached by Smith was extraordinary until Smith went to the Rams in 2001.
Rhome said he became a fan of the Bears when Smith became the coach, hosting a Super Bowl party at his home when the Bears made it to Super Bowl XLI in 2007 in Miami. The Bears lost that game to the Indianapolis Colts, 29-17.
After that game, Rhome received proof that even though Smith was a coach at Big Sandy for just one year, he hadn't forgotten that time.
"One of my teammates in the seventh grade was Mark McDonald. He went to the Super Bowl the year Lovie made it, but he didn't get to talk to Lovie that day," Rhome said. "Mark told me that somehow Lovie got word second hand that Mark went to the game. Lovie called Mark after the game, after he had lost, and told him thanks for coming.
"That shows you that Lovie is a special guy."
<strong>Remaining loyal to Big Sandy</strong>
Cuba admits his pride for his former Big Sandy teammate makes him remind people frequently that Smith set a first in his profession, even though technically Smith and Dungy made history together.
"I tell them Lovie was the first black head coach in the Super Bowl. The Bears played their conference championship game first, so Lovie beat Dungy by three hours," said Cuba, with a laugh.
In Big Sandy, Smith's impact should be felt for years to come. In January, Smith donated a scoreboard with an estimated value of $50,000 to Wildcat Stadium. Current Big Sandy head coach Larry Minter said he hears Smith's name mentioned around school at least once a week.
Big Sandy has rewarded Smith his own honors. A street in town is named after him. Driving in on U.S. 80, the sign greeting visitors to Big Sandy includes, "Home of Lovie Smith."
Minter said verbal praise of Smith is constant around Big Sandy, starting at the elementary school level.
"You don't get any puzzled looks when you say Lovie Smith by the time they are in high school," Minter said. "They all know who he is and what he did."
Yet even as Smith has had coaching success, and this week fame to go with it, there could be a part of his teenage years at Big Sandy when he was ferocious on the football field, yet quiet and polite off, that has never changed.
In Shipp's opinion, this was evident about a year ago. After his Bears dropped the NFC championship game to Green Bay on Jan. 23, 2011, denying Smith his second trip to the Super Bowl nearby at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Smith's mother Mae passed away on Feb. 1.
Shipp said Smith showed class in a rough time in his life.
"I talked with him at the funeral. It was like we were talking back in high school," Shipp said. "I promise you that all that Lovie has done as a coach has not gone to his head."