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Back where it all started
Something doesn’t fit in the career path that Sherman Smith followed between being the Seahawks’ original running back in 1976 and coaching the team’s running backs in 2010.
Wedged between his playing career and stints at the Miami of Ohio and Illinois that led to him coaching in the NFL were stops at Redmond Junior High and Redmond High School. As it turns out, however, making it to the NFL and then getting back into the league as a coach never was Smith’s dream – or even a destination.
“Playing pro football, that never was an aspiration of mine,” said Smith, who was the Seahawks’ leading rusher in their first four seasons (1976-79) and again in his final season with the club (1982).
“When I went to Miami of Ohio after I graduated from high school, my desire was to be a high school coach and a teacher. That was it. That’s all I knew I wanted to do. That was the plan all along. There was no hesitation when my career was over. I knew what I was going to do.”
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That was, as it turned out, teach at Redmond Junior High and then coach at the high school. End of story, supposedly.
“I was right where I wanted to be,” he said.
And Smith wanted to be “there” from the time he played junior football in Youngstown, Ohio, and then became a quarterback at North High School.
“The reason I went into it was because I had coaches in high school and little league that really made a big difference in my life,” he said. “That’s why I wanted to coach.
“I wanted to coach not to make a living, but to make a difference.”
Now, he’s doing both.
Smith’s career veered into a faster lane when Randy Walker, a former college teammate, got the head coaching job at their alma mater. When Walker called and asked Smith to coach the running backs, it was a right-place, right-time offer.
“Honestly, all I wanted to do was coach at the high school level,” Smith said. “If Randy had called a year earlier, I would have told him no. But going back to my alma mater after Randy got the job, it made it special because we’d been teammates and we wanted to go back and get that program back on its feet.”
The decision also gave Smith’s career – and life – new legs.
After two seasons at Miami (1990-91), Smith went to Illinois to be the tight ends and running backs coach for three years – to work on Lou Tepper’s staff at the urging of a coach who had coached Smith in college.
“Boy, you want to talk about three years with a great guy,” Smith said. “Once again, I was blessed to work with Lou Tepper and that staff.”
Then it was back to the NFL, as running backs coach for the Houston Oilers on the staff being put together by Jeff Fisher in 1995. Smith stayed with the Oilers after they moved to Tennessee and became the Titans. He was the assistant head coach his final two seasons (2006-07). The foot in the door this time was Howard Mudd, the Seahawks’ line coach when Smith was playing for the club.
“Howard came to Illinois to look at Brad Hopkins,” Smith said of a lineman the Titans eventually selected in the first round of the NFL draft. “We went out to dinner and he said, ‘What do you think about coaching in the National Football League?’ I told him, ‘I’m enjoying it right here.’ But he said, ‘We need to get you in the league.’ ”
Mudd started talking Smith up, and one of the people who listened was Jerry Rhome – the offensive coordinator when Smith was playing for the Seahawks who then had the same job with the Oilers.
“Jerry called up and suggested I come interview with Jeff for the running backs job,” Smith said with a look that indicated he’s still having a difficult time comprehending exactly how this all got started.
Smith interviewed with Fisher at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis, and was offered the job on the spot in an atypical move for Fisher.
“Jeff always took a long time interviewing potential coaches, because he loved the process,” Smith said. “So it was great, and I spent 13 years with Jeff.”
Then, another former teammate called – Jim Zorn, the Seahawks’ original QB who had been hired to coach the Washington Redskins in 2008. Zorn wanted Smith to be his offensive coordinator.
“That’s what it took to get me to leave Tennessee, and it was a long decision,” Smith said. “The relationship I had with that coaching staff in Tennessee, those were some of the best guys I’ve ever coached with.
“But to be with Z-man, we had always talked at the combine about someday coaching together. So when this thing came up, I just felt that God was all up in this thing right here. And I looked it at as more of an opportunity than a risk.”
Things didn’t work out for Zorn, who lost his job after the 2009 season. So did Smith. But he left without regrets.
“That was a great experience,” Smith said. “And I told Z, particularly when we were going through those hard times, that I would rather be nowhere else than there with him. His character shined through so clear that it was worth it for me.”
Out of a job, returning to Seattle was not among Smith’s options. Or so he thought.
“Now this is unexpected, once again,” he said. “We’re going through the process and I never ever considered Seattle. Never thought about it. When my wife and I would talk about it, it was never Seattle because it’s so far away from where our kids are.
“But things happen.”
Pete Carroll was hired to coach the Seahawks in January. He hired Jeremy Bates to be his offensive coordinator, and Smith knew Bates because of their connections to long-time NFL assistant Mike Heimerdinger. Smith also knew defensive backs coach Jerry Gray, who had coached with Smith in Tennessee and Washington. Smith also has a background in the zone-blocking scheme that the Seahawks are using under Bates and line coach Alex Gibbs.
“Man, to come back out here it was like, ‘Wow, what a blessing,’ ” Smith said.
So here he is, at 55, right back where it all started for Smith and his family – wife Sharon and their children, Shavonne, 30, and Sherman, 28.
Smith was the team’s all-time leading rusher when he left after the ’82 season, and his name still is scattered throughout the franchise records. He ranks fourth in rushing touchdowns (28), sixth in rushing yards (3,429) and attempts (810), seventh in total TDs (38), ninth in receiving yards (2,342) and 10th in receptions (211).
Now he’s back, in a new role. An unexpected role.
“My wife, she laughs about it now – sometimes,” Smith said. “This coaching thing, she never expected this.”
But then, neither did he. Not at this level, and definitely not with this team.
“That’s one of the exciting things about being a Christian,” Smith said. “God has always given me more than I ever wanted.”