Falcons coach just an everyday man
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- There is nothing compelling about an ordinary man's office. A couple of leather chairs here, some blank walls, an impeccably neat desk. Mike Smith won't dazzle his visitors with plaques or fading photos of championships gone by. He is prematurely gray and unfamiliar with hair dye because that, of course, is not real. He hunches over a tiny refrigerator in the corner and grabs a Coke Zero. "Caffeine," he says. It is Wednesday afternoon, and in about 24 hours, his Atlanta Falcons will hop on a cross-country flight for a playoff game against the Arizona Cardinals, continuing arguably the biggest feel-good ride in the NFL this season. And practically nobody watching will know who Smith is.
Look closely, and a few followers might surface. On Monday night, they jammed into a sporting goods store to watch a radio show in which he sits on a couch and waxes about Matt Ryan and chemistry. It was one of the purest examples of rebirth, little boys in the front row high-fiving, grown men standing on boxes to peer over racks of college gear. Four months ago, the same show drew four people.
When Smith heard the ovations, he was mildly embarrassed.
"He's just kind of an everyday guy," says Dave Archer, a former Falcons quarterback who hosts the show. "He's a guy that could very easily be living next door to you. You see him getting his newspaper, and he hollers to you like they do on TV shows.
"He's an honest, hard-working guy. That's what has been so endearing to so many people in the locker room."
No, there is nothing sexy about the name Mike Smith. There are 78 of them in the Atlanta white pages. When No. 79's hire was announced last January, it was met with collective groans and quick Google searches. Pundits thought the team was in massive rebuilding mode and needed a brilliant find. Players, still hurt by the Bobby Petrino late-season bailout, wanted a coach who'd look them in the eye and care.
They found it all in an unassuming person, an everyman career assistant whose bio is still being written.
"When he came in, he had a smile on his face," safety Lawyer Milloy says. "He said, 'Look, I understand what happened to you last year, but last year is over. The only way you can heal your wounds is by focusing on each other and trying to make a positive atmosphere.'
"There's no loyalty in this league anymore. But when you find something good and somebody you want to fight for and who's genuine, you have to make the most of it."
Russell grew up in a privileged family; Smith, the oldest of eight kids, lived modestly as the son of schoolteachers. At 10, Smith started painting houses alongside his dad in the summer. They were always together. Sam Smith was 6-foot-2, which, back in the '60s, was almost imposing. He was a middle-school coach and was considered a great communicator, a man who could lead without a whole lot of prodding.
If Sam was considered a town giant, his son had a little catching up to do. Mike was smallish in grade school and had to play an extra year of midget football. But few players in Daytona Beach were tougher. He set out to play at Father Lopez Catholic High, a private school with a top football program. Sam said that was fine, as long as he paid half the tuition.
Mike Smith was a punishing all-state linebacker and hoped to catch the eyes of some college recruiters. In the second game of his senior season, he broke his right arm.
"He didn't just go off into the sunset," Russell says. "He stayed on the sidelines and he helped coach, and he was remarkable at breaking down film, finding keys he loved to do that. He wanted to have some kind of role on the team, and I think that helped develop his love of coaching."
Smith landed at East Tennessee State, which sits just south of the Virginia border. In an old game program, Smith was listed as 6 feet tall and 200 pounds, but one of the school's old assistants, Robert McGraw, chuckles that those heights and weights sometimes were a little exaggerated.
"You remember those kind of guys," McGraw says. "The good ones."
How could they forget Smitty? Russell still has this vision of him packing his beat-up Volkswagen, which was more like a dune buggy, for a 35-hour drive from Florida to California and a grad assistant gig at San Diego State. Smith was 22, maybe 23, and had nothing. He wasn't even sure the car would make it.
But Smith, they knew, would. More than 20 years later, when Smith was well established as the defensive coordinator for the Jacksonville Jaguars, Russell called and asked what he was doing. Painting the bathroom, Smith said.
Why the heck don't you have somebody do that for you, Russell asked.
Smith's answer was quick:
"I don't want to forget where I came from."
They were supposed to talk 90 minutes. The man on one end, with his spiky hair and boyish face, looked more like a ball boy than the Falcons' new general manager. The job candidate on the other end was new to this but didn't seem nervous.
