Schutt - National High School Coach of the Yearby: Mike KucharSenior Writer, American Football Monthly
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football legend, George Smith,
is the Schutt
George Smith’s coaching career could have ended before it ever really got started. As a 27-year-old first-year head coach, Smith was getting his staff together after his first full season, a 6-4 campaign in 1975. “I was going around asking my staff in a post-season meeting who was going to come back for next year,” Smith recalls. “They all looked at me and said ‘we’re not coming back because you did everything. You didn’t need us.’” Within five minutes, Smith learned his first valuable coaching lesson – trust your coaches and learn how to delegate.
Today, 33 years, 333 wins and five state championships later, Smith is at the pinnacle of his profession and is one of the winningest high school football coaches in the country. His St. Thomas Aquinas (FL) squad has dominated opponents in recent years, winning back-to-back state championships the last two seasons and this year capturing the mythical high school national championship. With a record like that, it is no surprise that George Smith has been named the Schutt Sports National High School Coach of the Year.
Smith has gained somewhat of a superstar status because of his success. Major universities visit his Fort Lauderdale campus looking to snatch some of the nation’s premier recruits (ten of the Raiders will sign national letters of intent this month). At the AFCA convention in January, dozens of coaches stopped him in mid-sentence just to shake his hand or to thank him for his service to the game. At age 60, Smith seems to enjoy his status as one game’s leading figures, a position he has certainly earned thanks to his stellar career.
No Substitute for Loyalty
The respect that the coaching community shows Smith is matched by that of his coaching staff and his former players. Assistant coaches such as future NFL Hall of Famer Cris Carter, who coaches wide receivers, relish the opportunity to work under Smith. During the season, athletes he had previously coached regularly show up for practices to spend time with their former coach and pass along their appreciation for the lessons they learned from Smith.
Chief among those lessons is loyalty – something Smith stresses with players as soon as they enter his program. “You have to teach loyalty. You can’t assume that kids understand what that is,” says Smith. “In today’s society so many kids are focused on the quick fix, the instant gratification generation. It is a harder task, but you need to teach them that.” Smith leaves that in the hands of his seniors, who every year organize volunteer meetings with players to make sure things are going smoothly. “Seniors run the team. You don’t hear about anything in the locker room when it’s run right. All that stuff gets taken care of by them. When you do have a problem with them you handle it the right way, in the coaches’ office. You develop trust and accountability that way.”
Players have responded with loyalty to Smith and the Raider program. During the holidays, his mailbox is stuffed with cards and notes thanking him for advice and insight that players sometimes don’t even realize they received until years after playing under Smith.
When Smith received the Power of Influence Award at the AFCA convention, one of his former players, Dan Shula, gave a ten-minute testimonial to the type of person that Smith is. “I was slacking off tremendously with my grades as I was going through the recruiting process,” says Shula, who played his collegiate ball at Dartmouth. “Coach Smith kept on me about it so persistently. There were plenty of other obligations he had. I was not the only one that was going to get a scholarship. One day he told me, in ways only he could, how important it was for me to keep up with my studies. I just listened to him and, as usual, he was right.”
Protect Your Soldiers
It has been Smith’s philosophy over the years to do whatever he can for his kids, including getting them into college. While it’s true that his programs are often stockpiled with talent year to year, not every player is going to be offered a Division I scholarship. The guidance that Smith gives his players about all potential college opportunities can be a tremendous boost. “What high school coaches have to realize is that coaching is about placing their kids into college. Kids can’t do it themselves, especially the ones that don’t go to the top levels,” said Smith. “Division 1-AA type kids, junior college kids, NAIA kids, they need exposure just like everyone else and it’s our job as coaches to get that for them. We need to put them in an environment where they can excel.”
Part of Smith’s strategy for preparing talented players for college is eliminating the unnecessary distractions that inundate today’s generation of student-athletes. The Internet didn’t exist when Smith got his start in the mid-70’s, but now one click of a mouse and his players can find themselves on scouting and talent-evaluation websites. “You need to tell kids right away to get off the Internet and the scouting message boards,” said Smith. “It’s no place for them and they’re nothing but bad news. You can’t start believing your own hype by what these scouting services say,” he added. “What do they know? Computers are computers. They don’t amount up to anything. Scouting websites don’t give scholarships. We have to tell them that these people working these sites have never seen them practice and have never seen them play. It’s strictly hearsay about how good they are and where they should go.”
To further avoid distractions, Smith maintains a policy that all recruiting mail addressed to seniors must stay in the current juniors’ mailbox in the football office until right after signing day. That might seem harsh but, according to Smith, it helps players maintain focus. This year, for example, Smith changed his policy and let them read their mail after holiday break. But players were not tempted. “Nobody opened them,” said Smith. “It goes to show they understand the importance of focus.”
Smith goes full-tilt in practice, and he demands his players do as well. It starts in the off-season, where two days per week the Raiders are in the gym at 6 am working through grueling mat drills like agilities, plyometrics and free weight training. “It builds mental toughness and team chemistry,” said Smith. “It provides injury reduction and focuses on core training.” Even his practices are up-tempo. They rarely go over an hour and a half in length, with each period lasting no longer than ten minutes. “I’ve learned in my time that anything after two hours and the kids lose focus, and what’s the sense in that?” he says. “Kids attention span is too little these days. If they can’t focus in class for ten minutes without moving around, how can we expect them to have a three-hour practice? I was tired of driving home at 7 pm every night after seeing our kids push the sled. It was tedious work. Now just by cutting practice down during the season we stay fresh. Playing high school ball in Florida is a 16-week season if you want to win a state championship. Why tire them out so that they are rendered unproductive? We had to start coaching smart.”
Because of his large numbers, Smith two-platoons his squad. His practice format starts with a film segment on his next opponent, or on the previous day’s practice. From there the Raiders will stretch, work on an individual period followed by what he calls a competition period. “We’ll get the offensive and defensive lineman and just work pass rush. We’ll get the defensive backs working on the wide receivers on man coverage. We’ll work tackling with the linebackers on the running backs. We’ll work a team competitive drill such as a 7-on-7 or inside drill. Anything to get them going,” said Smith.
“As you continue coaching, you learn to accomplish things in a short period of time and you work smarter. You have to teach how to get things done in a timely manner so kids have time to do other things like homework. I’ve found that if you demand them to be out there and work efficiently they will. Chances are you’ll get what you expect.”