By Dave Ongie, Managing Editor
If you had gone to Daytona Beach, Florida in the mid-1970s and asked young Mike Smith if he was going to be an NFL coach one day, he probably would have thought you were crazy.
“I had no idea,” Smith said prior to the Salvation Army’s Souper Bowl for the Hungry last Friday morning. “I probably didn’t know I was going to be an NFL head coach until about two weeks before I was offered the (Atlanta Falcons) job.”
Smith may not have known it while he was playing high school football at Father Lopez Catholic, but he was preparing to embark on a journey through football that would lead him to the pinnacle of the sport. Smith eventually won a Super Bowl ring as an assistant coach for the Baltimore Ravens, became a defensive coordinator for the Jacksonville Jaguars and went on to become the head coach of the Atlanta Falcons in 2008.
Johnson City proved to be a pivotal stop for Smith on that journey to the NFL. Smith played linebacker for the ETSU Buccaneers between 1977 and 1981 and credited ETSU and Johnson City for helping mold him into the man he is today.
“Johnson City was very integral in my growth going as a young man into an adult, so much so that I make my home here about half the year,” Smith said.
Smith’s love for his adopted hometown in Northeast Tennessee ran so deep that his proposal to his wife Julie came with a caveat.
“I told her when I asked her to marry me, ‘I’m probably going to end up in Johnson City, Tennessee. If that’s an issue, we need to talk about it now,’” Smith recalled. “Through the years coming here, she’s fallen in love with this community.
“I wasn’t able to raise my daughter in this community, but if I had a choice, I promise you East Tennessee and the Tri-Cities area would be where I would be raising my daughter.”
Smith was a standout at ETSU, winning the defensive player of the year award twice during his career. He played briefly in the Canadian Football League before turning his attention to coaching.
Smith began coaching at the collegiate level before landing his first NFL job as a defensive assistant in Baltimore. Smith coached a legendary group of linebackers in Baltimore that included Ray Lewis and Peter Boulware, who helped Baltimore win Super Bowl XXXV.
That Super Bowl ring was hard to miss on Smith’s right hand last Friday as he made the case that the 2000 Ravens sported the best defense in NFL history. With apologies to the 1985 Chicago Bears and the 1975 Pittsburgh Steelers, Smith pointed out that the 2000 Ravens gave up an average of 10.3 points per game, the best in NFL history for a 16-game season.
“Nobody did it as well in terms of people keeping it out of the end zone than the 2000 Ravens,” he said.
Smith left Baltimore to become the defensive coordinator in Jacksonville in 2003, and was approached to do some research on fellow ETSU Buccaneer Gerald Sensabaugh prior to the 2005 NFL Draft. Sensabaugh had started his career at ETSU before the program was shut down in 2003 and played his final year at North Carolina.
When Smith asked around about Sensabaugh, he liked what he heard.Jacksonville drafted Sensabaugh in the fifth round, and Smith was able to coach him for three years.
“I did some research and found out Gerald was a heck of a football player, and he had a great career in the National Football League,” Smith said. “He was a pleasure to coach, and those are the types of stories you want to see from your alma mater. You want guys that work hard and have an opportunity to play in the NFL.”
Smith finally got his chance to become a head coach in 2008, and was instantly greeted with a crucial decision as a rookie head coach. The NFL is a quarterback-driven league, and the ability to draft and develop a franchise quarterback is often the difference between success and failure for a head coach and general manager.
After doing his research, Smith was sold on using Atlanta’s third overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft on a kid from Boston College named Matt Ryan.
“I told Thomas Dimitroff, our general manager, I said, ‘Thomas, if we get this right, he’s going to be here a long time, and that’s going to help us be here a lot longer,’ ” Smith recalled.
Not everyone was as sold on Ryan as Smith was. Sports talk host Colin Cowherd predicted on his show that Ryan would be a career backup “holding a clipboard” on the sidelines for whichever NFL team drafted him. Smith chuckled when recalling how it all turned out.
“When you sit down and talk to Matt Ryan going through the process you go through at the combines, visiting him on campus, you know what kind of person he is,” Smith said. “We knew really quickly that he was going to be the guy we were going to pick in that first round. We watched every throw that he made, but I think Colin was wrong and the Atlanta Falcons organization was right. He’s been a special player.”
Indeed, Ryan started for the Falcons as a rookie and helped Smith go 11-5 in his first year. Smith was named AP Coach of the Year after guiding the Falcons to the playoffs in 2008, and Ryan is still Atlanta’s starting quarterback.
With his coaching career behind him, Smith is now back in Johnson City as a fan. When you see him cheering on the Buccaneers inside William B. Greene Jr. Stadium on Saturdays, it seems like his journey has come full circle. The man who was molded by his time on ETSU’s football team now watches another generation of men being molded by the game of football as they prepare for their own unique journeys into the world.
“I enjoy the heck out of going to ball games,” Smith said. “I probably caught a majority of the games this year, and it’s a pleasure to be able to see the product ETSU has been able to put on the football field.
“My team is the ETSU Buccaneers. I can tell you that people ask, ‘Who’s your favorite team?’ And I tell them it’s the ETSU Buccaneers.”