BY TREY WILLIAMS
Former Atlanta Falcons head coach Mike Smith isn’t super comfortable talking about quarterback Matt Ryan and receiver Julio Jones this week.
He’s turned down countless interview requests concerning the stars he drafted that have led the Falcons to a matchup with New England in Sunday’s Super Bowl.
But the former East Tennessee State record-setting linebacker, who just concluded his first season as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive coordinator, talked on topics such as new David Crockett coach Gerald Sensabaugh and ETSU’s new on-campus football stadium during a telephone conversation Sunday.
Smith’s fingerprints are on the Falcons. He inherited a mess in Atlanta when he took over in 2008, what with Bobby Petrino bailing and Michael Vick’s jailing.
But during the first five of Smith’s seven seasons guiding the Falcons only New England had a better record. The apex came when Atlanta built a 17-point lead at home before losing to Jim Harbaugh’s San Francisco 49ers in the 2012 NFC Championship game.
Ryan was the Rookie of the Year after leading Smith’s first Falcons team an 11-5 record in 2008, and Smith chuckled while in Johnson City following Ryan’s rookie season when asked if he’d watched Ryan’s great performance in rallying Boston College past Virginia Tech in Blacksburg: “I watched every throw that Matt threw in his entire college career. I spent hours upon hours in evaluating him and not only visiting with him at the combine, but we went up and visited with Matt in a private workout.
“And we also had a dinner in what I think was a very difficult situation for a young man. We had myself, the general manager, the owner, the offensive coordinator and the quarterbacks coach – and we kind of surrounded him and had a dinner and wanted to see how he was going to handle the pressure of that type of setting. And Matt handled it extremely well. And, of course, about two weeks prior to the draft, we decided to draft Matt.”
Ryan’s first NFL pass went for a touchdown in Smith’s debut against Detroit.
“I do remember the first pass that Matt threw because we had worked on it and we felt like we were going to get the coverage that they gave us,” Smith said during a Johnson City visit in 2009. “And as soon as we saw that coverage we knew that we had a chance for a big play, and Matt was able to complete the ball to Michael Jenkins for a 68-yard touchdown completion.”
Smith was the defensive coordinator at Jacksonville when it drafted Sensabaugh in 2005. Sensabaugh, a Dobyns-Bennett alumnus, had played as a senior at North Carolina after ETSU discontinued its program following his junior season.
“I just saw he took a head coaching job there in Upper East Tennessee … at David Crockett,” Smith said. “I was really surprised. I believe he’d volunteered at Dobyns-Bennett. He’s a good man.
“We drafted him in Jacksonville in the fifth round. After I left Jacksonville he was eligible for free agency and that’s when he went to Dallas. I had an opportunity to play against him, you know, through the years. … Gerald was a very smart defensive player. He got it. He understood football much more from a coaching perspective. It doesn’t surprise me that he’s in coaching; I’ll put it that way.”
Still, Smith was more aware of Sensabaugh’s passion for fishing. It’s one Smith shares, although he prefers fly-fishing.
“I’d heard Gerald was doing a lot of fishing when he retired,” Smith said. “I know he loves to bass fish. I don’t think he fly-fishes.”
Smith was fly-fishing a couple of weeks ago in the area, which often lures him back here. When told that Gonzaga basketball coach Mark Few, an avid fly-fisherman, was skeptical of Northeast Tennessee being able to rival the fly-fishing around Spokane, Smith was quick to respond.
“You can get on the South Holston and that will rival anywhere in the world, in my opinion,” Smith said. “I’ve fished out West, Montana, New Mexico and different places, and I can tell you the fishing in East Tennessee is as good as any. If you go fish the South Holston it’ll rival any of them in terms of drift fishing. And the Watauga’s not bad, either.
“And that doesn’t include all those small streams that have what I call the little native trout that if you catch a 10-incher or 12-incher, that’s a big fish. It’s good fishing in all the tributaries that go into the Nolichucky over in Unicoi County or go into the Doe River over in Carter County and run into Lake Watauga or Boone.”
A son of a football coach, Smith came to East Tennessee from Jacksonville. He played in the first game in the Mini-Dome in 1977 against North Alabama, and he’s eager to see ETSU football return to campus this year. He drove by the new stadium on his recent visit.
“In the last two weeks I’ve been up and got a chance to drive around and drove through campus,” Smith said. “I’d seen pictures and the videos that the athletic department’s putting out, but they don’t do it justice. What a beautiful setting. … I’m not a construction guy, but it sure looks like they’re getting close to putting the finishing touches on it.”
Smith doubts he’ll be able to attend a game in 2017 unless Tampa Bay has a bye week when ETSU has a home game. He did attend the program’s first game in 12 years when the Bucs hosted Kennesaw State in 2015, and he was happy to see them atone for that loss with a victory this past season at Kennesaw – one of four wins coach Carl Torbush’s team accumulated in 2016.
“I was really excited about the way that the football team played in their second year,” Smith said. “Carl’s done a heck of a job there with his coaching staff. To win four this year and to really end up beating two teams that made the Top 25 when you think about it. Kennesaw State was a Top 25 team. I think they ended up in the Top 25. And that win at the end of the season (against Samford) – that win was a huge win for the guys there. I was really excited to see that they did that.”
Torbush is an asset on and off the field, according to Smith.
“He’s gonna bring in the right kind of guy that’s gonna do well on the field and in the classroom; you can see that,” Smith said. “I think they’ve done it the right way. They didn’t take a whole bunch of transfers that first year and it’s gonna pay dividends as these guys grow together as a group and as a team. It’ll be exciting.
“And I think sooner than later they’re gonna be someone that’s gonna have to be taken seriously in the Southern Conference. It’s amazing that they had that much success this quickly.”
Smith orchestrated a quick turnaround in Atlanta, and appeared all but certain to reach the Super Bowl.
“It was tough to get so close,” Smith said when he was in Johnson City before speaking at ETSU’s 2013 graduation.
The 57-year-old Smith could land another shot, assuming he doesn’t get there with Jameis Winston and company in Tampa. Smith was a candidate for the Jacksonville head coaching job.
Of course, if Atlanta was to win on Sunday, Smith will surely feel super about his role in the title.