Smith helped Seahawks go from expansion team to Super Bowl winner

Jeff Birchfield • Feb 22, 2020 at 11:00 AM

Sherman Smith started at the base of the NFL mountain as a player with the Seattle Seahawks. As a coach, he helped them reach the pinnacle of football success.

Smith, the guest speaker Friday for the Salvation Army’s “Souper Bowl for the Hungry” luncheon at the Holiday Inn, was picked in the second round of the 1976 draft by the then-expansion Seahawks as a running back out of Miami (Ohio) University.

The first offensive player taken by Seattle, he led the Seahawks in rushing each of his first four years. He finished with 3,429 rushing yards and 28 touchdowns over seven seasons. Playing with quarterback Jim Zorn and Hall of Fame receiver Steve Largent, he also had 210 receptions for 2,445 yards and 10 touchdowns.

“For an expansion team, we weren’t bad,” Smith said. “Our offense was good because of Jim Zorn. He made a difference like the guys you see today. He could run around and throw the football where people had to account for him. He made our offense special. For me, it was a blessing because I was a quarterback in college, got drafted as wide receiver and the first day of training camp, (Seahawks coach) Jack Patera told me that I was going go to move to running back.”

With his first name, he was nicknamed “The Tank,” an obvious reference to the vehicle which had great success in World War II. Smith thrived at running back, gaining a reputation of running through tackles and busting through opposing lines.

He was traded to the Chargers in 1983 when he appeared in 13 games, but had only 24 carries for 91 yards before retiring as a player.

Months later, Smith began his coaching career at the high school level. He moved to the college ranks as running backs coach at his alma mater in 1990. Two years later, he joined the staff at the University of Illinois.

His pro career started with the Houston Oilers, which later became the Tennessee Titans, in 1995. There, he worked with Heisman Trophy winner Eddie George, who went on to rush for 10,441 yards in a celebrated career. It pleases Smith to see George now serve as a mentor to current Titans running back Derrick Henry.

“It makes you feel good and it shows you the type of person that Eddie is,” Smith said. “He wants to share with Derrick the same conversations when I was coaching him.”

Smith was on the Titans’ staff for Super Bowl XXXIV, where they lost 23-16 to the St. Louis Rams when Kevin Dyson was tackled one yard short of the end zone. After leaving the Titans in 2007, he reunited with Zorn, then coach of the Washington Redskins, in 2008-09.

Smith returned to Seattle in 2010 and experienced the ultimate prize in 2014 when the Seahawks routed the Peyton Manning-quarterbacked Denver Broncos 43-8 in Super Bowl XLVIII.

“Going into 2013, I knew we had a good team. We were down to Atlanta by 20 points in the playoffs the previous year and came back and took the lead before they kicked a field goal to beat us in the closing seconds,” Smith said. “The conversations in the airplane let you know those guys were talking about getting better the next year.

“We had good talent, a good defense with the “Legion of Boom,” and players like Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch. (Coach) Pete Carroll created a culture where players wanted to play and coaches wanted to coach. I believe if we had won Super Bowl 49 against New England, we would have possibly won the Super Bowl three years in a row.”

Instead, Seattle came up a yard short of a Super Bowl victory for the second time the following season. Carroll opted to throw instead of run at the 1-yard line and the ball was picked off by the Patriots’ Malcolm Butler. With the Seahawks featuring Lynch at running back, it’s often a highly scrutinized call.

“As a running back coach, I want to run the football,” Smith said. “But I understood the call. It wasn’t a question if I agreed with the call. We made the call and it didn’t work out because Malcolm Butler made a great play. If it’s a touchdown, it’s a great call.”

Smith got to experience another Super Bowl victory recently through his son, Deland McCullough, the running backs coach for the Kansas City Chiefs. A recent ESPN feature told the story of how Smith recruited McCullough to play for him at Miami (Ohio) and served as a mentor, only to find out years later that Smith was his biological father.

Smith was shocked when he got the call in Nov. 2017 that McCullough was his son. McCullough was soon welcomed into the family. Weeks ago, Smith gave him fatherly advice after the Chiefs’ Super Bowl victory.

“For Deland to experience that, there are a lot of players and coaches in the league a long time that never win a Super Bowl,” Smith said. “I was so excited for him. When you win it, you get to enjoy it longer than other games. If you lose it, there’s the other side of it. For him to experience that joy, I told him to cherish it and not to take it for granted.”

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