Mike Smith had a nose for the football, a head for the game and an undersized body willing to shoulder the load at middle linebacker.
Smith, who will be inducted into the ETSU Hall of Fame today, made an East Tennessee State record 186 tackles as a senior in 1981. The sixth-year Atlanta Falcons’ head coach also led the Buccaneers with 120 stops in ‘80. It’s ETSU’s highest two-year total, and was recorded by a player that some say was generously listed at 6-foot, 200 pounds.
“If you’d looked at Smitty, size wise, you would not have thought he played linebacker – middle linebacker, at that,” said ETSU Hall of Famer Donnie Cook, an All-American defensive back. “I was a safety and I weighed more than he did. But I sure didn’t want to hit him, because he came with it; he used his entire body. He would hit you with weight you didn’t think he had.”
Former Bucs assistant coaches Pete Kuharchek and Mike Hennigan graded the film the season Smith made 186 stops, and Kuharchek said the tally was accurate.
Smith missed the 1979 season with an injury, and coaches say he diligently studied film scouting opponents and was essentially an extra coach that season, which Smith fondly recalls being highlighted by a 35-0 rout of undefeated and nationally ranked Chattanooga.
“Mark Hutsell was the quarterback,” Smith said in a phone interview Thursday. “Mark had an unbelievable game and the defense played outstanding. And Charlie Stein was the leader of that defensive group at that point and time. And that was a very memorable game to be a part of that even though I wasn’t actually playing.”
When Smith came back in 1980, his exceptional instincts were that much better.
“A reason he had so many tackles … was he knew what they were running before they ran it, and he would be there,” Cook said. “He was our quarterback on defense. He called all of the defensive plays. He was very smart. He studied film and he studied opponents.
“Him getting into coaching, in my mind, was a natural fit, because he did a lot of coaching on the field. We looked for him when he was a linebacker to lead the defense and tell us what to do and where to be.”
Smith, the son of a coach, also suffered a season-ending injury that cost him all but two games of his high school senior season in Daytona Beach, Fla. He said ETSU’s coaching staff was one of the few that kept courting him.
“Coach Miles Aldridge and Roy Frazier, who was the head coach at that time, continued to have interest,” Smith said. “If it wasn’t for them and the East Tennessee State athletics department, uh, I wouldn’t have probably had an opportunity to go that route to a four-year school, simply because my mother and father were both teachers and I’m the oldest of eight kids. So it would’ve been very difficult. So I owe a lot to the (ETSU) athletic department.”
Longtime ETSU trainer Jerry Robertson said it was difficult keeping an injured Smith off the field.
“He had what they term the shoulder ‘burner,’” Robertson said, “when you get your neck going one way and the shoulder goes the other way and it stretches your neck. It burns quite a bit and tingles down your arm.
“One game, I remember, he was there holding his shoulder, and this was the second episode during that night in the ‘Dome. He looked at me with water running down his eyes on his cheek, you know, holding his shoulder, and he said, ‘I’ll be alright in a minute. I’ll be okay.’ And I said, ‘No, you may be okay in a minute, but you’re through.’ And he was never disrespectful or belligerent or anything like that, but you could see that he didn’t agree with me and he wanted to go back in. But I felt like that second episode was enough for the night, and he didn’t go back in. I just took his helmet, and that was it.”
Neck trouble was easy to understand. Cook chuckled talking about how players are penalized now for leading with the helmet. It was essentially textbook form in those days, and flags weren’t thrown for head-first shots except when spearing a player on the ground.
“Smitty had a nose for the football,” Cook said. “It didn’t matter where it was, he was gonna find it … and he’s gonna be in bad mood when he got there, and whoever was at the other end of it wasn’t gonna enjoy it.”
Smith prefers talking about teammates. Jeff Rawlings’ work up front, Smith says, made it easier for him to get to ball-carriers. He said Rawlings’ son is a pretty good college prospect.
Four of the five Trawick brothers who lettered at ETSU – Don, Guy, Lee and Steve – were on campus at some point while Smith was there. Smith mentions recently running into former skill-position player Jerry Butler, who played briefly with the Falcons in the 1980s.
“Jim Shannon is one of my dearest friends, and played football there with me,” Smith said. “I see Mike Hensley, Jerry Saylor, who played for a couple of years. Mark Hutsell. Doug Carter. Jay Megna. Jay and his family have come to training camp and been my guests with his two boys. His two boys (Jayson, Jaycob) are professional hockey players now. They were college players at the time.
“And then coach Jerry Robertson … you watch coach Robertson and how he worked while he was the athletic trainer, and he did everything in his power to make everybody have an opportunity to get on the field. … I learned a lot watching how he dealt with players. And believe me, a trainer is probably just as important as any coach on a coaching staff. He doesn’t probably know this, but a lot of the things I learned, I learned by watching Jerry Robertson, not just the coaches.”
Smith was ecstatic when he learned ETSU president Dr. Brian Noland was restarting football, and he thought of all the work Robertson has done with the Bucs Football & Friends Foundation to maintain hope since the final season in 2003.
“He’s so passionate about bringing football and the (marching) band back to East Tennessee State,” Smith said.
Smith, who won’t be in town today due to obligations with the Falcons but will speak Saturday at ETSU’s graduation, quickly spotted passion when he spoke to Noland, too.
“Dr. Noland is one of the most energetic – from my conversation with Dr. Noland, he comes across right away – you know that he’s a taskmaster,” Smith said. “He’s very energetic and passionate about East Tennessee State University and all aspects of it and the entire university. It’s just not athletics. It’s just not academics. It’s about building relationships when you’re there in the university atmosphere, and I think he has a really, really good understanding of all that.”
ETSU football’s revival and his Hall of Fame election have provided some comfort since his Falcons squandered a 17-0 lead against San Francisco in the NFC championship game on Jan. 20. Not that Smith seems certain he was a Hall of Fame player. Despite his stats, Smith is self-deprecating in discussing the topic.
“I’m humbled and honored,” he said. “You know, I was probably not as good a football player as I have been a coach. I’ve done it a lot longer. But my roots in coaching started at East Tennessee State.”
Despite the physical wear and tear of playing football, Robertson isn’t certain coaching doesn’t take more of a toll.
“When he played here his hair was jet back,” Robertson said with a chuckling allusion to Smith’s silver mane. “I don’t know what’s transpired since his playing days … but I’m sure he’s not using any coloring on it.”
Robertson has followed the Falcons since dealing with the likes of Tommy Nobis and Claude Humphrey when Atlanta trained in Johnson City (1967-70). He could almost smell the Super Bowl when they dashed to a 17-point lead against the 49ers.
“That was a hard pill to swallow,” Robertson said, “and I know it was for him. But I know one thing: he’ll keep working hard at it.”