Maybe Thomas Dimitroff and Smith hit it off because they had so much in common. They both are sons of coaches, both tireless personnel evaluators. Two and a half hours into the job interview, Falcons owner Arthur Blank popped his head in to see whether everything was OK.
The men respectfully said yes, then gabbed for another half hour.
The decisions of Dimitroff and Smith, at least in this first season, have seemed dead-on. They drafted Matt Ryan with the third pick, and the quarterback from Boston College was named the NFL's offensive rookie of the year. They brought in running back Michael Turner and shed some not-so-good fits from the roster.
Dimitroff says he wasn't necessarily looking for a bubbly, happy-go-lucky coach to counter the negative vibes of 2007. But Smith became popular long before the team arrived for offseason conditioning. In his first weeks on the job, he went around the building, shaking hands with everybody from the marketing department to the secretaries to the public relations staff.
Smith's message was clear: Everyone plays a role in the success of the team.
"He just has this presence about him that is a welcoming, approachable presence," Dimitroff says. "And I really think it's something that people in this building feel a lot. Mike is real and honest about things with these players. He doesn't feel a need to stand up on a pedestal and prove he is a head coach. I think these players really respect that."
Lawyer Milloy will admit it. He's one of the players who had to look up Smith's credentials on the Internet last January. Since coming to Atlanta in 2006, Milloy has had four coaches in three seasons. When Petrino bolted after the 13th game of the 2007 season to take a job at Arkansas, informing the team through a typed memo, Milloy felt betrayed enough to cross out Petrino's signature and write "Coward!" in red marker.
Milloy's memory is long. His trust level gets a little shorter with every passing season. There was nothing that jumped out from that news release he scrolled through that told him a 48-year-old guy with a wife and a daughter could change this.
But for more than 10 minutes this week, Milloy sat at a stool in the Falcons' locker room extolling his new coach's abilities as a communicator and a quiet motivator. He says the Falcons have unwavering respect for Smith because he knows when to push and when to have fun. He says Smith treats them like men, as opposed to boys in college.
"Please don't make this a Petrino thing," Milloy says. "I'm tired of hearing about that. It's a stale story. This team is so far from that now.
"[Smith] is the type of coach that deserves to be in this position. He's the type of coach that, because of his work ethic and his approach, I think every team he coaches is going to have a chance."
Smith's first meeting with the team in April lasted all of 10 minutes. By all accounts, there was no mention of Michael Vick and his dogfighting scandal or the 4-12 2007 season that fractured the Falcons' locker room. Smith was looking only ahead. He'd put together an over-30 club, an informal meeting of the minds with the Falcons' thirtysomething veterans. He'd tell his players that his office door was always open.
"One of the things I've told the guys," Smith says, "is that you've got to have rules. But if you have rules without interaction, eventually it's going to lead to rebellion.
"You're not always going to agree with their opinion or implement some of the things that they want to talk about. But at least you've talked about it and it's out in the open, it's not something that's sitting in the locker room festering."
A perfectly coiffed man sits in the front row of Smith's news conference Sunday, waiting for the coach to emerge. Media types in Atlanta say Arthur Blank always sits in this spot, which is close enough to make a man on a hot seat squirm -- and perfectly positioned next to the door so he can't hide.
Smith turns to Blank and smiles. This is after the Falcons' 31-27 season-finale win against the St. Louis Rams, the one that gives them a No. 5 seed in the playoffs, and Blank wraps him in a hug.
They are so far removed from 2007 and the circus that followed it. Smith knew as soon as Week 2. The Falcons lost 24-9 that day at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, fell into a 17-3 halftime hole they couldn't overcome.
"To me, it was a formula to come out in the second half and say, 'It's over, let's pack it in,'" Smith says. "Our guys came out and played their tails off. There was a calmness in the locker room at halftime, there was a calmness on the sideline. Even though we lost the football game, riding back that night, it occurred to me that these guys there's something special about these guys."
Maybe even compelling. Smith won't say how far the Falcons can go in the playoffs. He'll only utter the postseason mantra of "Why not us?" It is ordinary and not very dramatic. It is just what Atlanta needed.
Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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