Youngstown native Smith returns to the Super Bowl
By Joe Scalzo
Before he was the running backs coach for his second Super Bowl team, before he played eight years in the NFL, before he won three Mid-American Conference titles as Miami (Ohio)’s first black quarterback, Sherman Smith was just a Youngstown teenager who couldn’t see past the city limits.
“When I was a junior in high school, my father asked me what I wanted to do after I graduated from [North] high school,” Smith recalled recently in a video on winforever.com. “I told him I wanted to get a job in the steel mill, I wanted to live in the apartment complex down the street from us, which was the projects, and I just wanted to get a nice car.”
So Smith’s father said, “Let’s get in the car and we’re going to go for a drive and I don’t want you to say anything.”
The two drove around to different projects in the city, and each time his father would point to them and say, “Son, don’t buy the lie. Don’t buy the lie that this is the only place you can live.”
Then they drove out to Boardman — “What I call the ‘vanilla suburbs, with the manicured lawns and the three-car garages” — and his father said, “Don’t buy the lie that you can’t live in a neighborhood like this.”
Then they drove by a steel mill and his father said, “Don’t buy the lie that this is the only place you can work. Don’t buy the lie that you can’t be a teacher, a doctor or a lawyer. And even back in 1971, he said, ‘Don’t buy the lie that you can’t be president of the United States.’”
So Smith started thinking bigger. And as he emerged as a standout for the Bulldogs, he saw how much of an impact North coach Cliff Knox was making on his players. And it hit him: “I want to be a coach some day.”
Smith accepted a full scholarship to Miami and after loading up his car to leave for his first semester, Smith’s mother told him, “Son, don’t be the one.”
“She said, ‘Son, there are going to be people there who say you’re only there because of affirmative action or because you’re on a scholarship,” he said. “‘Son, there are going to be people there who say not only can’t you learn, you don’t want to learn. Son, there are going to be people there who say not only can’t you get along with others, you can’t even get along with your own people.’
“She told me I could validate negative stereotypes, or I could tear them down. I could make things better for those coming behind me, or I could make things worse. She said, ‘Son, don’t be the one.’”
Twenty-seven years later, his son (with the same name) played for Miami.
“I think that I made things a little bit better for him,” Smith said.
After a standout career with Miami, the expansion Seattle Seahawks chose Smith in the second round of the NFL draft, moving him to running back. He ran for 3,429 yards and 28 TDs in seven years with the team and also caught 210 passes for 2,445 yards and 10 TDs before finishing his career with the Chargers in 1983.
He began his coaching career at Redmond (Wash.) Junior High, then moved to the high school, then became the running backs coach at Miami (Ohio) in 1990. After a brief stint at the University of Illinois, he was hired as the Houston Oilers’ running back coach in 1995, staying with the team through the move to Tennessee and helping them make the Super Bowl in the 1999-2000 season.
He was hired as the Washington Redskins’ offensive coordinator in 2008 and was fired (along with head coach Jim Zorn) after the 2009 season. Smith then returned to the Seahawks as a running back coach under Pete Carroll, helping the team (and standout running back Marshawn Lynch) reach this year’s Super Bowl.
At every stop, Smith has remembered his parents’ advice and kept the same philosophy: Coaching can’t just be about Xs and Os.
“I say this to all my players, ‘If all I do is teach you how to hit a hole or catch a pass, then I’ve failed,’” Smith said, speaking to The Vindicator by phone from Seattle last week. “You can get that out of a book. Cliff Knox motivated us inside and out. He talked about becoming the type of person you should be, responsible, dependable and accountable as a father and a husband.
“As I learned, the game will end, but those values endure. Leadership is more than Xs and Os or teaching a scheme.”
Smith has spent his entire adult life away from Youngstown, but Youngstown is never far from him. He considers himself lucky to have grown up here.
“It’s one of the best things that ever happened to me,” he said. “It’s a little bit different now, because of the economics and the things that have happened, but it was a great environment. A great community. Going to North High School and being a part of all that, and having parents that taught me the values of working hard and getting a good education, it made me a tough person.
“I have a great deal of pride telling people I’m from Youngstown. Even in the Pacific Northwest, people have heard about Youngstown and they know it’s a tough place with good football players, good people and a great deal of pride.”
Smith has coached for just three NFL teams in 19 years, mainly because he’s been too focused on his current job to look for another one.
“I’m always content where I’m at,” he said. “I have a great deal of faith that God is going to direct my steps. I was fortunate to spend 13 years with Tennessee and I wasn’t looking to leave [for the Redskins]. I had to do a lot of soul searching. And now I’ve spent four years here in Seattle.
“I’ve been at a lot of great places and I always had a contentment. God has opened the doors he needed to open for me.”
Smith sees a lot of similarities between this year’s Seahawks and the 1999 Titans, who were both led by strong defenses, good coaches and great running backs.
“It’s been 14 years since we won the AFC and you’re never guaranteed another opportunity to be in a Super Bowl,” he said. “I appreciate it. It doesn’t come easy.
“I think it’s really special that I was able to do it here in Seattle, where I played seven years and was on the original team. I’d like to bring a championship back to the city that started my pro career. That would make it even more special.”