‘Football junkie’ has seen all formations in his 88-plus years

November 30, 2012 

On what presumably was a rainy day in the Pacific Northwest, Bellarmine Prep assistant coach Red Smith once put together a list of the football players he most admired.

“My favorite kids were those who might have been a little small and a step slow,” Smith said Thursday, “and who gave everything they had.”

He ended up with a list of names that was 25 pages long. When you’ve coached for more than 60 years, there’s a lot to like.

Smith will turn 89 on Jan. 1. Feel free to look at him as Tacoma’s version of Amos Alonzo Stagg, the legendary mastermind who didn’t relinquish his whistle and clipboard until he was 96.

“I’m a football junkie,” said Smith, “and a work in progress. There’s always something new to learn in this game.”

Or something old that’s served as reheated hash after being stashed in a freezer for decades. If there’s a play requiring 11 helmeted athletes to operate in unison, Smith not only has seen it, he probably was on a first-name basis with the guy who conceived the thing.

Thanks to a career that has taken him to every level of competition – high school, small college, major college and two pro leagues – the roster of Smith’s former colleagues in the coaching fraternity resembles a Who’s Who of American football: John McKay. Bob Devaney. Don Coryell. Rich Brooks. Dee Andros.

Working for a scouting service whose clients included the Pittsburgh Steelers, Smith came to know NFL patriarch Art Rooney, and he crossed paths with Al Davis when the late owner of the Oakland Raiders was implementing offensive formations years before their time at The Citadel.

Nobody had more of an influence on Smith than the late offensive line coach Laurie Niemi at Washington State, who showed Smith – then coaching the freshmen at Pullman – how to stress a point in a stern but reasonable tone.

“Coach Niemi believed that blocking was the most unnatural thing a person can do,” said Smith. “He went through the proper technique slowly, step-by-step. Watching him one day, I realized you don’t have to rant and rave in order to be an effective football coach.”

The lesson was critical for Smith, whose background was as a track star. (At Broadway High in Seattle, he was among the first runners in the state to break two minutes in the half-mile.) A B-25 tail gunner during World War II, Smith survived two bouts of malaria in the Pacific Theater, then returned home with a football bug.

Pursuing his master’s degree at UW while coaching at Garfield, Smith became a regular in the Huskies coaches’ shack with Howard O’Dell and his assistants.

Although he went on to work at WSU, Oregon State, Cal-Davis, Chico State, and briefly as assistant general manager for the Portland Storm of the doomed United States Football League (“talk about rearranging deck chairs on the Titantic”), Smith’s heart always belonged, foremost, to high school football.

“When I was at Shelton, the conference coaches used to get together for poker nights,” Smith said. “We talked on the phone all the time, sharing information about formations and techniques. We did that until the week our teams had to face each other. Then it got serious.”

Four years ago, Smith relocated from California to be closer to his family – “four kids, 11 grandchildren, eight great-grandchildren, and I’m hoping I haven’t left anybody out’’ – and was put in contact with Bellarmine head coach Tom Larsen. After the interview, Smith had a new title: quality control coach for the Lions.

“I monitor practice and make recommendations, then leave it up to the coach to incorporate what he wants,” he said. “It’s such a strong staff, I don’t make many suggestions. Top to bottom, this is the most cohesive staff I’ve ever been on.”

Smith isn’t certain he’ll stay on that staff beyond the Lions’ 4A state championship game Saturday against Skyline. His football instincts remain keen, but those daily practices on cold, damp afternoons can take a toll. At 88, Smith’s spirit for the sport is stronger than his body.

“I’ll go into seclusion for about three weeks and decide,” he said. “I do that every year. The last thing I want to be is a distraction. Whatever happens, I want to stay involved with high school football. Maybe I’ll do something with the coaches association.

“I enjoyed the newspaper article about our offensive coordinator,” Smith continued, referring to Brian Jensen, who returned to the high school ranks after seven years as a college assistant. “He’s a lot smarter than I am. I needed 37 years to realize high school was where I belong. It took him only seven.”

john.mcgrath@ thenewstribune.com

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